Putussibau: The Heart of Borneo

A traditional Dayak longhouse raised on stilts beside the river.

Putussibau is deep in the interior of Borneo, close to the border with Malaysia. The town is in the high reaches of the Kapuas River system, about six hours by bus from the larger city of Sintang. Putissibau and the small villages in the nearby forests are outposts of an embattled Dayak culture, which is under assault on all sides: from the government, which is developing the forest, transmigrants from other parts of Indonesia, and foreign missionaries.

Lius is a permanent presence for Threads of Life in the Kapuas basin. He makes monthly trips to Putissibau and other villages around the area from his home in Sintang. With every visit, Lius learns a little more about local weaving techniques, dye plants, and textile culture, and shores up his relationships with local weavers.

Lius examining dye materials.

First workshop participants.

On this trip, Lius, Pung, Frog and Wenten held dye workshops on behalf od the YPBB Foundation, our first in the area. Another organization had held dye workshops here before, introducing methods from Java intended for use in batik, which is not produced in this part of Kalimantan. The workshop aimed to revive unique local traditions, with respect for local masters and local practices. The weavers welcomed our staff with extraordinary enthusiasm.

The first session was held in a small village outside Putussibau, inhabited by members of the Dayak Iban ethnic group. Before red dye work could begin, the villagers enacted a ceremony called nakar. In one part of the ceremony, the weavers set out offerings of rice cakes, puffed rice, rice wine, betel nut, and eggs, and sacrificed a chicken; a feather dipped in blood was touched to the hand of every woman who intended to dye.

The central offering of rice cakes, puffed rice, and a boiled egg.

Washing the threads in the river prior to dyeing.

The nakar ceremony had not been performed in this village for forty years, but the old master dyers remembered all the steps. They also remembered the complex local recipe for mordant, the oil-based mixture that helps red pigment fix to cotton: two kinds of ginger, galangal, salt, and coconut oil, among other ingredients. After the ceremony, the women all stepped onto the porch of the traditional longhouse and shouted their thanks to the spirits and ancestors.

The villages near Putussibau are situated in thousands of hectares of forests, some of the last large tracts of jungle in Kalimantan. Closer to Sintang, the forest has been replaced with vast plantations of rubber trees and oil palms. Up here, the waters still run clear, and the forest provides forage, game, and the wild plant resources necessary for natural dyes, building traditional houses, and more.

Undistrubed forests are sources of clear running rivers.

Second workshop participants.

Putussibau town is only an hour away from the small villages, but the people there speak a different language, belong to the Dayak Kantuk ethnic group, and have very different textile traditions. The ceremony accompanying their oiling process is called Ngelabuh, and the oil itself contains tree nuts, fish eggs, and the liver of a kind of puffer fish that lives in the river.

Weavers around Putussibau have four basic weaving techniques: ikat; sidan, with continuous supplementary wefts; sungkit, a kind of warp-wrapping technique; and pilih, which comes in two varieties, pilih selam and pilih biasa. There are still a few master weavers practicing each technique, and after the workshop there were many willing students. Lius will check on their progress in the coming months, and see how well they are learning.

Threads of Life provide natural dyed threads to produce a cloth using the sungkit technique.

Ibu Rupina from Sintang (third from left) sharing her experiences at the workshop.

The Threads of Life staff also brought along master weaver, Ibu Ruvina, from Sintang. She talked to the groups in Putussibau about her own experiences working with different NGOs, and about weaving and dyeing techniques from her area. It is our hope that weavers in Sintang and Putussibau will set up their own network to share information and trade dye materials.

All of us at Threads of Life would like to say “Congratulations” to Lius (Gregorius Lius Thallu) and his wife Yustina for the birth of their new little boy James Pepas Nirang.

Congratulations to Lius and Yustina!