Symbolic Cloths: A ‘Mawa’ Ceremonial Textile from Sulawesi

Mawa ceremonial cloth, Toraja people, central Sulawesi, Indonesia, 19th century or earlier, cotton, natural dyes, stamped and painted. 130 x 29 cm. Private collection.

Yesterday’s post featured an exquisite Azerbaijan rug made in the 19th century that has a prominent ‘tree of life’ motif common to the arts of many parts of Asia. Here is another example of that motif. This long cotton textile is a mawa, a ceremonial cloth made by the Toraja people of central Sulawesi, Indonesia. Mawas are sacred to the Torajas; the cloths are kept in the inner sanctum of mens’ houses, and brought out only during important festivals ritual occasions, most notably during the elaborate funeral ceremonies to honour the deceased. While many mawas were produced by the Toraja people for their own use, some were made in India as well as in the Netherlands expressly for the Toraja market.

The dominant motif in this mawa is a central ‘tree of life’ that is probably borrowed from the Indian palampore – a hand-painted and mordant-dyed bed hanging that typically portrayed the same motif, a powerful symbol of fertility and regeneration in Indian and Indonesian traditions.

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