Balinese textiles play an active part in the spiritual life of the island. Colour, pattern and motif have the power to protect against disturbances and sickness. Shrines, temples and sacred objects like trees and stones are wrapped in sacred textiles, called bebali. Uncut textiles (gedogan) are used for ceremonies related to the gods while cut textiles may be worn as body wraps. Long discontinuous warp cloths (kamben) were made for the courts. Folded textiles (rantasan) are offered as clothing for the deities. Formal occasions call for traditional clothing, which shows respect for both the gods and tradition and helps instil that respect in each generation.
Despite its relatively small size, Bali possesses a wealth of natural and cultural diversity. On its well-watered southern slopes, farmers tend emerald rice-fields carved from the forested hills. In the arid north and east, fishing boats line the beaches in front of rows of hollow logs, where seawater is evaporated for salt. The high mountains, scarred with flows of black lava, hide groves of pine in their folds.
Hinduism and Buddhism reached Bali sometime in the first millennium, after the appearance of Indianised kingdoms in Sumatra and Java. These religions blended with native animism and ancestors worship, and with a profound respect for the mountains, rivers, caves and other natural features found in abundance on this island. The need for balance between humanity, the unseen world of the gods and spirits, and the environment – a concept called tri hita karana – is at the core of modern Balinese Hindu philosophy and practice.
Spirits reside in Bali’s fields and forests, its white beaches, the rocky peaks of its volcanoes and the dark canyons of its rivers. Balinese culture is a quest for peaceful coexistence with the divine, negotiated daily with offerings, rituals and prayers.
Balinese songket cloths were traditionally reserved for the nobility as clothing in the royal courts. Today, these caste-based restrictions may no longer apply, but with its shimmering silk and gold-wrapped threads, the songket remains a clear marker of status. They are often worn for tooth-filing ceremonies, or as paired cloths worn by both the bride and groom at a wedding.
One of Bali’s legendary textiles, the geringsing is a double-ikat cloth, a demanding process inspired by Gujarati patola cloths where both the warp and weft threads are tied and dyed independently. During weaving, the perpendicular weft patterns must be meticulously aligned with each pass of the weft so that they perfectly match on the finished cloth. This painstaking process, coupled with the fact that these textiles are produced only in the village of Tenganan, makes geringsing one of the rarest and most valuable Indonesian textiles. Geringsing literally means “against sickness” in Balinese, and the textiles are considered to be the most ritually potent Balinese cloth, rich with protective qualities and magical power. These cloths are used ceremonially by the Tenganese as offerings or clothing.
Geringsing cloths are characterized by bold, highly intricate patterns in white, morinda red, and indigo-blue-black colours produced from natural dyes. A geringsing will always have a clear white selvedge followed by a single stripe of blue-black threads encasing the ikat centrefield. The white selvedge is said to be a “container” holding the power of the motifs; if cut, the power would leak out of the cloth and the geringsing becomes “dead” and no longer suitable for ceremonial use.
Unlike most Indonesian ikat textiles, where the pattern is tied and dyed on the warp threads, the Balinese endek cloths are woven with the pattern on the weft threads. With weft ikat weaving, the pattern must be painstakingly re-aligned with each pass of the weft, making it an intricately difficult and time-consuming technique. Once considered to be a cloth of the nobility, endek cloths are now commonly worn in Bali, either as a hip cloth for women or as the cloth worn over a sarong by men, known as saput.
The black-and-white checked poleng is one of Bali’s most ubiquitous cloths, used to wrap shrines, banyan trees, rocks and other auspicious objects. The black and white squares represent the complementary forces of chaos and order, a duality known as rwe bineda that is central to Balinese belief. As a wrapping, the cloth protects against destructive forces (mala) and cleanses impurities.
The simple, stark design is a reminder of the polarities that surround us— light and dark, night and day, good and bad—and the importance of balance, represented by the grey squares in between that result from the overlapping of black and white threads. Too much malevolence results in destruction, but too much benevolence leads to stagnation; life force is maintained when the two are in balance.
Rangrang comes from the Balinese word renggang which means “space” in Balinese and the slit tapestry weave used to make this textile creates an open pattern. This textile is worn as an upper body wrap by women in Seraya, East Bali for Dewa Yadnya ceremonies which are the ceremonies performed for the Gods.
Sekordi are used in many life transition ceremonies, from the telu bulanan when a child is three months old and first touches the ground, to the telu oton ceremony at eighteen months, and the mesangih toothfiling rite after puberty. In each of these the sekordi strengthens the wearer and wards off negative influences.
The sekordi is one of Bali’s important ceremonial textiles known as bebali or sacred textile. Sekordi comes from the words suko and werdi meaning happiness and long life.
The cepuk is a sacred Balinese cloth filled with ritual power. The structure, motifs and predominance of red dye in cepuk cloths link them visually to Indian trade cloths, which were traded on Balinese shores from the 16th century and were also believed to have sacred ritual power. The patola-like ikat motifs on this textile depict sandalwood flowers in a swirl of white and indigo against red.
Traditionally, cepuk cloths are worn as protective covering by dancers performing the role of Rangda, the Balinese embodiment of black magic and the cosmic opposite of Barong, the sacred force for good. This dance between forces is a classic iteration of the central Balinese belief in dualism, with Rangda and Barong upholding a dynamic balance of positive and negative energy. The borders of the cepuk cloth echo this belief by turning the cepuk into a vessel that contains and balances the powerful energy held within.
Given their protective, even exorcistic qualities, cepuk are also used in events marking rites of passage such as birth, puberty and death ceremonies, where danger is most likely to lurk in the shadows. They may be used as offerings to decorate the temple, as coverings or worn by men or women of nobility. Before cremation, the cepuk acts as a shroud to cover the body; the Balinese believe that doing so ensures the spirit of the deceased will successfully complete its journey to paradise.
Bebintangan is a textile style unique to Seraya in East Bali. It contains the stripped element of the keling textile which Seraya was most famous for in the past. There is simple star motif made with supplementary weft technique on the head and foot of the cloth. Bebintangan translates as how a weaver imagines the random pattern if stars in a night sky. This selendang (scarf) size textile represents the beginning of the revitalization of this textile. When it is finally woven as a complete cloth it would worn as a saput (hip blanket) over a kamben (man’s sarong) or as a full body cloth.
This textile, called saudan, is among the textiles referred to as bebali which means sacred textile in Balinese. These textiles are used in life transition ceremonies and purification ceremonies (mecaru). A Saudan is also worn as a shoulder sling to carry a young child. The textile is made from cotton and uses all natural dyes. Nusa Penida textiles are considered amongst the most powerful textiles woven in Bali as the island is believed to be the home of strong spirits. The word saud means unevenly or randomly woven.