Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Indonesian batik

Batik, Integral to Javanese People

Traditional Indonesian batik was listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity on 2 October 2009. The unique and exquisite designs created by the artistic minds of citizens centuries ago, express their reverence to life and nature by painting cloth with symbols and characters bearing the philosophies of life.

Traditional Textiles

Throughout the Indonesian archipelago, traditional textiles are one of the most interesting and exquisite forms of art and are not seen only as clothing but are essential to ceremonies for the calling of divine intervention and protection.

The spiritual and ritual importance that textiles play is reflected in their great mystery and splendor. The finest examples, often of elaborate and complex designs, display superb levels of technical skills in batik, dyeing, weaving, decorating and embroidery.

The Art

Batik comes from the word tik meaning dot. It is a technique used for applying patterns to cloth.

With a drawing tool canting filled with liquid wax, lines are drawn onto the cloth. When the wax hardens and the cloth is immersed in dye, the wax prevents color from seeping to areas that are covered. In the finest batik, the wax is applied on both sides of the cloth with exact symmetry. In the nineteenth century the waxing stamp was introduced to speed up this intricate process. The final product results in white patterns on a colored background. Batik is the name of the finished piece of cloth.

Ancient batik in Indonesia demonstrate reliefs of the ninth century Prambanan Temple, featuring King Kertarajasa, ruler of Mojopahit, wearing a cloth with the kawung motif, one of the oldest known batik motifs. Batik motifs are closely related to the agrarian basis of Javanese culture, the kawung motif is a pattern made up of cubes, each of which contain two aren (fruits from the jaggery palm, Arenga saccharifera) cut lengthwise while the lereng (diagonal lines) motif symbolizes the slopes of the mountain.

The People’s Cloth

For the Javanese people, batik is inseparable from life because it embodies a philosophy that holds importance from birth until death. It is still common to wrap babies in a batik cloth, while a batik sling is used as a baby carrier. When one dies, a batik cloth will cover the body of the deceased. In weddings certain batik patterns such as truntum and wahyu tumurun are used to bless newly married couples and their parents. Annual offerings to the guardians of Java’s main volcanoes and the goddess of the South Sea include pieces of batik cloth. Civil servants, school children and other groups wear batik uniforms to identify themselves. It is also associated with traditional music of the gamelan; many batik patterns share similar names with certain gamelan melodies like srikaton, pisanbali, kawung etc. Wayang puppet figures wear batik clothing according to their character: gods and kings wear batik with a lereng pattern, as they are deemed to have supernatural powers, only they can wear this powerful pattern. The same is true for the kawung motif, symbolizing the relationship between omnipotence and the natural power of the universe.

Preserving the Heritage

Indonesian batik is known in 20 provinces as either a traditional or newly developed craft, with 40,000 enterprises employing 800,000 people and an annual export value of 150 million US$ according to existing statistics. To increase people’s appreciation, efforts are made by Himpunan Wastraprema, an association of traditional textile enthusiasts and other associations to promote batik, particularly among the younger generations through exhibitions, workshops, seminars, and symposiums and the inclusion of batik making in school curricula.

The art of batik has come a long way from being a mere handicraft. Designers use traditional cloths as their prime material and put traditional textiles at the forefront of Indonesian fashion.

Since the inclusion of batik on UNESCO’s list, education and training in the batik heritage directed towards students at various museums is very popular; the sale of batik has increased significantly and is well appreciated.