Bebali Cloths for Life Cycle Ceremonies in Bali

Bebali textiles are used for life cycle ceremonies 

By Jean Howe and I Made Maduarta Bebali

Bebali textiles have been used for life cycle ceremonies all across Bali for centuries. Over the last decades their meaning and use have been forgotten except in a few communities on the island. In our own village of Ubud, it has been at least three generations since bebali textiles were used.

I first read Balinese Textiles by Urs Ramseryers, Brigitta Huaser-Schaublin and Marie-Lousise Nabholz-Kartaschoff when it was published in 1991. This book is an excellent discussion of some of the more well-known Balinese textiles, including geringsing, cepuk and keling. It also included chapters on court cloths such as prada, songket and endek. In chapter five, the authors describe Bebali textiles as “sacred” textiles. It was these simple unadorned striped and checkered textiles that I found most compelling.

Ida Ayu Punari reading lontar manuscripts

Another equally significant but less known book is Makna dan Pemakaian Kain Bebali Dalam Upacara Hindu di Bali (The Meaning and Use of Bebali Textiles in Bali Hindu Ceremonies) by Ida Ayu Punari of Sideman, which is about the complexity of dozens of bebali cloths and their ritual uses. Ida Ayu’s father was a high priest in Sideman and keeper of a lontar-palm leaf manuscript collection. Reading in the old Kawi language, it was in these that Ida Ayu learned about the meaning and use of bebali.

Five bebali cloths wrapping representations of the natural powers accompanying the newborn baby

Threads of Life has worked on many projects with Ida Ayu Punari since 2002, but during Covid we had the opportunity to work together on a film about the auspicious three-month ceremony when a child first touches the ground. Ida Ayu says that there are five bebali textiles traditionally used for this ritual. These are prembon, suggih rendah, atu atu, alang alang segambung, and gedog putih, and they wrap symbols for five of the 108 nyama bajang, which are the natural powers that come together to form the baby.

Ida Ayu Punari teaches the textile arts to young girls at Sidemen’s high school

Threads of Life commissioned sets of these five textiles from Ida Ayu, who dyed the threads with natural dyes and prepared them on a loom in the prescribed pattern of each cloth. Ida Ayu teaches weaving at the cultural arts high school in Sidemen and it was her students that wove the cloths. On a backstrap loom the cloth is woven with a circular warp that remains uncut once removed from the loom to represent the journey of birth, death and reincarnation through the cycle of life.

Like all bebali cloths, the white gedogan putih is made with a continuous warp on a back-strap loom

The three-month ceremony recognizes the baby as a human child rather than an accumulation of natural forces. The delayed attachment suggested by this can be seen in the context of high levels of infant mortality in the past. The textiles and the objects wrapped in them recapitulate the baby’s development. The all-white gedog putih cloth wraps an egg and represents the sexual union that conceived the child.

A black-and-white atu atu cloth on the loom

The black-and-white atu atu cloth is used to wrap a stone. The stone represents the fetus in its early stages when it is as-yet unrecognizable as a human form. The textile’s stark contrasts symbolize the strength the child has shown and will continue to need for survival.

The prembon cloth contains all the colours of the rainbow and connects the child to nature and the life spirit

The prembon is a striped textile that contains all the colours of a rainbow and represents all aspects and spirits within the realm of the nine directions. It is used to wrap a banana flower that is decorated with flowers and jewelry, and symbolizes the formed baby. However, a child at this stage is considered to be without a spirit, or rather that its spirit is everywhere and in everything and has not yet come together as a human.

The green of the suggih rendah textile suggests abundance through its association with growing plants

The green-and-white sugih rendah textile is used to wrap a cucumber or marrow. Sugih rendah literally means easy wealth, but wealth in terms of an abundant and prosperous life to come for the child, as embodied by the cucumber and marrow which are full of seeds.

During the three-month ceremony the child is carried in an alang-alang segambung textile

An alang-alang segabung textile is used as a sling by the grandmother for carrying the baby during the ceremony. Alang-alang is a grass used in many ways, from animal feed to roof thatching. Its multiple uses suggest versatility and seek to bring this into the baby’s life.

Made Maduarta gives Bebali textiles to offering maker Ibu Sarih for use in ceremonies where she officiates

As part of the film project with Ida Ayu Puniari, Threads of Life’s Made Maduarta presented the offering maker Ibu Sarih with the five textiles used in the child’s touching the ground ceremony. Ibu Sarih will use these with every three-month ceremony she is called to officiate. Threads of Life will present further sets to other key elders who will ensure their use in ceremony. We hope that this will help Balinese communities to remember the significance and relevance of the bebali textiles in rituals again.