Monday, October 19, 2015

A celebration of intangible heritage? I don't think so.

Certificate of registry from FB page of Enni Martalena Pasaribu
A year ago, the Indonesian Ministry of Culture registered traditional Batak ‘ulos’ as ‘warisan budaya tak benda nasional’, that is, ‘national intangible cultural heritage’. This was celebrated in Jakarta and North Sumatra on 17 October 2015 as National Ulos Day with the additional resolve to make it an annual event.  
Invitation and line-up of events
from FB page of Enni Martalena
The event was celebrated in grand style. There were the requisite speeches; the festive Batak traditional music (gondang) was played, and traditional dances (tortor) were performed; a fashion show of clothing items made of ulos was staged; MJA Nashir’s and my film Rangsa ni Tonun about Toba Batak weaving techniques was shown, and Panusunan Simanjuntak recited his poem about ulos to a highly appreciative audience. Everybody was asked to wear ulos and they did. There was pride, even euphoria.

Panusunan Simandjuntak recited his poem about ulos.
Photo credit: Tatan Daniel

I am here in The Netherlands and I can do little more than follow the proceedings on Facebook. At one point I made a comment that the ulos tradition could also be celebrated as tangible heritage (budaya benda). It is difficult to determine from Facebook reports where the ‘intangible’ part came into the celebrations (or even if it was the intention), but my remark about Batak tangible heritage was meant to make people think about the difference between intangible and tangible ulos.

As far as I have been able to determine, the usual things were being cited about ulos: it is a sign of Batak identity, a carrier of blessings  from wife-givers to wife-takers, and a vehicle of prayer because without it prayers are not able to reach the traditional Batak spirit world (not that anybody anymore will confess to believing in that traditional spirit world because it carries an anti-Christian stigma). Was that it, then? Was that the sum of the intangible heritage?

To my mind, there was a sad and deep irony in the celebration of the intangible heritage of ulos because precisely that component has gone extinct. I still wonder if the ‘intangible’ part of ulos was broached in any way on the 17th of October? My concern is that very little is known anymore about the ‘intangible’ part of ulos. If the organizers and those present wanted to celebrate this facet of ulos, would the day not have looked different? I mean this in a literal sense. It looks like the day was based on the status quo of tangible ulos in current times.

From the pictures I saw, most of the textiles worn were of the sadum design type. The sadum is not originally a Toba Batak ulos; it originates from Angkola. It made inroads slowly during the 20th century, first into Silindung, then the rest of Toba, then Simalungun and Karo. Initially it fell outside adat but only towards the end of the last century gradually became accepted, or at least no longer banned, as an adat textile. Now it has become the dominant ulos design eclipsing almost all others (with the occasional exception of the Ragi Hotang, Ragidup and Pinunsaan and the suji Batak). How ironic that people were using precisely this Angkola textile design to celebrate the intangible weaving heritage of the Toba! An unwitting symptom of the extinction of the intangible heritage of the Toba, and not a way to encourage its perpetuation.

Second, I saw that the majority of the ulos being worn had been woven on ATBM (semi-mechanized) looms and not the traditional backstrap loom. They were embellished with synthetic yarns that have nothing to do with the local textile heritage, but are symptomatic of relatively recent external influence. In my experience, intangible ulos heritage is expressed primarily in the traditional way Batak textiles are made on backstrap looms and not just in how they are used in ritual. Rules of design and technique (intangible ulos) result in a physical outing (tangible ulos) of traditional Batak thinking or worldview (intangible heritage). Precisely this has disappeared in ulos production for the market. There are several reasons for this. One is that the Church has discouraged the traditional Batak worldview. Another is that for a long time now, the ulos market has not supported the best work that a weaver can make at the slow tempo required to produce high quality. Now weavers just produce quickly, quickly. They have to compete with the faster production on semi-mechanical looms, and that means that they will always fail. They will always have a sense of being deficient because their work is slower and their income less than that of the factory owner and workers. It has also got to the stage that the quality of their work is also lower.

The longest ulos from FB page of Enni Martalena Pasaribu
I wondered if any component of the celebrations had been designed to encourage the best and traditional work of weavers? Were any weavings commissioned because of their traditional intangible content? I doubt it because that is precisely what has been lost. The ‘longest ulos’ that was celebrated on that day was made on a semi-mechanized loom. Are there any Batak left who remember that very long ulos used to be made on backstrap looms to use during the horja bius, the great annual rite celebrating the continuity of life?

Photo from FB
Third, there was a fashion show of textiles made from so-called ‘ulos’ but from all appearances these had also been made on ATBM looms. Fashionalization is a function of global economic forces that incorporate the indigenous but leave it little or no room to function on its own terms. I perceive fashion production using ulos cloth to be antithetical to the celebration of intangible heritage. Fashion may celebrate the ‘appearance’ of ulos, celebrate two-dimensional design to the exclusion of the multi-dimensional intangible component. Fashion ulos are shown to demonstrate that the Batak have entered the realm of so-called ‘modernity’. Ironic again that people wish to demonstrate that they are modern, when in fact ‘modernity’ is all that they have. Their ancient history of intangible heritage has been lost. Fashion moves the ulos tradition even further away from the great intangible heritage of the past.

I wonder if ulos can be revived. It will be an anachronism if it is revived, a reference to the world of the Batak of the past. I believe there is value in such revival because I notice that many Batak people are hungry and thirsty for knowledge about their heritage. It will yield a fuller understanding of their identity. The days of the past will never return, but a weaving tradition can still be passed down in a treasured, artistic, limited form. Does it still exist anywhere in its intangible form? Because revival of the ulos tradition depends on the accessibility of this intangible knowledge. Intangible knowledge is the inspirational source of the tangible cloth. Did intangible Batak heritage benefit from National Ulos Day? Did backstrap weavers benefit?

I would like to issue a challenge to the organizers of National Batak Ulos Day. I challenge you to harness the energy and the enthusiasm of this ulos celebration in future years to benefit Batak weavers. I challenge you to investigate the ‘intangible character’ of Batak ulos (beyond the function of the cloth) and then make it known for posterity; celebrate it for your children and grandchildren so that future generations may also have access to it. What point is there in celebrating intangible heritage if that heritage is extinct? What exactly was being celebrated on 17 October? Was it perhaps just Batak ethnic pride?


  1. Well thought and said. Provenance matters. Every thread, every throw of the shuttle, every pigment tells the story of the fabric. Bravo Sandra.

    1. Thanks, Carol. Nobody knows this as well as you.