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Sumba People Weaving Lessons in Life: Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara

Hinggi (traditional garments) were originally worn by kings only. Further down the line, however, ordinary people were given the freedom to wear hinggi at weddings and funerals. And with economic growth, hinggi have now become a commodity, leading to the emergence of new motifs as demanded by the market, including images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

“The designs convey moral lessons and proverbs, making them like scriptures,” Hendrik Pali said in August during an event marking the start of the weaving of a 50-meter-long piece of hinggi cloth.

The 50-meter-long hinggi cloth will bear diverse animal motifs like fish, prawns, turtles and crocodiles. Fish symbolize good health; crocodiles and turtles, royal grandeur.

In the past, the motif of turtles laying eggs with white circles of light around them was not meant for ordinary people.

Cloth that bears a prawn design is usually used to dress a corpse in for burial. In Sumba, soon after a person’s death, the body will be put in the fetal position and wrapped in cloth. The prawn pattern is used for people of all walks of life.

Horses and buffaloes, often present in Sumba ceremonies, are among the weaving designs. A bridegroom in Sumba is required to bring along as many as hundreds of buffaloes. Horses are believed to transport the dead.

“The horse of the deceased is tied up near the grave before burial to serve its master in the afterlife,” Hendrik said.

The other animals are big lizards, as a warning against inconsistency, deer against vanity, and snakes against fury.

“These motifs warn of the need to avoid unreliability, conceit and unnecessary anger. Practical values are also conveyed by chicken and pig designs, telling people to raise livestock for a living,” Nggau Roti, 72, a Lambanapu chief, said.

Various practices are banned in the production process. According to Agustina Kahe Atanahu, 59 — whose special talent is dying fabric — a woman who is menstruating is not allowed to apply color, especially not blue. The mentally disturbed are also prohibited from coloring the material.

“Allowing someone who is mentally troubled to join in could lead to a confusion of colors,” Augustina said.

Still, the application of color is seen as a job for women. “I can’t tell you why, but it has been like this for generations. Though I’m experienced, I’ll wreck everything if I’m in a bad mood,” Augustina said.

East Sumba has two types of traditional garment: Hinggi for men and lau pahikkung or lau pahudu (embroidered sarongs) for women. The two kinds of garment have an important role in the local community’s sociocultural life as a means of exchange in different ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals, and as tokens of appreciation and souvenirs.

Hinggi are also used for wrapping corpses because physically they are capable of withholding the smell of a dead body and spiritually, according to Sumba people’s belief system, the high quality fabric signifies the deceased’s attire in the afterlife.

The other strengths of the regency’s woven material lie not only in its unique designs, socioreligious decorative symbols and attractive natural colors, but also in the weaving process, which involves, in the words of Sylvi A. Anggraini, the chairwoman of the National Handicraft Council for East Sumba, the souls of its craftspeople, who perform their work with great patience and perseverance.

As for lau pahikkung, this cloth normally has one base color with motifs being embroidered in the lower part. Using palm ribs as an aid in arranging yarns and designs, it is finally embellished with relief-like images on a darker background.

“The base used to be only one color, but today it may be black, blue or dark red,” Sylvi said.

Besides embroidery, tiny shells can also be sewn on such sarongs, known as wutikau, while detailed coloring with traditional or chemical agents by using coconut fiber brushes, called pendata, is also common. Thus there are lau pendata, embroidered sheets with diverse color combinations, which are now in vogue, and hinggi pendata, also with such coloring.

In burial ceremonies, male procession participants wear fine quality pahikkung-type sarongs without shirts, whereas noble women dress in black sarongs with embroidered motifs.

Emanuel Dapa Loka