The Ikat textiles of Lamalera, East Nusa Tenggara

One of Indonesia’s most precious cultural elements, a heritage that is increasingly becoming lost in the currents of modernity, is the noble art of ikat weaving. In the past, ikat was once the pride of the archipelago, and almost every region produced its own ikat motifs and styles. Today however, very few regions still produce these traditional fabrics.

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One such region, hidden in relative obscurity among the archipelago’s tens of thousands of islands, deserves a special look, as it may just be one of the most unique places in the whole country, if not the world. The area in question is a small village located in East Nusa Tenggara on the island of Lembata. The village earns its living hunting whales, sperm whales to be precise. Hunters from the area’s Lamalera community hunt whales, stingrays, dolphins and other oceanic game using entirely traditional methods that consist of a pledang (a wooden boat) and a kefa (a three-metre long spear used to make the kill).

What makes the Lamalera ikat so unique is that both hunter and hunted are incorporated into their ikat motifs. The depiction of a community’s way of life, culture, sociology, origins and yes, even the source of its livelihood, in its ikat design motifs is a fascinating feature of traditional Indonesian ikat weaving, and the Lamalera ikat are perhaps some of the best examples of this.

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As is common in traditional villages across the archipelago, there exists a clear division of labour in the village of Lamalera. The men hunt at sea, while the women weave ikat cloth for everyday and ritual uses, as well as for trade or barter, and the results can be tracked down in the area’s traditional markets.

Lamalera ikat falls broadly into two categories: cloth for everyday use and cloth for ritual purposes. In addition, ikat motifs for use by males and females differ, and this can clearly be seen as one walks around the village. The ikat fabrics worn by the men resemble sarongs, and feature simpler motifs and designs in comparison with those worn by the village women.

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The most prestigious ikat are those specifically woven for traditional events, and are known as kwatek nai rua and kwatek nai telo. Diamonds, octagonal stars, manta rays, sharks’ teeth, volcanoes and boats are all motifs that can be found on kwatek nai rua and kwatek nai telo fabrics, and it is said that it can take up to two full years to make a single cloth! The traditional colours used on these special ikat are usually indigo and red. Due to their supposed sanctity, kwatek nai rua and kwatek nai telo ikat are worn only during very special or important rituals, and are even used as dowries on occasions.

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