Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Ashmolean − Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Indian Block-Printed Textiles in Egypt: The Newberry Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

A catalogue of Newberry's block-printed textiles by Ruth Barnes (published Oxford, 1997).

Indian Block-Printed Textiles in Egypt: The Newberry Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Indian Ocean textile trade: India to South-East Asia

Travelling to the East

Moving in the opposite direction to the east, the record of maritime trade with Indian textiles to South-East Asia goes back as early as the fifth century CE, to a Chinese document that refers to an Indonesian diplomatic mission to China carrying textiles from India and Gandhara (Wolters 1967: 151). All we can tell from this fifth-century document is that textiles from north-western India were available in South-East Asia by this time, and that they were considered worthy of inclusion in the trade items carried by the mission. The trade and cultural contact between India and South-East Asia is older, however, as we saw above, when the transfer of spices and aromatics from South-East Asia to East Africa was mentioned for the Roman period. Until only a few decades ago the existence of this early contact was denied, and material evidence such as the few Roman coins and Roman-Egytian or Indian beads that had been found by that time in South-East Asia was considered to be the result of accidental ‘drift’ into a cultural backwater without sus­tained international contacts, rather than of intentional exchange relations (Wheeler 1954: 206-7). Recent archaeological results disprove this interpretation, and it is becoming clear now that a trading system between India and South-East Asia existed at the beginning of the Christian era.

Ian Glover (1989: 4-11) has summarized further Roman and Indian finds, most of them made in Thailand. There are in particular glass and semi-precious stone beads, etched beads, some glass container fragments, the coin mentioned above in Chapter 10, as well as some Indo-Roman pottery ware found in Java and Bali. Most of these pieces were casual finds, rather than excavated, and their dating is not always secure. Against the background of these finds, though, Glover then discusses excavations at the cemetery site of Ban Don Ta Phet in western central Thailand. It is dated to between 50 BCE and 250 CE but contains items that could be earlier than the first century BCE. Over 3,000 beads have been found there, both of glass and semi-precious stone, as well as bronze. The metallic composition of the bronze vessels is characteristically Thai, rather than Indian, with a very high tin content. It seems that vessels of this type were also imported into northern India from Thailand (1989: 42). As evidence of trade from India to Thailand, Glover identifies most of the beads as being from Buddhist northern India, of a type dating from the second half of the first millennium BCE to approximately 200 CE. Many of the bronze vessels, however, have a shape that was common in Buddhist ritual vessels, with a raised, pointed centre and concentric circles, possibly representing Mt. Meru and the surrounding oceans. This particular shape relates exactly to Indian pottery ware from northern India, dated to the first century BCE; it has been identified in more than a dozen sites from Orissa, Bengal, and the Ganga Valley (Glover 1989:42). The significance of these finds is that they are evidence for a mutual exchange between northern India and mainland South-East Asia by the first century BCE. The connection clearly goes beyond the occasional, accidental contact of the ‘drift’ theory: the adoption of a bowl with a raised base in South-East Asian bronze, but modelled on an Indian Buddhist prototype in earthenware, certainly indicates an active response to material culture, and most likely religious ideas travelling with it. On the other hand, the presence of typically Thai bronze ware in northern India shows that the movement in manufactured goods was not only one way.

Early evidence for textiles in South-East Asia

Textile technology also was part of the early contact. Cotton for textile purposes was transferred to the region from India, and it was used in weaving by the early centuries of our era. The Proto- Austronesian word for cotton (kapas) is clearly related to the Sanskrit karpasa [1]. The spread of dye technology was an important Indian contribution to South-East Asian technology. It is uncertain at the moment whether South-East Asia had its own type of indigo, or whether the plant was brought from India, but it does seem likely that the knowledge of extracting the dye came from India. It is also likely that the South-East Asian awareness of dye manipulation by the use of mordants originated in India. We cannot determine when such a transfer took place, if it did. But Javanese tax records of the early tenth century already mention textiles of many colours, including red (Christie 1993a: 13). The most important source for red at the time was called wungkudu, which is the mengkudu (Morinda citrifolia, Linn.) still in use now in eastern Indonesia. Also mentioned in connection with the dyers and weavers were producers of ash and lime, both substances to be used as mordants [2]. As was discussed in the chapter on dye techniques, a red dye from a natural source is closely linked with, even dependent on, the use of mordants [3].

The origin of batik, which is a resist technique highly developed on Java, has been the source of considerable discussion and speculation. The issue is of interest here because the technique is similar to that used for many of our fragments: liquid wax is drawn or stamped on to the fabric surface, and the cloth is then dyed. Bühler has summarized the various opinions about the origin and history of batik (1972: i. 336-40). As he rightly criticizes, though, there has been a tendency to depend on cultural-historical arguments, with little attention going to technical peculiarities, whether differences or similarities between areas. It cannot be stated definitely whether batik developed independently, or whether it was in response to an Indian prototype. In the eleventh century, tax-transfer charters from East Java begin to mention an artisan whose profession may have involved the preparation of batik cloth; by the late twelfth century the charters relate the privileges of wearing a certain cloth that could be an ancestor of modern Javanese batik (Christie 1993a: 15-16) [4].

It should be stressed, though, that whatever technical knowledge was transferred from India to South-East Asia, it would have been received by a culture that in general had a well-developed textile tradition of its own. Weaving had an ancient history in the region; linguistic evidence suggests a time depth of 4,000 years (Blust 1976: 34) [5]. The back-strap loom of maritime and mainland South-East Asia probably goes back as far as that; it is a simple but most effective type of loom, portable and easy to assemble (Barnes 1989: 33-4) [6]. It has been the universal weaving implement from the Naga Hills of north-eastern India into the Pacific, as far east as weaving occurs, and it has changed only slightly over the last two millennia: bronze weaving implements found at Shizhaishan, Yunnan Province of southern China, are identical in shape and technical details to present-day loom parts in use in eastern Indonesia (Vollmer 1979). The site is identified with the royal cemetery of the kingdom of Dian, a Bronze-Iron Age culture that flourished on the south-western frontier of the western Han empire (206 BCE to 8 CE) [7]. Weaving textiles in South-East Asia certainly did not depend on the spread of cotton and Indian dye technology. Banana fibre (Musa textilis) and indigenous species of hemp were used effectively in many of the more isolated parts of maritime South-East Asia into the nineteenth century. During the disruptive years of the Second World War they occasionally reappeared as textile fibres in some areas that did not grow their own cotton, but depended on trade for it. In the Philippines the fibre from Musa textilis continues to be used, and it produces extremely fine, lace-like textiles.

Even where weaving was traditionally not present, as in most of Oceania and in some parts of the Philippines and eastern Indonesia, bark cloth was used instead and had an enormous social significance [8]. Austronesian societies in general were—and are—extremely ‘cloth oriented’. This must have been a determining factor in the acceptability of, even greed for, Indian textiles, and their absorption into the social and economic fabric of South-East Asia. If captured in war, a person’s future could be determined by the number of textiles he could offer in return for his freedom, as Duarte Barbosa relates in his account of the Moluccas in eastern Indonesia. Writing of Amhon, he says (1921: 199):

Cambaya [Gujarati] cloths are held in great value here, and every man toils to hold so great a pile of them, that when they are folded and laid on the ground one on the other, they form a pile as high as himself. Whoso possesses this holds himself to be free and alive, for if he be taken captive he cannot be ransomed save for so great a pile of cloths.

The Indian textiles had a formative effect on the design repertoire of South-East Asian cloth, as has been shown by several studies (Bühler 1959; Bühler and Fischer 1979; Barnes 1989; Maxwell 1990). It is actually impossible to discuss South-East Asian textiles without an extensive reference to Indian cloth, and publications exist about the response to it in Bali, the Toraja of Sulawesi, Roti, and the Flores region [9]. At the moment there is less art historical knowledge about the effect of Indian cloth on the Islamic traditions of western Asia, Arabia, and northern Africa.

Documentary evidence for the trade with Indian textiles to South-East Asia is sparse until the arrival of Europeans. The earliest group of Javanese tax charters studied by Christie (1993a: 12) mentions ‘cloth made in India’; the date of this group is between 840 and 940 CE. The tenth and eleventh centuries saw a general Asian trade boom, and both Chinese and Indian textiles must have been available. It has been attempted occasionally, both for earlier and later periods, to identify the representation of cloth in South-East Asian temple sculptures with specific textiles. Woodward has interpreted a set of relief panels from Candi Sewu (dated by inscription to 792 CE) as the copy of an eighth-century T’ang textile (Woodward 1977: 240). The panels include animal representations fitted into roundels, which he interprets as a design made to suit Central Asian taste. Chinese sources mention the use of Chinese cloth as ceiling canopies in the palace of Suryavarman II, who had Angkor Vat built in the early twelfth century; following this description, Rawson suggests a representation of it in the relief sculpture of the Vat (Raw son 1967: 88). However, this interpretation has to be treated with some caution. Often the design is too generalized to provide a useful comparison to actual textiles.

Christie does bring up one quite specific shift in the representation of dress in Javanese sculpture (Christie 1993a: 17-18). She has noticed a distinct change in design between the early tenth and the late thirteenth centuries. Up to and into the tenth and early eleventh centuries, textiles represented on sculpture are clearly arranged in bands, with defined borders between each band (Ill. 31). These designs Christie associates with warp ikat textiles, similar to those still woven today in Timor, Savu, Flores, and Lembata. From the tenth and eleventh centuries several small metal sculptures have survived that show plain cloth scattered with small six- or eight-petalled flowers; this type she suggests may represent Indian import cloth.

If these early statues are compared to those of the thirteenth century, a dramatic difference is apparent. The band arrangement has disappeared altogether, and the spacious scattering of floral design also is no longer found. Instead the designs form an overall, continuous pattern with a strong axial symmetry, similar to block-printed textiles, but also to many of the designs we now know from traditional batik. In fact Christie compares these arrangements of patterns to certain textiles from the Newberry Collection, such as [EA1990.712] and [EA1990.1099]. In particular the latter design is identical to the cloth worn by the statue of Ganesha from Bara, East Java, dated to 1239 CE (Ill. 32). It became the kawung design which is so important in the traditional batik canon. It cannot be claimed, though, that this pattern of continuous, linked circles only developed at this time. In Asian and European art it goes back as far as Minoan and prehistoric Japanese designs, although it received little attention again until the eleventh and twelfth centuries in Asia.

What makes Christie’s argument quite compelling is that she links it up with the written doc­uments she has found in the tax charters. These texts indicate that there was a dramatic change in the treatment of textiles during these centuries. The early records of the ninth and early tenth centuries are all focusing on the gifts of textiles to individuals, to validate a tax grant. At the time, textiles obviously had a high prestige value. With the records of the later tenth and eleventh centuries, there is a shift towards regulating trade and economic activities, as they relate to textile production. At this time we may hear for the first time of a cloth suitable for batik work. This coincides with the rise in international trade and the increase in local wealth (Christie 1993b). By the middle of the eleventh century, a second shift occurs, away from the commercial tax lists to lists of regulations regarding the use of textiles for status and rank. So-called ‘painted’ textiles appear, which may borrow technical aspects from an Indian source, but may also be the first step towards batik. From the early to the later records, one moves through a historical period that begins with individual, personal authentication through a textile gift, then shifts its focus to provide evidence of economic growth and increased professional specialization, to end up with what amounts to sumptuary laws, regulating the wear, display, or use of particular items of cloth. To quote Christie (1993a: 18):

These changes, not only in the technology and economics of textile production, but also in the aesthetics of status, most of which appear to have occurred during a brief period in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, were symptomatic of broader and more profound shifts in Javanese society at the time. They occurred against a background of rapid population growth, increased trade wealth and overseas contact for a broader spectrum of the Javanese populace...

South-East Asia as a focus for international trade

From the observations of the first Portuguese travellers it is obvious that Indian textiles were a major, and well-established, currency used in South-East Asia by the late fifteenth century [10]. The international export wealth of South-East Asia was particularly in aromatics and spices. Camphor and cassia, the latter a form of cinnamon, originally came from Indochina and were exported from there to the societies of Mediterranean antiquity. Black pepper originated in southern India and was exported in ancient times from the Malabar coast, but by the eleventh century Sumatra and Java had become major pepper producers in their own right (Christie 1993b). Java by then was the major supplier of safflower to China, the ingredient for yellow dye on silk.

Into the eighteenth century the Moluccan islands of eastern Indonesia were the world’s sole source of cloves, as well as the major producer of nutmeg and mace, and from there all of Asia and Europe was supplied with these aromatics. When the Dutch attempted to gain the monopoly over clove production and trade in the second half of the seventeenth century, they tried to shift the entire cultivation to Ambon, and they destroyed the clove plantations of Ternate and Tidore. Sandalwood has been grown in many parts of South and South-East Asia, but one of the best sources was Timor, again an eastern Indonesian island, where the dry climate produced a particularly pungent version of the wood. Gold and slaves, coconuts and brazilwood were also shipped, but the unique products were related to the spice trade. As it was put by Tomé Pires, one of the earliest reliable European sources on maritime South-East Asia (1944: ii. 204):

The Malay merchants say that God made Timor for sandalwood and Banda for mace and the Moluccas for cloves, and that this merchandise is not known anywhere else in the world except in these places; and I asked and enquired very diligently whether they had this merchandise anywhere else and everyone said no.

The emphasis here is on unique products, which is not to say that South-East Asia’s major trade products were in spices, aromatics, and luxury goods. Irrigated rice cultivation in mainland South-East Asia, Java, and Bali was the major producer of general wealth, and enough surplus was produced to make it a main item of interregional trade. This has only recently been recognized. Anthony Reid says: (1988: 24)

Rice was undoubtedly the largest bulk item of Southeast Asian trade, making nonsense of van Leur’s premise [1967: 85] that its basis was in luxurious ‘splendid and trifling’ goods.

Crucial for the rise of South-East Asia as an international focus for trading was its geographic position. Due to this the area was able to become more than a supplier, and could join the league of controlling regions, one of the focal regions identified by Abu-Lughod (1989) for the trade of Asia and Europe. However, as she also emphasizes, any region that serves as a gateway or interchange point for others is dependent on the economic moves of these outsiders (1989: 310). Its location on the sea journey between the Persian Gulf, India, and China made the land on either side of the Strait of Malacca a natural place to develop trading communities. As is true for all economies relying on trade, these settlements depended on the ups and downs of far-flung cultures, on political, financial, and social events in places as remote as China, Persia, and Egypt.

The eighth century had seen the rise of Srivijaya on the coast of southern Sumatra, a trading culture with international contacts with India, Sri Lanka, and China, and apparently with a Buddhist foundation stationed in Palembang, at that time its capital. A similar geographically determined position was eventually taken by Malacca on the coast of the Malay peninsula. Founded in the early fifteenth century by a former prince from Palembang who claimed descent from Srivijaya, it was one of the first major Islamic courts in maritime South-East Asia. From the end of the eighth century to the rise of the Mongol empire the land route to China was disrupted, so that the traffic from Iraq and Persia to China was primarily moving along the maritime route. Although Indian traders had had close contacts with South-East Asia since the first century CE, it was in the eighth century that the rise of local powers in South-East Asia really took off. Arab and Indian traders increased their contact with the region (Tibbetts 1956; 1957), and both Indian and Arab religious traditions became influential in South-East Asia.

Buddhism and Hinduism were easily accepted and integrated into local traditions, as they shared many aspects of cosmology with indigenous South-East Asian beliefs. Buddhism certainly was the prevalent religion among Indian merchants travelling to South-East Asia during the first millennium CE. Islamic traders, initially en route to China, also left records in South-East Asia, although the true arrival of Islam as a major religious force came only with the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Eventually, Islam became the prevalent religion of coastal trading communities in the maritime region, and from them it spread to many of the court cultures of Java, Sumatra, and the eastern islands. Religious differences apart, though, there were certain cultural and artistic traits shared by all court centres, as noticed by the first European observers. To show wealth and status, textiles and precious dishes of gold and Chinese porcelain were of foremost importance. Textiles in particular, were—and are—an important part of defining social and architectural space. Reid (1988: 74) quotes one of the first Dutchmen to visit the northern Javanese of Banten in 1597:

The rich have their rooms all partitioned with curtains of silk or of cotton cloth.

Apart from the magnificent temple constructions of mainland South-East Asia and Java, it is a peculiarity of South-East Asian buildings that walls are usually not load-bearing, but are visual screens only. Often textiles were and are used instead to define space within the building.

Early European involvement in the Indian Ocean trade produced several eyewitness accounts for the importance, in sheer volume, of the dealing in textiles. Especially in South-East Asia Indian cloths were the dominant goods to be exchanged for cloves, nutmeg, mace, and peppers. Tomé Pires reported from Malacca in 1516 that four ships arrived every year from Gujarat on India’s west coast, each worth at least fifteen, twenty, and thirty thousand cruzados, and from the city of Cambay a ship put into port worth seventy to eighty thousand. From the Coromandel coast came ships worth eighty to ninety thousand cruzados, carrying cloths of ‘thirty kinds, which are of value in these parts’ (Pires 1944: 269-70) [11]. It is obvious that the Portuguese observed a flourishing trade of some historical depth, and were confronting a market where tastes for quite specific products had developed.

The trade with Indian textiles reported in European sources included names that often can no longer be identified with existing fabrics. There are exceptions, though. Painted and printed textiles were called ‘chintes’ (from the vernacular chitta, ‘spotted cloth’, Irwin and Schwartz 1966: 15), from which the English ‘chintz’ derives. They could also be referred to as ‘pintadoes’, from Portuguese pinta, ‘spot’. The painted cloths, which came from both north-western India and south India, were exported to Europe, but also to Indonesia. The printed textiles similar to those in the Newberry Collection and produced in centres like Ahmedabad, were apparently not part of the trade to Europe, but did move to South-East Asia and also, more recently, to Japan, where they were usually cut up and used as wrapping cloth, e.g. for writing implements or items used in the tea ceremony. The silk double-ikat patola made in Gujarat were famous in the trade to maritime South-East Asia, where they became items of prestige and, ultimately, acquired symbolic value. They also influenced and transformed many indigenous weaving traditions. Block-printed textiles in particular had a widespread appeal. Recent finds in Indonesia, particularly from Sulawesi, have brought to light textiles that are similar to the fragments that have survived from Egypt. These textiles, many of which are still complete, have been referred to throughout our discussion, but it is time now to look at them more specifically.

Indian block-printed textiles for the Eastern Indonesian market

The textiles from Sulawesi and elsewhere in eastern Indonesia clearly have an affinity with the Indo-Egyptian material, but the two groups also show certain definite differences. The Egyptian material follows three colour schemes: blue, red, and a combination of both. So far I have not seen any cloth traded to Indonesia (or to anywhere else in South-East Asia) that was only dyed blue. The group of fabrics that is placed at the beginning of our catalogue, made up of fragments that have small-scale patterns against a blue background, seems to be entirely absent from the trade to South-East Asia. Also not present are large-scale medallion shapes dyed blue, or fragments of such textiles.

There is a predominance of red cloths, however, among the Indonesian trade fabrics. There can be little doubt that there was a cultural association with the colour that made these textiles so acceptable. Red is a colour of particular importance in South-East Asia, often associated with nobility and high status, but also with spiritual power and fertility. This is already apparent in the ninth-and tenth-century documents Christie has worked with (1993a: 12). Many of the fabrics were once used in a ceremonial context, where the use of a particular colour is often prescribed. Colour symbolism is a difficult topic to interpret in a cross-cultural manner, as there is rarely one single answer to the meaning of colour. Whatever the specific meaning of the colour red in a particular society or situation, certain general properties are usually associated with it, which relate to power and fertility, but also to danger. Red, as the colour of blood, stands for the positive aspect of fertility and childbirth, but also for the negative one of warfare. However, warfare in many South-East Asian societies means (or once meant) head-hunting, a practice that in turn fulfils the cycle towards fertility: the reason given for the taking of heads invariably involved the gaining of well-being and fertility for the community (Barnes 1992a).

The trade fabrics certainly may have a close similarity to some of the mordant-dyed designs surviving from Egypt; [EA1995.61] and [EA1990.807] show some of these parallels. In these examples, the use of identical designs for markets at opposite ends of the Indian Ocean trade network can be very striking. Yet they should not obscure the fact that market specialization certainly did exist. Although some textiles were acceptable in several places, others had to look ‘just so’ to be right. Sometimes this had to be learned the hard way by the early European traders; the English merchant Peter Floris wrote from a Malay port in the early seventeenth century:

A great oversight hath been comitted in the bespeaking of the foresaid Maley’s cloth... for they have all of them a little narrow white edge, and the upright Maley cloth must be without it... wherein the Maleys are so curious that they will not once put forth their hands to look upon them; and, if I had not now found it by experience, I had never believed it, that so small a fault should cause so great an abatement in the price. (Floris 1934: 71)

Also surviving from eastern Indonesia are block-printed textiles that show hunting scenes or figures in a domestic setting. As was discussed in Chapter 7, these are not common among the Egyptian fragments, although some examples of hunting or mythological scenes have been published by Gittinger from the Textile Museum’s collection (1982: 46-7). Finally there are numerous examples of patola imitation block-printed cotton cloths. This is not surprising if one realizes the importance of the genuine patola in South-East Asian, and particularly in Indonesian, societies. The silk double-ikat cloths were used as prestige and status symbols, they could become foremost in importance as exchange goods among the wealthiest, and they eventually often assumed an exceptional ceremonial function. Much cheaper printed copies of patola often had to substitute where the genuine article was unobtainable, or was too expensive. Although the Newberry Collection has a few fragments that were inspired by patola, the trade to Egypt with this type of design seems to have been of little importance.

Indian textiles in local contexts

For the textile fragments that have survived in Egypt, we have to guess what functions they were used for. As has been described in Chapter 9, remains of seams, hems, and occasionally their shape can give us some indication. The social historians of the Fatimid and Mamluk period often provide descriptions for the use of textiles, and sometimes we may be able to relate these to the Indo-Egyptian fragments. But generally the social context for these textiles remains somewhat oblique. For the trade to South-East Asia the situation is quite different. Not only were the early travellers alert eyewitnesses to a thriving textile trade, but they also often gave hints on the use of the cloth in local communities. Recent scholarship has also taken an increased interest in textiles, as the material has been recognized to be of foremost social importance in South-East Asian societies [12]. We therefore can rely on detailed descriptions and discussions, not only on the function of textiles, but on their history of design as well.

While the Indian export to Egypt apparently was for functional dress and furnishings, the cloths had a different reception in South-East Asia. They had a meaning related to status and prestige, as well as to ritual and ceremonial purposes. The variety of cloth that was traded eastwards seems to have been far greater than the export material destined for Egypt. Among the most precious were the patola, but there was also a thriving market for fine, mordant- and resist- painted cloths from the Coromandel Coast. These textiles were destined in particular for Thailand and western Indonesia, specifically southern Sumatra, where they have been found in the Lampung area, but also for Java and, to a lesser degree, Bali. Those surviving are dated by Holmgren and Spertus to not earlier than the eighteenth century (1991:59). The Thai market also received textiles from Gujarat, a trade that continued to thrive into the nineteenth century (Guy 1992). That particular trade was largely the monopoly of the Thai royal family.

The patola trade apparently was already established when the first Europeans arrived, although we cannot be certain that the name is applied only to the Gujarati double-ikat textiles in the early sources. For an eyewitness account, Tomé Pires in particular is a reliable source, as he actually travelled to South-East Asia before writing his account. In 1517 he was to be the head of the first Portuguese embassy to China. His Suma Oriental, written in India and Malacca, gives quite detailed accounts of the trade he observed. He notes in particular that Gujarati textiles were the major item of exchange in Palembang, the former capital of Srivijaya and once again an important settlement for the trade with Sumatra (1944: 156), as well as with the eastern Indonesian islands. He writes of Banda, the source of nutmeg and mace, and of the Moluccas, the home of cloves, that the principal merchandise in demand there was cloth from Gujarat (1944: 207, 216). The trade inevitably went through Malacca; he also writes:

The Cambay merchants make Malacca their chief trading centre. There used to be a thousand Gujarat merchants in Malacca, besides four or five thousand Gujarat seamen, who came and went. Malacca cannot live without Cambay, nor Cambay without Malacca, if they are to be rich and very prosperous. (1944:45)

This was written, of course, shortly after the Portuguese had captured Malacca in 1511.

Duarte Barbosa probably did not travel east of India at this time, although he eventually reached maritime South-East Asia in 1521 as a participant in Magalhães’s circumnavigation. In his Book, though, he writes about the islands and mainland South-East Asian ports as though he had seen them personally; basically he compiled the up-to-date knowledge of the time, some of which can be fanciful [13]. Much of his information must have been gathered in India from people who did have first-hand experience, though, as many of his reports ring true. Of the Javanese, for example, he comments on their reverence for a person’s head as the most sacred part of the body, and on their belief in white and black magic: ‘They are also great wizards and necromancers...’ (1921: 193).

He also associates the Indian cloth trade, in particular that from Cambay, with Pegu in Burma:

Hither come every year many Moorish ships to trade and bring abundances of printed Cambaya cloths, both cotton and silk, which they call patola. These are coloured with great skill, and are here worth much money... (1921: 155-6)

Writing about Thailand (the ‘Kingdom of Anseam’, i.e. Siam), he states:

Hither come many Moorish ships from divers regions bearing... coloured Meca velvets,... rosewater (which they bring from Meca and Adem in little barrels of tinned copper, selling it by weight with the barrel included),... and Cambaya cloths... (1921: 164)

Malacca he describes as a thriving entrepôt with many foreign merchants living there, much as Tomé Pires wrote about it. The port was visited by people from all over the Indian Ocean, but in particular by ‘moors’, i.e. Islamic merchants from Arabia or India. He also reports that much of the trade to go to the islands of Indonesia was picked up there by merchants ‘from Java’; these may have been sailor merchants from other parts of maritime South-East Asia as well. It is interesting that the most elaborate references to Cambay textiles as desired trade items comes from the eastern part of the archipelago, from Timor, Banda, Ambon, and Maluku (Moluccas), as well as Sulawesi (1921: 196-202,205).

From both travellers one gets the impression that the cloths imported were more than utilitarian in purpose. They brought status and prestige. The patola in particular were used by the Dutch as gifts to initiate trade relations with local rulers, and these silk cloths were worn by nobles or became part of the noblemen’s treasury. They also could become part of an indigenous exchange of gifts. In Flores and the Solor Islands they were used in the elaborate exchange of prestige items that occurred at the time of marriage and also, in some places, at a funeral (Barnes 1989: 107; Graham 1994). In many communities the patola eventually became part of lineage treasuries, and as such emblems for the well-being of the group.

Closely linked with this symbolic function, their designs were adopted and reinterpreted in local textiles. Particularly interesting can be the reinterpretation of the palola’s designs; for example, in the community of Lamalera in southern Lembata a clearly patola-derived floral design is reinterpreted as a line of linked human figures and is given the name ata dikã, ‘human being’ (Barnes 1989: 83-5). The design is associated quite specifically with the clan that descends from the oldest son of the village founder. Similarly inspired and yet transformed can also be the spatial arrangement of the patola-derived local design. In the textiles of Lamalera, these motifs are always prominently placed in the central panel of the three-panel bridewealth cloth: the centre, however, is a place of honour (Barnes 1991: 15).

The block-printed textiles imported from Gujarat into Sulawesi also had an exclusively ceremonial function (Nooy-Palm 1989). Locally called maa’ the imported cloths were not cut, but were kept at their full length. As lineage or family heirlooms they were brought out for special occasions and were hung from the gables of the large lineage-owned rice barns. They were used together with patola and block-printed patola imitations, as well as locally produced textiles, called sarita. A remarkable textile can be seen in Plate 43. It shows a locally made cloth, probably late nineteenth century, that copies quite faithfully a Gujarati prototype. The row of figures has all the details of the original block-printed cloth in depiction of dress, items held (staffs and parrots), profile views, and background; even the typical Jain ‘floating eye’ convention is included. At the same time, however, the design has gained a vitality of its own, quite independent of the formal and repetitive nature of the block-printed prototype. There is an energy of execution found here that is totally absent from the Gujarati ‘genuine’ article. The textile was probably made at a time when the demand for this type of cloth could no longer be met by an import textile.


This brief discussion gives a mere introduction to the complex question of assimilation of outside influences into a local context. It is a theme that is particularly emphasized in the history of South-East Asia, as the cultures of the region were and are particularly adept at assimilating and reinterpreting ideas and material culture from the outside, with results that become uniquely South-East Asian. It was obvious from the very beginning of European involvement in the trade with Asia that, as far as the maritime trade was concerned, textiles were the major currency. To reach the spice markets of South-East Asia, the Portuguese, Dutch, and eventually the English had to gain access to the textile supply from India. They also had to learn which textiles were intended for which market. While they managed to control the textile trade with South-East Asia, Indian exports to the Arab peninsula, Egypt, and probably East Africa apparently remained in the hands of non-European merchants.


[1] But as we have seen above, the cotton plant was probably known in South-East Asia long before it was employed in weaving, and the Proto-Austronesian kapas and Sanskrit karpasa may have a common origin, rather than the former deriving from the latter.

[2] Lime also is an essential ingredient in betel consumption.

[3] In a publication that predates Christie's research, Mattiebelle Gittinger suggested a much later introduction of mordant dyes into Indonesia. She cautiously associated the distribution of the technology with the influence of patola textiles and therefore placed it in the 17th century (Gittinger 1979: 169). As I have discussed elsewhere, even prior to Christie's research there were stylistic reasons to doubt such a late date for the introduction of mordants (Barnes 1989: 93).

[4] The 11th century reference is to the profession of the amalanten or amananten, which was certainly cloth-related; the amalanten/amananten produced the bananten, a textile that called for special processing involving washing and pounding. The 12th century fabric that may have been a form of batik was called tulis warnna, which means 'decorated with drawings in colour'.

[5] Blust's discussion extends and refines Dempwolff's (1938) Proto-Austronesian *tenun, 'weave', and connects it specifically with loom weaving, as opposed to basket weaving.

[6] It is a horizontal rather than vertical loom, and the weaver controls the tension of the warp with her body (weaving is traditionally a female task in South-East Asia). In its basic form it is made up of the following: (a) two beams between which the warp is stretched, called the warp beam (at the far end from the weaver) and the cloth beam (set in the weaver's lap); (b) the back-strap which is attached to the cloth beam and is led behind the weaver's back; (c) the heddle and shed stick, which together create the alternate lifting of the warp; (d) a thin stick to insert the weft between the warp threads' (e) a beater (the weaver's sword) to fix the position of the weft threads.

[7] It also produced a bronze cowrie shell container with a lid that shows small figures of women weaving on the simplest version of the back-strap loom, the so-called foot-braced loom, where the weaver pushes her feet against the warp beam, which is otherwise not attached to posts. This type of primitive loom is not in use any more in Indonesia, but the looms of eastern Indonesia are technically only a step removed (Barnes 1989: 134).

[8] Stone bark cloth beaters have been found in archaeological contexts in the Philippines (Casal et al. 1981: 46). They are dated to around 1000 BCE. In many societies in eastern maritime South-East Asia bark cloth continues to be important as an essential item to be used at funerals or other ceremonies that emphasize 'archaic' attire (Keller 1993).

[9] See Nabholz-Kartaschoff (1989) for Bali, Nooy-Palm (1989) for the Toraja of Sulawesi, Fox (1977) for Roti, and Barnes (1989; 1991) for the Flores and Solor region. This list is selective; other authors also have touched on the topic in passing. Van Dijk and de Jong (1991) give a detailed account of the use of Indian textiles, in particular printed cloths, in the south-eastern Moluccas.

[10] This has been commented on by several authors. Van Leur (1955; 2nd edition 1967) and Meilink-Roelofsz (1962) both refer to the existence of a pre-European trade with Indian textiles, Gittinger (1982) discusses the trade to South-East Asia in the context of Indian Ocean trade with Indian textiles, and Maxwell (1990) writes on the response in Indonesia to the early trade.

[11] The cruzado was a Portugues coin of first rank, introduced during the reign of Dom Afonso V (1438-81). Its name refers to the cross each coin has engrained on it. It continued to be used into the 16th century, although the gold and silver portugues first minted in the reign of Dom Manuel I (1495-1521) eventually became the important currency. Although the cruzado was a coin of primary rank, at present its value in the context of either the South-East Asian of Portugues economy is not defined.

[12] For the diversity of current research related to textiles in Indonesia, see Nabholz-Kartaschoff, Barnes, and Stuart-Fox (1993).

[13] See the account of how to make porcelain, which he correctly reported as a speciality of China, but which he claimed was from a paste made of 'fish ground fine, from eggshells and the white of eggs', then 'buried for some time' (1921: 213-14).


Object information may not accurately reflect the actual contents of the original publication, since our online objects contain current information held in our collections database. Click on 'buy this publication' to purchase printed versions of our online publications, where available, or contact the Jameel Study Centre to arrange access to books on our collections that are now out of print.

© 2013 University of Oxford - Ashmolean Museum