Nusa Penida weaving at Tanglad (Dijkman 2007)

Traditional weaving revived

Traditionally, many inhabitants of Nusa Penida used to spin their own thread from locally grown cotton plants and weave their uniquely designed cloths. The cotton plants, however, found the climate too harsh and did not survive the dry climate.

With natural cotton growing scarce and virtually disappearing from the island, and people moving away from the villages to the coast to embark upon more lucrative commercial activities, the interest in weaving all but vanished. Until very recently, that is. In the traditional village of Tanglad, not far from the 'main road' in the southeast corner Nusa Penida, nine people have recently formed a special co-operation programme to preserve the island's nearly lost weaving tradition. The weaving process is a very laborious one, and it takes six to twelve months to finish a cloth ready for use in traditional ceremonies.

Kain Cepuk

Ngurah Hendrawan, a very amicable young man of around 35, is the co-ordinator of the Karya Tenun Ikat Alami Cooperative on Nusa Penida. He steers the nine inhabitants of Tanglad to make sure the right colours are produced and the desired patterns appear on the hand-made sacred fabric called 'kain cepuk'. These ceremonious textiles are used to protect dancers during sacred performances and trance rituals. Ngurah is from Tanglad, but spends his time in Ubud, mainland Bali, where he popularizes and sells the fabrics in his traditional handicraft shop. He explains that the tradition of dyeing spun cotton has produced some particularly beautiful cloths, with unique decorative patterns.

One of them is the 'bintang kurungan' or 'caged star', a rather odd name for a pattern as beautiful as that. Ketut, an aged woman of probably around 70 years of age - like most elderly people she quite forgot how old she is - was born in Tanglad. Her worn-out face shows signs of a harsh life as a farmer on the island. She sits in the shade of her house behind a loom to show her expertise as a back-strap weaver. She learnt the art from her mother, but had to give up on weaving when circumstances demanded so. Now she is back into business, and handles the polished pieces of wood for inserting thread and various other instruments with great aptitude and patience. She demonstrates weaving of modern cloth, a fabric made from industrially produced thread, with colour nuances quite different from the traditionally dyed filaments. In fact, the colouring of the fabric she is making looks quite bleak and artificial compared with the way the villagers used to dye their cotton.

Hues of brownish red, yellow and indigo

The colours of the olden days, however, have returned. At present, there are three naturally produced dyes, which constitute the basic and prescribed colouring of any fabric woven here. So far, artistic imagination in what – according to 'adat' regulations - can be produced, is limited. More importantly, the patterns should be exactly in tune with prescribed religious customs. The basic colours are hues of red/brown, yellow and indigo. The reddish-brown colour is made from a plant named 'Mengkudu' or Indian Mulberry (Morinda citrifolia/tinctoria). The bark and root of this tree are cooked together with candlenut oil to give it consistency in order for the colours not to fade with time. The process of cooking is repeated up to seven times, depending of the desired intensity of the red colour. Indigo is made from the nila plant (Indigoferae), of which the leaves are processed with lime and palm sugar. The yellow colour is produced by mixing jackfruit wood and turmeric. These three natural colours combined, in various shades of maturity, make a wonderful display of vividness. Sometimes, when partial colouring is desired, the strings are bound tightly at regular intervals with thin plastic shreds. This way, further dyeing is prevented on the spots where the strings are 'sealed' during subsequent processing. This, too, gives a beautiful effect to the filaments to be used for 'kain cepuk'.

Gertis (1924) on weaving

In 1924, writer A. Gertis gives an interesting account of this, and he describes the dyeing process as follows [square brackets with additional information provided by author Godi Dijkman]

Along the north coast (...) many people wear "cap" kains. Towards the interior of the island, however, up to the third plateau at 500m altitude, and further to the south all the way down to the villages along the south coast, the click-clack of the looms can be heard and one discovers people wearing indigenous fabrics, which are very strong.

Amongst these fabrics, the "sindjang-djepoh" kain shows a particularly beautiful motif. Noesa Penide is, by the way, very capable of solving the clothing issue independently and without outside help. Kapas [Gossypium obtusifolium, Cotton tree] is being planted everywhere, not to satisfy export demands, but to supply the necessary raw materials to the home weaving industry.

Ginning the kapas balls and the making of the strong and sturdy thread, a raw kind of yarn, is done by elderly and infirm women, who can no longer do the strenuous work around the limestone rocks. Everywhere in the kampung, these old dears are seen to work on this, using primitive tools made by the population itself. Once sufficient yarn has been spun, the strings are then dyed in various colours. Hues of red are generally most frequent.

The population is self-supporting too where it concerns the production of dyes. The sap stamped from the roots of the Kunyir [Curcuma domestica, Tumeric] plant yields all hues of yellow, depending on the added amount of water. If Candlenuts are roasted, stamped and mixed with a little water, they will provide dark to black dye. Not only the ripe fruits of the Kepundung [Baccaurea ssp., Menteng] and Tiba trees [Morinda citrifolia/tinctoria, Indian Mulberry) are eaten, but also the bark is useful for producing a red dye. The colour green is obtained by mixing yellow with brown-black. A single immersion in Kunyir sap generally suffices to produce a yellow colour; the other colours are only permanent after the yarn has been immersed a few times during two to three days in the dye.

Older and unsightly, for the most part reddish-brown coloured fabrics, are sometimes offered in Bali for dire money, as they were apparently ancient Noesa Penide kains dyed with human blood. On Nusa Penide, however, there is no evidence at all of the fact that human blood was used in the dyeing process; nobody had ever heard of the fact that formerly human blood has been used to produce dyes.

The story seems to be fabricated by sly saleswomen whose sole aim seemed to be to make a maximum profit from the tourists from this kind of tales.Once the yarn has reached the desired colour, it is put on the looms and the weaving can begin. In the Baleh tanah, a house without walls, or underneath a rice barn the weavers of the surrounding houses dedicate themselves to this task in unison.

Altogether it seems to be a privilege of the young women and girls. As soon as we approached, they would put aside the yoke with which the threads were tightened into the loom, and they would run inside."

Granny Made Rami

For anyone interested in traditional weaving, local culture and history, it is worth strolling around the village of Tanglad. It is situated at some 400m altitude and this village represents Nusa Penida culture in its essence. During a walk through this lovely village, one may bump into some of the most remarkable characters. One of those truly splendid people is the almost 100 years old granny Made Rami. She, too, is quite oblivious of her age and is the surviving memory of the island, having lived through such arguably ghastly events as the massive killings that took place during the anti-communist witch-hunt in 1965-66, and the Dutch occupation of the island from 1890s onward. In Balinese, a variation of the language used on Bali itself, she recounts that she frequently underwent harsh treatment during the colonial period, and was forced to work without wages, most probably as a slave. She even vaguely remembers the stories of the vast numbers of 'unwanted' individuals exiled for execution to Nusa Penida from the Radjadom of Gelgel (Klungkung), on mainland Bali, around 1850.

Grandma Rami is a former dancer, and must have worn all those lovely cloths in her various performances over the years. Certain moments only, she radiates when telling the tales of forlorn days. Then, suddenly, she grows silent again, casting her eyes towards the ground. She talks to Ngurah Hendrawan in a subdued voice, who then comments she is tired of living and is awaiting death. But despite her lowly demeanour, she smiles faintly, adjusts her near-white hair and headband, and gets up. She then wanders off, stooping to avoid the pain in her slender and tainted body towards three antique temples in the centre of Tanglad to perform her religious duties.


  • text by G.Dijkman, Tanglad, July 2007
  • English translation by the author of (a part of) a 1925 article by A.Gertis


social linkedin box white 24text: Godi Dijkman