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Saturday – a trip around the neighbourhood

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Our becak drivers have now become like personal friends and they are waiting to drive us through the quiet back lanes of Jogya’s suburbs – children waving, bicycles, corner shops, men painting lamp-posts, a sewing machine on the back of a bike, people smiling hello.

We arrive at the Tenun Lurik factory where around 20 people weave the hand woven cotton cloth used to make traditional  jackets which Jogya is also famous for. We see women winding weft thread onto spindles. It is wound from the hank onto a smaller wheel, from that onto a bicycle sized wheel and from that the spindles are filled ready for the weavers to weave into their cloth.

We see the warp threads which are taken from about 20 or 30 different coloured spools – according to the design of the cloth. We see the dyeing rooms and the yarns being tied with plastic string to get stripes and random “ikat” designs. We watch two people making the two “sheds” so that alternate warp threads are lifted each time the weaver presses his down on a foot pedal. Finally the weavers can get going and quickly weave their cloth usually around 10 metres a day. There is a pre industrial revolution feel about the place and is a reminder that labour is cheap here and textiles and many other products are still made without the aid of expensive machinery.

Back in the becaks, we make our way slowly through the back lanes to Susi’s house. Susi has arranged for some of the local craftsmen to show us their work. There is a “tukang canting” –  a canting maker who shows us exactly how a canting is made (all by hand with extremely low tech methods and a foot pump to power the gas for his soldering iron). There is also a “tukang cap” – a cap maker who makes copper stamps for batik. He gives us some idea of the great skills which are needed to make the intricate copper stamps.

We also have a man who shows us how gold “prada” cloth is made – much favoured for weddings. He applies latex to the cloth – it is left out in the sun for 30 minutes and then gold sprinkles are brushed on to create a lustrous fabric which is still washable with care.

Susi takes around “her” kampung (or neighbourhood) and points out the Pos Kamling where 5 men of the village take it in turn to sit up all night to keep watch. At 10 pm they go round every house on their patch to check all is well and in return each house gives them 500 rps (about 3p) She also shows us the house where the 40 women of the kampung will be meeting later today. Susi needs to be there as she is head (of course!)

We have lunch at the next door neighbour’s “pendopo” a sort of open sided pavilion. The neighbour sells these lovely old teak constructions for around 60 million rupiah each about (£3,500) mostly to Bali for restaurants and guest houses.

After lunch, our lovely lady cook who has made all the food then treats us to a song called “Begawan Solo” then some more classic Javanese singing, all the time wearing her warm woolly hat while the sweat is running down our faces.

The becak drivers get their lunch while we sort through almost every batik picture that Susi has in her stock cupboards and we are finally ready to continue to Pak Jaka’s studio.

Pak Jaka is a batik artist who makes pictures with a very distinctive style. He designs them by drawing onto cotton with a pencil and then his eight expert batiking women have free rein to fill in the details with whatever details they like. He shows us how he gets tiny crackles in certain sections by wetting the cloth with a sponge, applying pure paraffin wax back and front and then gently massaging it with fingertips from the back. Next he shows us the two stage dyeing process with napthol dyes and salts.  In the house we look through a big pile of his work and most people get a small sample to take home.

Our final visit is to the local batik supply shop – there’s thick brown sticky wax, creamy micro-crystalline wax, and white paraffin wax. There are remasol dyes, napthol dyes and dye salts which are sold by the gram and weighed out into tiny plastic bags. There are cantings and “wajan” the little wok shaped bowl which holds the wax and everything the local batik workers need.

Finally dripping with sweat after another hard day of intensive research we get back to the Duta for our wonderful swim and tea and cake. Aaaahhhh!

Sunday – Taman Sari, a new Hotel and the Sea!

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Today our first visit is to Taman Sari, pleasure gardens and bathing pools of former Sultans. It’s a beautiful place with blue pools, arched windows, and huge terracotta pots in an almost Moorish style. There are glimpses of lovely scenes everywhere, much of it is still in ruins but some including the swimming pools have been restored and its a very atmospheric place. From a little room with an enormous stone bed we imagine the Sultan or one of his court officials looking out at the bathing girls and making his choice!

Apparently Taman Sari fell into disuse after an earthquake in the mid 18th century and then was taken over by homeless people until restoration started in 1970s. Many people still live amongst the ruins of Taman Sari and there are lots of little batik studios and shops, meaning lots more opportunities for more retail therapy. It looks a really pleasant place to live with birds singing in their lovely bamboo cages, and plants and greenery everywhere.

On to our favourite little café – The Water Castle Café where we can subside and regroup. There is a festival and a bazaar run by “Sekar Jegad” which is the Jogyakarta association of batik lovers (another Batik Guild indeed!) with stalls of individual batik sellers from around Java. There is a stage and we have to sit through a loud and rather tuneless singer who is on the mic although there are a couple of ladies who are clearly enjoying it (probably her mum and auntie) But  a troupe of dancers dressed in splendour start to assemble. There are brightly dressed monkeys, ogres, masked fools, heroes and Cakil a rubber limbed youth who keeps having to readjust his beard and teeth. They are led by some rather effete but beautiful young men in sunglasses. The band starts up their hypnotic groove and a very ordinary looking chap in a zipped up leather jacket (the temperature is sweltering) takes to the microphone – and against the odds, he has a fantastic voice. The troupe begin their dance with tiny rhythmical head movements and it’s very hard to tear ourselves away from it.

We go back to the Duta and manage to get most of our suitcases and bodies on to the bus which is taking us to our new hotel – the D’Omah which is out on the road to Parangtritis about 8 kilometres south towards the sea. Our rooms are gob-smacking as are the surroundings, a field of very ripe rice in front of the hotel, antiques and art work amongst lily ponds and spring fed stone swimming pools.

Once we have got over the excitement that we are actually going to be staying here for the next 3 days, we get on a bus and head south to the coast. We cross a huge river which comes directly from Merapi volcano and on to the volcanic black sand beach at Parangtritis. There are “prahus” Javanese boats with outriggers on either side and hordes of Javanese families enjoying Sunday at the beach. The sea is wild and huge and very dangerous – several people drown here each year. Its slow progress to walk along the beach as we are a novelty here and have to keep posing for photos with Indonesian families.

Back to the D’Omah in time for “Rijstaffel” – a Dutch invention and another new experience. 15 delicious dishes are served by 15 gorgeous young men all dressed in batik sarongs and lurik jackets. They bring the food in from across the rice field all lit by flaming torches. It’s quite an arresting sight! Good music, good food, good company, all in all a good night.

Monday – the Masterclass

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Its the start of our three day masterclass at the Brahma Tirta Sari studio run by Nia Fliamm and Agus Ismoyo. Nia is an American artist who came to Java in 1983 to learn batik from the ladies of the Kraton and Agus is the seventh child of a long line of cap batik makers from Solo. His father was a teacher of Javanese philosophy and the two of them met, married and set up their studio together in 1985. It is a true collaboration between the traditions of Java and the freedom and aesthetic of the West and makes their work unique and fascinating. We are shown around the Gallery and Nia and Agus explain that much of their work has involved collaborations with indigenous groups from other cultures. They have worked with two Aborigine groups in Australia, native Americans in Washington State and with “bogolan” mud cloth makers in Mali, Africa.

After that we go deeper into the Javanese countryside to a lovely space set in a garden with various buildings to sit and work with the canting, the cap, and the dyes. Before we start to work, we get our first lesson in Javanese philosophy which underpins all the arts and crafts of Java particularly music, dance, puppetry, kris making and of course… batik

Nia and Agus talked about the UNESCO citation of 2009 which awarded Indonesian batik status as a piece of “intangible cultural heritage”, the huge effect this has had and how an intangible heritage can be passed on. They introduced us to two important Javanese concepts – “rasa” – an intuitive sensitivity towards something and “tribuwono” – the three worlds or spheres. These are the microcosm or self, the macrocosm of the rest of the world and the greater light or spirit. The artist (which includes anyone who wants to be creative) can draw upon this creative spirit and channel it.

Agus talked about the importance of Mother Earth and Father Sky who give us food and breath – we cannot live without both of these things. He talked about trees and plants in the natural world; some bear fruit, some have flowers which are lovely to look at and some are useful as herbs or medicines and in other ways. That is like us, we are not all the same and we don’t have to be. We can take our inspiration from the natural world which sustains us.

He talked about the master craftsman who makes the famous wavy bladed ceremonial dagger called a “kris”. He mixes metals but the shape of the pattern on the blade is never pre-designed – it emerges from the hope and the spirit which the blacksmith “empu” or craftsman puts into it. This “hope” whether blacksmith or batik maker transfers itself to the wearer or user of the object. 

Full of inspiration (!) we went to our waxpots looking out onto beautiful tress and plants and did a meditation exercise to ground our feet and feel energy through our hands. We were asked to feel as if we were batiking with our whole bodies. Breathe and relax and let the canting take us where it wanted to and let the drips be part of it – don’t be afraid of the drips!

Now much encouraged, we were raring to go. One of the wonderful things about the workshop was the team of expert dyers available in the dyeing area to colour our work with any colour we could imagine, using napthol and indigosol dyes and salts. Our homework overnight was to conceive of a symbol for ourselves – our own symbol which would signify what was important to us and our lives.

Back to the D’Omah for a swim, a lie down, some food, a chat, and a chance to assimilate all that new and exciting information.

Tuesday – a whole new world of caps

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Our second day begins with a talk about the three most important symbols in Java batik : the kawung, the parang and the semen design. All of these were once forbidden designs only to be worn by the Sultan his family or court officials. If you wore one fraudulently you could even end up in prison. This was liberated by Humenku Buwono IX the father of the present Sultan who helped get the Dutch out of Indonesia. He saw his reign as the “Era of the People” and democratised society.  As part of this he relaxed these sumptuary laws and now these motifs are seen very commonly in Java on batik cloth and wood, but also painted onto trains, streets and even planes!

Kawung is a symbol found all over the world – in ancient Egypt, Persia, native Americans, in ancient Rome. It symbolises the four directions, four colours and water and knowledge or wisdom. It is worn by the wayang puppet “Semar” – an ancient character who predates Hinduism and is the earth god of Java. 

Parang is the diagonal knife design which symbolises fire. There are dozens of different parang designs: parang barong (big knife) was worn exclusively by the Sultan and parang klitik (small knife) by his family.  It was worn by warriors and to solve problems by rasa: intuitive sensitivity.

Semen is the symbol of Tribuwono the 3 worlds. it depicts nature with the jungle and plants and sometimes birds and butterflies, and also a little house symbol which has also the significance of “me, myself” The background may be white (reality, the “seen”) or dark (the unseen, the spirit world)

At the ceremony of “siraman” the day before a wedding when the bride and groom are bathed by their family, the parents and grandparents often wear semen designs. The Sultans wear this powerful cloth at their coronation in the form of a “dodot” a cloth which is 2.5 times the normal size.

Then we are back to out batik pots and begin work with meditation to relax and energise. Ismoyo gives us a beautifully clear demonstration of how to use the caps and the day whizzes past as we combine silk, cotton, cap and tulis work and not forgetting work on our personal symbol. 

Later we have a lovely evening all together, helped along by a generous contribution of wine – a real luxury in Java!

Wednesday- The significance of the kris and finishing our work

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We start today with a contemplation of the kris knife and its place in the Javanese cultural and spiritual life. Agus Ismoyo shows us just 2 of his collection of 22 krises, all handed down through his family. Kris is another example of intangible heritage and has been recognised by UNESCO as such. A true kris (not just a decorative one made for the tourism industry) is made by an “empu” a master craftsman who can channel the spiritual energy of the universe into his work which then imbues the object with a powerful energy and transfers itself to the user. Krises were never used as weapons but always as ceremonial and symbolic objects tucked into the back of a man’s sarong. Even during the uprisings against the Dutch, sharpened bamboo was used as a weapon, never the kris.

A kris is made by combining 5 metals including meteorite and they are combined in no set pattern. The “pamur” or patina which emerges is unique and unpredictable but once it emerges it signifies the purpose, character and function of each kris. The empu weaves the metals with his hopes.

As with the other fine arts of Java, (batik, wayang and budoyo dance) the artist or craftsman needs “a pure heart” to do this work and before beginning it will fast, pray and make offerings of flowers and incense. There are now just 2 empu left in Jogya province living in Imogiri and they are the 16th generation of kris makers. The kris is seen in one of the strongest symbols in batik the parang motif (symbolising fire, enthusiasm and energy) Another fascinating insight into the deep philosophical system which informs Javanese arts and how the various art forms interact with each other. I have been coming to Java for almost 30 years, but there is always so much more to learn.

On with the caps and the tulis work, we keep the dyeing guys working non stop – with our work all pegged up in little piles with the next colour we want written on pieces of paper.

We use some indigosol dye today which develops slowly in the ultra violet rays of the sun (so this can only be done when the sun is shining) and gives more pastel shades. Once enough cloths are finished we can begin to boil the wax out and as with every process we have come across, this is done carefully and systematically to get the very best results.

The cloth is washed with detergent and then gathered up from the top and dipped several times (like a “spear”) into boiling water which is also a fixative (with the addition of gelatinous “water glass” or sodium silicate) When half is clean it is turned round and the other half done. Next it is washed out carefully and if needed it will go into the boiling water again. The dyes are incredibly colour fast and there is absolutely no fear of them dripping or seeping into other cloths even when wet.

As darkness fell we came together to share some of our pieces, an explanation of our personal symbol piece and one or two of our favourites. Everyone had some wonderful work to show. Back to the hotel absolutely shattered after a long and tiring but satisfying day and the end of our “Masterclass”.

Thursday – Borobodur temple and Mount Merapi

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We are up with the muezzin and all his mates singing their hearts out at 4 am. This time it serves us well as a wake up call so we were ready for the bus at 5am. Clutching our “breakfast boxes” we head through the quiet streets out to the world famous temple of Borobudur on a relatively cool and cloudy day, a journey of around 2 hours

We arrive at a large car park in neat parkland with few people around, and are greeted in a cool entrance glass hall and each given a blue and white sarong to tie round our waists. An excellent guide explains how the structure of the Buddhist temple was built around a small hill as far back as 8th century. This huge Buddhist temple has a base of 118 m x 118m and has several times been buried under volcanic ash and been hidden from view by vegetation. Sir Stamford Raffles when he was governor of Java in the early 19th century heard about its existence from locals and organised an early excavation but the restoration began with the Dutch early in 20th century interrupted by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and even bomb attacks. It is now a World Heritage Site and is Indonesia’s most visited tourist attraction.

The impressive huge grey stone structure seems calm and we wonder at the intricate carvings which depict stories of good and evil, passion and a search for Nirvana. Nearer the top the circular walks are said to lead us towards this state of profound peace of mind passing bell shaped constructions (stupas) and many carvings of the Buddha (often headless). At the top is the largest stupa, which is said to be the largest in the world, and it certainly is big.

Unfortunately for us we are destined never to achieve Nirvana or that profound peace of mind as hundreds of excited children and young students of English from local schools come racing around the walkways, taking photos of themselves and wanting to talk to us and include us in their photos. We beat a hasty retreat to cool shade under trees until everyone is ready to walk down this extraordinary monument and learn more from the museum’s excellent photos and displays. Avoiding, with difficulty, the trinket sales’ people we return to the bus and head off to see two smaller Buddhist temples, Mendut with its impressive 3 metre Buddha and Pawon. These two temples lead from Borobudur in a straight line and are somehow ritualistically linked.

After a stop for lunch at a very impressive silver factory and showroom, we drive higher and higher until we reach the village of Kaliurang to view Mount Merapi, the famous very active volcano which looms over Jogyakarta. We arrive at the main viewing area on the volcano – a good safe distance away. The strong sulphur smell, the blasted tree trunks and the grey soil leave us in no doubt that this is indeed the “Fire Mountain”. The last major eruption was not long ago in 2010 when many people had to flee their homes, and those who refused to go did not survive the huge ash clouds, lava flow and blasting heat and 300 people died included the volcano’s “spiritual keeper”.

We decide against racing on 4 x 4 vehicles or motorbikes any further (although there are some who like that sort of thing) but we do manage to glimpse the highest parts of the cones through drifting thin clouds. The luxuriant vegetation close by on cooled lava flows, small houses on the steep roadside and groups of visitors seemed dwarfed by this huge natural wonder nearly 3,000 metres high. 

 

Friday and Saturday – The end of the Trip

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Today is a day for doing just whatever we all want to do – for one of us it means getting up at 1.30 and leaving at 2 am for a very early morning trek up Merapi an emotional and unforgettable experience*, for some it means mounting another assault on the stalls and shops of Jalan Malioboro and for others it means a quiet day swimming in the pools, having lunch and chatting to Tatang, a very nice chap who makes batik in the nearby village and is coincidentally a relative of Susi’s.

Later in the day the first of our party begins to leave and those of us left behind start to feel a little bereft as we realise that this fantastic trip is coming to an end. Tomorrow we say our goodbyes to the D’Omah Hotel. Warwick Purser, the owner is looking out for the arrival of a very important guest – one of former President Sukarno’s daughters. She is coming to stay in the Private Villa at a mere US$250 a night.

On Saturday, those of us who are left round off the trip by going back to the Duta (which now looks slightly tatty after the grandeur of the D’Omah, but feels very much like home) where we had started. There’s plenty more to do in Jogya such as a fabulous morning cooking Indonesian food, more trips to the market and shops, massages, swimming and just enjoying this wonderfully laid back city.

Great company, great visits, great people, great memories, great photos and great batik!

Would I do it again? Yes most definitely. It was a memorable trip for me. I was able to show a group of people who love textiles just how wonderful Java is. They were able to look beyond the poverty and degraded environment to see the richness of the culture, the calm and friendly attitude of the Javanese people and the satisfactions of a very different way of life. If you have been inspired to think about coming on a trip to Java maybe next year or the following one, please get in touch!

*Footnote: Tracy took a trek up as far as she was allowed the following morning and just three days later, early on Monday morning there was a minor eruption sending a cloud of black ash 2 kms into the sky. People from surrounding villagers were evacuated but things later returned to normal. Ash fell into the streets of Solo, but in Jogya it was a beautiful day and Merapi was clearer than ever. 

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