Bewitched by colours, magic of ‘ulos’

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The writer trying on the ‘ulos ragidup’ woven by the ‘ulos’ weaver seated on the foreground, at Kampung Ulos Hutaraj in Samosir District.

Batak entrepreneur strives to uphold legacy of community’s traditional hand-woven shawl

DURING a recent trip to the Batak Highlands in North Sumatra with my family, I spent some time in the capital city of Medan shopping for ‘ulos’, which are the renowned Batak hand-woven shawls, to bring back home.

Whilst there I had the privilege of meeting Inang Sianipar at Gallery Ulos Sianipar, the city’s leading ‘ulos’ gallery at Jalan AR Hakim. Sianipar was a hospitable woman with a charming personality and like most Batak women, she is forthright and expressive in her thoughts.

That made my search for ‘ulos’ a fruitful and creative adventure. She was a source of inspiration, freely sharing her expertise and experience with ‘ulos’.

“In the Batak tradition, our children are our wealth. Investing in our children is our top priority, and we would do all we can just to give them good education,” said Inang Sianipar, adding that a family in the village would even sell the sole buffalo the family has to fund a child’s university education in a top university in Java.

Sianipar with the writer at the gallery.

‘Our children are our wealth’

Sianipar, 74, who hails from Balige, a district in Toba Regency of North Sumatra Province, Indonesia, has eight children.

I could see the pride in her eyes as she talked about her children, all of them having their own families, professions and businesses.

It was at ‘Galeri Ulos Sianipar’ (Ulos Sianipar Gallery) in Medan that I met this enterprising septuagenarian. When I stepped into the gallery, I saw her busy tending to some of the clients who were clearly absorbed in the wide array of ‘ulos’.

I was told by our driver that she was the owner of the gallery. Before long, I was having a discussion with her.

Her late husband and her founded the family-run ‘ulos’ company while they were younger. The gallery was set up in 1992 when her second son took over the business, which has expanded and earned a niche in the native textile industry across Indonesia.

The success of the gallery is indeed a testimony to her hard work and belief that ‘our children are our wealth’.

Workers at the Ulos Gallery Sianipar’s ‘Ulos’ weaving workshop.

Integral part of Batak culture

‘Ulos’ is a hand-woven traditional Batak shawl, which is a treasured heirloom of the Batak community comprising six sub-ethnic groups: Batak Toba, Batak Pak Pak, Batak Mandailing, Batak Karo, Batak Simalungun and Batak Angkola.

There are slight variation of patterns and motifs of the ‘ulos’ across the Batak tribal groups.

The ‘ulos’ literally means blanket. For the Bataks who inhabit the mountainous highlands surrounding Lake Toba in North Sumatra, the ‘ulos’ originally functioned as a blanket to keep their body warm because of the cold temperature in the highlands.

Later, it became an integral part of their culture and now, it is widely worn by the community. Almost every Batak household in Indonesia and those in overseas has at least a few of the treasured pieces. These are worn either over a modern or traditional attire during weddings, funerals and other religious and formal events.

The woven textiles, which come in different patterns and colours, convey different meanings. Each of them has its own unique patterns and designs suited for functional purpose. For the most part, the ‘ulos’ symbolises the bond of love between parents and their children.

Sianipar showed me a bright red ‘ulos’ with white, light yellow and brown motifs and edged with a big maroon coloured stripe on both sides.

“This is ‘ulos sadum’, which is usually worn during social gatherings and other joyous occasions. It is often given as gifts to special guests, family members and friends as it symbolises joy,” she said.

‘Ulos’, the traditional woven fabric in all its uniqueness and beauty, is getting popular among tourists, fashion enthusiasts and Indonesians at large.

Ceremonial significance

Sianipar also showed me the other ‘ulos,’ such as ‘ulos ragidup,’ ‘ulos ragi hotang,’ ‘ulos mangiring,’ ‘ulos bintang marutur’ and ‘ulos sibolang’ – each with its own ceremonial significance.

‘Ulos ragidup’ (Pattern of Life) is one of my favourites, apart from ‘sadum.’ Symbolising long life and happiness, the design is rather unique. It has three sections, which have to be woven in stages – two on each side, and one in the middle which has three parts.

Usually decked with tiny beads, they require a lot of patience to weave because the motifs are intricate.

The ‘ragidup’ is the most sacred textile in the Batak custom. An essential element in Batak marriage rites, the ‘ulos’ is wrapped around the mother of the groom by the father of the bride as a ceremonial gift.

In death, the ‘ragidup’ enshrouds the deceased and, years later, is used to wrap his or her bones when they are disinterred for ritual reburial.

There is also a special ‘ulos’ for wedding couples – the ‘ulos ragi hotang,’ which is usually red, black or white in colour. These are the main colours of the traditional textile, apart from yellow. The rattan motifs that run horizontally across the ‘ulos’ symbolise everlasting bond between the newlyweds.

The ‘ulos’ is ceremoniously wrapped over the shoulders of the bride and bridegroom, which symbolically binds the newlyweds together as one. This also denotes warm protection over their bodies and souls.

Photo from the family album shows the writer’s sister-in-law, Hileria Panjaitan, performing the ‘mangulosi pengantin’ (placing the ‘ulos’ over the newlyweds) ceremony with ‘ulos ragi hotang’, at her (writer’s) daughter’s wedding.

When my daughter was married in Kuching many years ago, my late sister-in-law Hileria Panjaitan – a Batak Toba and the wife of my husband’s brother – performed the ‘mangulosi pengantin,’ or placing the ‘ulos’ over the newlyweds at their wedding banquet.  The act of ‘mangulosi’ signifies the desire of the giver to extend warmth and protection to the recipients. According to Batak belief, the sun, fire and ‘ulos’ are the three sources of human warmth.

I could see the pride on my husband’s face, being a Batak Toba himself, as his sister-in-law did the ‘tortor’ (a traditional Batak dance) all the way to the stage as she flaunted the ‘ulos’ in her hands for the ceremony.

The ‘ulos’ has remained an indelible part of the Batak ethnic culture irrespective of religion and tribal group. It is the pride of the community worn at every function with little attention given to its old ancient ritual significance. It has become a symbol of blessing and unity.

Efforts of government and local community

Ulos Sianipar Gallery is one of the many ‘ulos’ production houses that have benefitted from the coordinated efforts of the Northern Sumatra community and the government in upgrading the quality and productivity of ‘ulos’, and today, they are also producing and promoting the Batak ‘songket’, which is hand-woven textile used as ‘sarong’ and shawl.

It has increased in production over the years and to date has more than 400 workers, most of them are ‘ulos’ and ‘songket’ weavers. The gallery is a living proof that a person can make a living from her weaving skills.

“The women here are hardworking so that they’re able to send their children to school.

“Some of our weavers are women whose husbands are rickshaw pullers. You also find husband and wife working alongside as weavers,” she said.

“In business, we must have a kind heart. Here, we are able to provide employment to anyone who needs a job regardless of their ethnic or religious background.

“We support each other and that is why we can hardly find jobless people around,” she said.

“Respect is very important and that is why we provide prayer rooms for our Muslim workers. They can go for prayers anytime, just as our Christian workers can take their time off to go to church or prayer meetings,” Sianipar added.

Sianipar taking pride in her Batak ‘songket’.

Earmarked as Unesco’s heritage

Productivity can be stepped up using digital technology while blockchain technology ensures the supply chain to markets in Indonesia and beyond.

The designation of ‘ulos’ as a living heritage of Unesco is imminent.

Once on the verge of extinction, the traditional woven fabric is once again becoming popular among tourists, fashionistas, and Indonesians in general, because the ‘ulos’ can be worn by both sexes, regardless of age, depending on the design and colour.

This is made possible by the combined efforts of the government, the North Sumatran community, and production companies like the Gallery Ulos Sianipar.

Today, every Batak wears the ‘ulos’ with pride in all important occasions.

It is a definer of cultural identity and pride. Whether inherited from the elders or purchased from the local weavers in Toba-Samosir, no Batak home is complete without an ‘ulos’.