To Dye For: Prestige Textiles of Indonesia

Indonesia is home to what is arguably the finest tradition of tribal textiles in the world. Especially stunning are a range of cotton cloths featuring alluring foliage motifs as well as images of real and mythical animals, and more rarely, human ancestor figures. A long-standing source of design inspiration for these cloths is India, known for its incomparable cotton cloths that are dyed in brilliant hues. Strong blue and red colors characterize the oldest surviving Indian cotton textiles [see note 1]. Most of these were found in Egypt by way of trade. Thanks to the dry climate there, cloths as early the 9th century have been found in relatively good states of preservation.

Early Indian cloths also made their way into various parts of Indonesia through trade and diplomatic missions. Despite Indonesia’s hot and humid climate, which is destructive to fabrics. early Indian textiles that reached Indonesia were generally well preserved because they were treasured by local tribal groups who viewed them as prestige objects that also embody elements of the sacred in their designs. As such, these imports were used on important ritual ceremonies, kept as heirlooms, and passed from generation to generation. Over time, the patterns were copied and blended with Indonesian ones, creating textiles that are at once symbolically rich and visually stunning.


Radiocarbon tests date the earliest Indian cloths in Indonesia to between the 14th and 16th centuries, which mean that most of these imported textiles predate India’s Mughal empire that spanned 1526 to 1857. The patterns in these cloths typically display foliate, geometric, and figural motifs in varied styles and compositions on blue or red grounds [2]. Shown below is a very old example. Found on the large island of Sulawesi, it dates to the 15th century. The central designs on this early cloth are the small geese (hamsa) and the lotus flower which they encircle. The hamsa motif has been a pervasive spiritual symbol in Indian art since at least the Sunga period (3rd–1st century BC) while the lotus flower is an equally ancient symbol of purity in India as well as China.

Details of an early Indian cotton cloth, circa 15th century, Gujarat, India, cotton, plain weave, stamped resist and dyed, 7.9 x 15.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art. Right: details of an early Indian cotton cloth decorated with geese (hamsa) motifs circling lotus medallions, circa mid-14th century. Cotton, plain weave, mordant resist and dyed, 90 x 47 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Here is another example of a Hamsa cloth, not as old as the previous example but still well over a century old.

Full-length view of a hamsa cloth, woven in India and exported to Indonesia. Circa 19th century.

Details of the previous example.


As far as prestige goes, however, the complex Patola textiles of Gujarat, Western India stood at the apex. Patolas are woven from silk and painstakingly embellished with intricate designs featuring flowers, animals (most commonly the elephant or tiger) and humans. The process of weaving a patola is extremely time-consuming as it involves pre-dyeing the patterns into both the warp and weft threads so that the intended composition is revealed only after the two threads are woven together. Most of the surviving examples of Indonesian patolas date to the 18th century.

Below is a regal patola cloth that originated in Gujarat in the late 18th century. Measuring 15 feet long, it depicts a royal parade with two pairs of elephants each carrying attendants holding fly whisks, drivers, and crowned dignitaries. Standard-bearers, soldiers with lances, and soldiers on horses and camels accompany the procession. The background is filled with a orderly pattern of floral designs. Cloths like these were presented by the Dutch between the 17th and early 19th century to Indonesian local rules as prestige gifts in an effort to obtain trading privileges in the Maluku spice trade. Mesmerized by the refined beauty of these patola cloths, local Indonesians elevated them to the status of the sacred and treasured them as heirlooms to be passed from generations to generations.

Ceremonial cloth (Patola) with elephant procession design, India Gujarat for the Indonesian market, silk, natural dyes, double ikat, 109.2 x 462.3 cm, 510 x 113 cm. 18th century. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Details of the patola cloth
Details of the patola cloth.


The lush foliage and flower designs on Indian Patola cloths strongly influenced the design of local Indonesian weavings to a high degree so much so that such motifs pervade across the entire archipelago. Two examples of this influence are shown below, the famed Geringseng textile from Bali and the men’s shoulder cloth (Hinggi) from Sumba in western Indonesia.

Geringsing (Bali)

A double-ikat Geringsing textile from the village of Tengganan, Bali, cotton, dyes, 19th century.

Hinggi (Sumba)

Details of a men’s shoulder cloth known as Hinggi, Sumba, Indonesia, cotton, dyes, 19th century. The center field shows the floral designs influenced by early patola ‘trade’ cloths from India.


The finest examples of Hinggis are those worn by the elites of Sumba, namely noblemen and other high-ranking members of the clan. These cloths depict not only the treasured patola pattern but also incorporate powerful symbols of status and wealth such as heirloom jewelry like the gold crown ornament known as lamba and the vulva-shaped pendant/earring known as mamuli. They were worn on occasions that call for gift exchanges or rituals such as weddings and funerals. When not in use, they are secreted away in mens’ houses and kept for posterity. Below is a spectacular example that certainly qualifies as a masterpiece.

Five-Color Hinggi, Chief’s wrap. East Sumba, Indonesia. Cotton, warp ikat, yellow dye daubed on. Circa. 1900. 112 x 50 inches (281 x 127 cm). Ex Collection F. Blok “Boeatan”, The Hague, Ex. Collection Frits Schmidst, London. The iconography of this hinggi is particularly rich. Note the ancestor figures with shamanic x-ray vision of the ribs, a gold crown (lamba) with hanging mamuli earrings, blue birds, horses (symbol of wealth) and a fabulous royal patola ratu geometric center. The fifth color, a daubed on yellow dye, is restricted only for use by the highest nobility.


[1] Textile making in India has a very long history. Cotton seeds from 5000 BC and a mordant-dyed cotton fragment from around 1750 BC have been found in the Indus Valley. Decorated textiles were represented on ancient sculptures and in cave paintings. Very few textiles, however, survived on the subcontinent for a period of about 3,000 years due to the wet monsoon climate. The oldest corpus of pre-Mughal decorated cotton textiles, from the 9th century onwards, survived in the dry Egyptian climate, while those from the Mughal era have been preserved since the 17th century in palatial Indian storerooms.

[2] The patterns were created on white cotton cloth with ingenious dye technologies developed in India known by the names resist-and mordant-dye. For those patterns with blue grounds, a resist substance such as wax is stamped with carved wooden blocks and/or hand-drawn on white cotton cloth to prevent or resist dye penetration when the fabric is immersed in indigo dye. After dyeing, only the resist-free areas have color. For patterns with red or red-blue grounds, the technique uses mordants, an inorganic oxide that combines with a dye to fixes the color in the fabric. Mordants are stamped or drawn in areas to be dyed on white cotton cloth before dyeing. Afterwards, only the areas with mordant have color. Some patterns, such as the hamsa cloth, were created using both techniques (the outlines of the pattern was first stamped with a resist and the resulting areas were painted with mordant).

Further study

[1] Louise W. Mackie, Symbols of Power: Luxury Textiles from Islamic Lands, 7th-21st Century, The Cleveland Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2015. [2] Indian Trade Cloths,

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