It was fairly late in the day to “just set out”. 2 pm and we still hadn’t found any of the yarn-making equipment that we were looking for to demonstrate the ancient textile techniques that haven’t been practiced in many places for more than a century. We were getting no luck. There were so many people who said that they had the equipment, but they were people who didn’t know the difference between weaving and yarn-making and we were led again and again to looms rather than spinning wheels. Museums didn’t have it in their collections or their collections were inaccessible. Some remembered having had the equipment, but when they searched for it, they came up empty-handed. Some had burned it as firewood because it no longer had any use. We could have found the items if we had been looking 30 years ago. That was when Ompu Sihol had showed me her equipment. And I remember that the spinning wheels were hard to come by even then. We need a pipisan to squeeze the pits out of the cotton, a busur to fluff it, a sorha to spin the fibres, and an iraniran to wrap the spun yarn.
Where to go next? What to do? Where to turn? Like looking for a needle in a haystack. Every house that we pass as we drive down the Samosir roads may have a piece of the equipment stored there somewhere. How many have we passed without knowing it? Or have we reached the stage when there really is not a single one left in the Batak area?
And now we were heading for Sianjur Mulamula, the village, as its name says, where the Batak people originate. Si Boru Deak Parujar, the goddess of weaving, the Earth Mother, came down there from the upper world on her spun yarn. This was her village on the edge of Pusuk Buhit, navel mountain. If I could name a place where I would most like to find this equipment and see it demonstrated, it would be Sianjur Mulamula, the village of origins. It was late to head in that direction and it was a long shot. I didn’t know anybody there, but I had a longing to go there again (especially since I didn’t go there in June) . I have only been there twice, very briefly, before. So we tossed caution to the wind and simply set out. Pak Jerry, thankfully, was, as always, up for the adventure.
Jerry and Nashir and I pretending to be relaxed, but we were sitting
on the edge of a precipice. Nashir used the self-timer on the camera.
Limbong was the first village where we stopped. We pulled up beside an enormous mausoleum being constructed by a ragged crew. I called out in Batak to one of the workers and he came over to talk with us. He had a beautiful face and was friendly, but he tried to discourage us. Our search would be fruitless, he said. The ancient houses had been renovated and in the process they had been cleaned out. Besides, most things had been sold in the 1980s. I couldn’t tell if he was being realistic or a good gate-keeper. In any case, we could not afford to be discouraged, so we pressed on, back to the main road. At Sianjur Mulamula, I saw a road leading to the right and asked Pak Jerry to back up and turn into it. It took us to another village.
The area is spectacular: rocks and boulders strewn everywhere, or nicely arranged into formidable walls. Many traditional-looking villages with ancient Batak houses are made of pillars and planks so huge that one is left gasping at the knowledge that the forests of old-growth trees that once grew here must have been spectacular giants. The villages are now modest brown blotches nestled against the sides of the mountains. The open stretches are desolately beautiful, or deliciously fertile patchworks generously supplied with water from laughing, gurgling streams originating in the hills. This area even feels more ancient than any other area in Batak country. The magical origins are almost tangible.
In that next village, we were greeted by a man who seemed unperturbed by our visit and quite open to whatever our plans might be. I always worry about disturbing the peace and privacy of the inhabitants of a village knowing that in the past a visitor was required to request permission from the village leader in order to enter legitimately. I put my question about yarn-making equipment to this easy-going man and he pointed to an elderly woman who had difficulties straightening her back and walked bent over. Later, I would learn that she was Ompu Sabar, the Grandmother of Sabar. She set off to look for her spinning wheel (sorha) and disappeared into a Batak house on stilts behind us. A while later, a younger man followed her with a bleached, wooden ladder, wider at the base and narrower at the top. Then we saw them on the veranda of the house where musical instruments used to be installed during Batak rituals. Eventually both re-emerged on the village plain. Once again, no luck.
Mas Nashir sitting at the corner of the house where
Ompu Sabar looked for her old spinning wheel.
A crowd of elderly women had gathered at the base of the sopo. When I explained our desire to document ancient weaving techniques, they all turned out to be former weavers who remembered the techniques and began to pantomime them, complete with sound-effects and outbursts of laughter and enjoyment. The mood was warming up and becoming festive. In this village of origins, we had found women who knew the first steps in the weaving process: the production of yarn. But they were also the last of their kind and represented the end of the tradition. All of them elderly grandmothers.
One of them, especially, was a ham and most detailed in her representation of the making of yarn. Suddenly she called across to the young woman living in the house on stilts next door, asking her to bring over the hapas Palembang. I couldn’t believe my ears? Hapas Palembang? Suddenly, in this village of origins, we had stumbled across the very origins of textile-making: the fibre. After we had gone to so much trouble to ship some cotton here from Bali? What was this Palembang cotton used for? I braced myself against all reason to hear that they were still making yarn, but that was silly. They had one little shrub, less than 1 year old, and the little bit of cotton that it had managed to yield they were going to stuff into a cushion. But our elderly former weaver was able to show us how she extracted pits from it and roll it up to make bundles ready for weaving.
The film project had perhaps switched to Plan B. If it was no longer possible to demonstrate the old techniques because too much time had elapsed, it would be possible to show how it was remembered, in pantomime, by older women. The film would be about the last remaining memories of the last weavers.
The elderly weavers were uncomfortable using Indonesian and spoke a pure Batak. Many, though not all, were illiterate. Their way of speaking reminded me of Ompu Sihol, although their weaving vocabulary was closer to what is used in the northern regions of Lake Toba and not the Samosir Island region to the south. We passed the time in silly hilarity, not yet having time to let our discoveries sink in. But I still had hope that they might be inspired by our generosity and the good mood that prevailed and may begin to expand the search for the missing equipment. We exchanged mobile phone numbers with members of the younger generation in the village.
The next day it occurred to me that, given the memory of one weaver and the presence of her cotton, we could go back and at the very least film, in a detailed fashion, the making of luli pinale, the rolags or rolls prepared for spinning. The only equipment required was a plank and a couple of joints of narrow bamboo. So we went back to do this, carefully, in the sopo, the rice barn where weaving traditionally took place. We didn’t have a plank especially for the job, but used the lovely planks of the floor of the sopo. Ompu Sabar handed several of her hasoli (bamboo joints used for wrapping weft) up to us, so we were set to make luli pinale.
We are now carrying around our little bundles of carefully rolled cotton, still in the hopes that we will stumble across a spinning wheel. They said that they had located an iran2 or reel in the meantime, but none of the other required pieces of equipment.
Our search continues, but we have the origins down pat: the cotton plant, the plucking of the cotton, the de-pitting of it by hand, the fluffing of it by hand and the making of the rolls or rolags to prepare it for spinning.