Sacred textiles

Savu woven cloths not only serve the purpose of identifying people on the island, they also connect the wearer of a cloth with his/her female ancestors. Wearing the prescribed cloth at death will allow a deceased person to be identified by his/her maternal group of origin (hubi, wini) upon arrival in the world of the ancestors. The composition and structures of weavings for the afterlife differ from those for life, yet they still bear the identification’s marker of each moiety (hubi; see Fig. 1).

Wai labe

Fig. 1. Wai made, hubi ae

Besides the ceremonial sarongs of women, èi, and the traditional men’s hip-cloths, hi’i, there is a third category of textiles produced for funeral purposes during special ceremonies, mane wai, literally meaning to ‘weave a belt’.  These cloths are imbued with power and have a high degree of sacredness. They are of three types: wai, (lit. ‘belt’; Figs 1, 2 & 6), èi mea  or ‘red sarong’ and hi’i mea or ‘red blanket’ (Figs 3 & 5).

The origin of wai

The origin of wai is linked to a myth at a time when the sky was still linked to the earth through a cord, and people on earth could go easily back and forth to the sky. One day two ancestors, Wolo Manu and Dadi Ae, decided to go to the sky and attend a ritual cock fight. Alas, like many others, they fell victims to black magic and died. ‘God-in-the-Sky’ (Apu Lod’o Liru) felt sorry for them and called them all back to earth. Only two people came back, Wolo Manu and Dadi Ae who were wearing a wai. Since that time it is believed that, if people are buried with a wai, they will be resurrected one day.

Mane wai: ceremony for producing sacred cloths.

 The majority of textiles produced during the mane wai (‘to weave a belt’) ceremony, are funeral cloths that will allow the deceased passage from the visible world of humans to the invisible realm of the ancestors. Indeed the funeral is the most complex and the most essential of all ceremonies in someone’s life since it connects the world of the living with the realms of the ancestors. In traditional belief people do not really die; they become invisible to the living and can interfere (generally positively) in their lives.

Weaving a wai labe

Fig. 2. Weaving a wai labe during a mane wai ceremony

Every member of the ancestral religion, Jingi tiu owns a wai made (‘belt for the dead’) also called wai labe (‘belt to cover [the corpse]’) (Figs. 1, 2 & 4 left) which had been woven during childhood by his/her mother. It is the first cloth worn by a deceased. The cloth is kept in a small basket, oko, hung on a beam in the female part of the house. A number of people who have converted to Christianity still follow this tradition.

The mane wai ceremony takes place after a funeral, between February and April, during the waning moon and before the start of the weaving season. It lasts one to three days depending on the type of sacred cloth produced. Sacred funeral cloths which are taken from the family heirloom basket (kepepe pana) in order to wrap the deceased in numerous weavings have to be produced for replacement. This is the purpose of the mane wai ceremony. Only female members of the same maternal line as the deceased (wini) are entitled to weave such cloths since a deceased is said to rejoin with the ancestors of his/her maternal line (hubi, wini) in the afterlife.

The structure and composition of the funeral cloth exhibits this membership. A wai made/ wai labe contains the three primary colours of ancient Austronesian settlers: indigo blue/black, red and white. In Savu they are the vital constituents of the body in which one hundred percent black means death. In a wai labe indigo is indeed the dominant colour. The colours red and white are present in narrow lines of thread. The piece does not show ikat patterns. The moiety identification is shown through lines of red (hubi ae; Fig. 1) or blue (hubi iki) of weft weave at both ends of the piece.

The mane wai ceremony starts at dawn. A simple and short back tension loom is built underneath the house of a deceased or on the veranda (kelaga), always exactly above his/her grave. The length of the loom for weaving a wai corresponds to the distance between the weaver’s navel and her toes (Fig. 2). The threads needed for mane wai have already been prepared and dyed during the previous weaving season. The weaving is loose and the weft threads are clearly visible which has a rational explanation. The term for weft threads is lua, which means ‘vein’ and ‘tendon’ [urat in Indonesian]. A parallel is made between the human body and a weaving. In the same way as life energy is carried in the human’s body through blood vessels, in a textile it is transported through its veins, the weft threads. After death the body has lost its vital energy. The weft of a cloth does not show in a weaving made for life. However they are visible in a funeral cloth as a sign that the piece is like its wearer: it has lost its vital energy.

During the mane wai ceremony women weave in turn; men of the same wini slaughter chicken, goats and pigs for the ceremonial meal which takes place after completion of the cloth. No food or drink can be taken during the weaving process. Then prayers are made and the wai is placed in a small container made on the same day. After that it is hung on a beam of the female part of the house until its content is needed. A meal is shared by all participants.

Red cloths, i.e. the ‘red belt’ or wai mea, the ‘red sarong’ or èi mea, and the ‘red blanket’, hi’i mea can be woven within a day, resulting in a loosely woven textile (Fig. 1), or within three days, producing a cloth of a much tighter weave (Figs 3 & 6). These textiles are predominantly red, thus ‘hot’, and extremely powerful. They offer protection to the wearer of the piece as s/he departs for the world of the ancestors. The red colour provides energy and strength to the deceased for the journey.

Funeral cloths according to gender

Traditional funeral ceremony

Fig. 3. A deceased man covered with a red selimut (hi’i mea)

The corpse of a man, arranged in a foetal position, is first symbolically covered with wai labe which is only 100-120 cm in length and around 30cm wide. This cloth will allow its wearer one day to come back to life in Savu. The body then is wrapped in a second cloth, wai wake (wake, ‘waist’) of a length of 200-250cm , then covered with a number of ceremonial hi’i of the man’s maternal group (hubi and/or wini). These hi’i have to be made of two parts (d’ue kene). They are tied around the body with cords made of lontar palm leaves. Finally a red blanket supports his back and a second hi’i mea (Fig. 3) covers him from head to knees.

A deceased woman wears an èi mea first which is smaller and narrower than the traditional sarongs. It is tied under the armpits with a narrow wai labe that will also allow her one day to come back to life. Then her body is wrapped in a sarong showing the primary pattern of her moiety (wokelaku for hubi ae, èi ledo for hubi iki), and after that, in several ceremonial sarongs showing the prescriptive patterns of her wini. She too receives a red blanket for supporting her back and a second red weaving covering her from head to knees.

The heirloom basket (kepepe bra, kepepe pana)

Opening the kepepe pana

Fig. 4. Checking the heirloom basket ‘kepepe pana’

The powerful and sacred weavings in an heirloom basket are not stored in piles, but rolled (Fig. 4) since the oldest cloth has to be taken out first and later on, returned first. The chronology in the creation of patterns throughout time has created an order of precedence among woven cloths which has to be respected. A kepepe bra or pana can be opened on two occasions only; at a funeral, and then in the year following a funeral and after new textiles have been produced for replacement as it was the case on the image left. The ceremony takes place around midnight during bui ihi, which is the night of full moon of the last month of the adatcalendar (between April and June, depending on the district). Interestingly enough, textiles of the worapi type whose creation was linked to the ruling classes of colonial times are not part of the sacred heirloom basket; yet such cloths can be offered at a funeral and added for wrapping the deceased. The ceremony  offers the opportunity to check the conditions of all textiles which might have been stored for tens of years, and eventually the women examining them can plan their replacement. Similar ceremonies also take place every year at the tegida which is a small ritual house for worshiping the founding ancestress of a group (wini). (See chapter tegida).

The red belt, wai mea

Fig.5. Three sacred textiles: wai made (left), wai mea (centre), hi’i mea (right).

Fig.5. Three sacred textiles: wai made (left), wai mea (centre), hi’i mea (right).

Of all sacred and powerful weaving, wai mea (Fig. 4 centre & Fig. 6) is the only one that can be worn during life. It is of a similar dimension as wai labe, but is essentially red and shows ikatted motifs. A man wears a protective wai mea woven by his mother or his sister at dangerous moments of his life: during his marriage ceremony and in war. Worn underneath his hi’i it is not visible. However in the past when a man was victorious in a battle, he used to brandish his wai mea attached to his spear on his way back home, signaling his victory from far away. Wai mea and èi mea are especially made by a sister for her brother when the later builds a new house. They are fixed to the ridge pole of his new house (èmu rukoko) before roofing. In traditional Savu culture a sister is endowed with the power to protect her brother’s health and safety through the sacred cloths she produced especially for him. The sister-brother network in Savu is still traceable in a number of ceremonies which are now vanishing.

Wai mea

Fig. 6. Wai mea

The purpose of sacred textiles is not aesthetic since the essential function of those cloths is to entail power. They do not show elaborate patterns or intricate weaving techniques and their power is not noticeable to an outsider. Such cloths are seldom found on the market or in museums’ collections. Wai labe or wai made is the most essential textile in Savu and it is probably the most ancient too. It did not undergo transformations throughout time due to its extraordinary power and sacredness. No ikat patterns were added when the ikat technique was introduced on the island.  The short back tension loom used to weave this powerful cloth reminds us of the foot-braced loom of the bronze weaver found on the island of Flores which has been dated to the 6th CE (see the National Gallery of Australia). I want to argue here that the Austronesian people who established themselves in Savu not only brought their (Austronesian) language with them, but also the knowledge about weaving which they carried out on the same type of loom as the Flores bronze loom, producing short cloths since the footrest was at the same time the warp beam. They did not yet know the ikat technique. On Figure 2 the weaver of a wai labe is using a loom of a similar length, producing a cloth of a comparable size. The warp beam and the foot rest are both attached to the same house pillars allowing a rapid change of weavers since the women have to create the piece in turn. The short wai could as well be produced using a foot-braced loom as shown on the bronze statue of Flores. It seems likely that the wai made was made on a foot-braced loom in ancient times. It has to be noted that foot-braced looms are still found among Austronesian people in Laos and Vietnam, and in Indonesia on the north Coast of Papua, for instance in the village of Sawar (see Howard and Sanggenafa, 1999).

The term Austronesian is used for populations in Southeast Asia and Oceania, who speak languages of the same large family sharing some 80 key words (or root words). The geographical span of the Austronesian languages reaches from Madagascar in the Indian Ocean to the Easter Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Archaeological evidence proves that in the past these people showed a number of similarities for example for pottery making, agriculture (rice), house architecture (on stilts) and navigation skills, and some of these characteristics are still found today. For this reason it is believed that before they migrated, the Austronesian people originated either from the main continent Asia or lived on the now submerged Sunda-shelf of Southeast Asia. The majority of the Austronesian languages are spoken on islands.

On sacred textiles see also Duggan 2006