Batik: fabled cloth of Java

My Indonesian experience so far enriched me so much! I am grateful to be living here in Java, Indonesia and to study from professionals the amazing UNESCO certified Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity certified Indonesian textile art, batik. It was one of my dreams to study art formally and this art form is so beautiful and it suits me so much. Besides the technique itself which has its challenges, batik is an art so full of philosophical meaning! Each type of batik says a story.

Batik is a textile art based on the technique of decorating and (repeatedly) dyeing a fabric by using removable wax to save the parts of the fabric that are not intended to be dyed.

Batik is centuries old and the diversity of patterns, motifs and colors used stand as a proof for the cultural diversity that can be found in Indonesia itself which is due to the geographic position of the country that has made it a crossroad of trade, to the successions of religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam) and to the waves of colonization.

Scholars have identified the existence of different batik forms in China, Japan, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Central Asia, Africa, Egypt and Europe but the Javanese have worked passionately and constantly on perfecting this art. The abundance of materials such as wax, vegetable paste, paraffin and dyes and the tropical weather conditions in Java make it a perfect place to nurture a constant development of this art.

applying the wax with the canting
applying the wax with the canting

The design elements used in the Javanese batik reflect the broad and varied history of the island and here I pin point just some of them:

– there are elements such as the lotus or kawung – the interlocking and intersecting circular designs that resemble the seed of life – that can be found in both Hindu and Buddhist temples;

– Islam influence is traceable through the arabesque and the calligraphy designs and the avoidance of human or animal shapes;

– the royal court of Surakarta and the court of the sultan in Yogyakarta have developed each specific designs that were allowed to be wore only within each of the palaces;

– there is even a type of batik, such as the pagi-sore batik which is destined to be used only at specific ceremonies or in specific moments of the day (pagi means morning and sore means afternoon);

– the Chinese, which have established themselves mostly as middle and upper class in the Indonesian society brought to batik motifs such as the lions, dragons and beautiful flowers in bright colors. Also, the Chinese population, who settled mostly in the North of Java, along the coast, with its entrepreneurial skills, opened up a lot of batik workshops, making batik something more like an industry. This industrial start had been seriously challenged in the 20th century by the cheap textile imports from Japan, which led to the closing down of a series of workshops and the unemployment of professional batik makers. This situation lasted a long time, also because of the World War II and the anticolonial struggles, leading to a loss of batik styles and specialties. But once Indonesia gained its independence in August 1947, batik become one of the symbols used for the unification of the nation.

my first batik creation

 

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Today, the industrial textile printing technology made batik patterns extremely affordable and ubiquitous, so one can find them not only on ceremonial clothing, but also as curtains, pillow cases, sheets and other accessories. Still, this type of mass printing, although called batik because of the patterns used, it is not original batik because the waxing and dying processes are completely absent during production. Therefore, experts wouldn’t even call the kind of really cheap, printed batik, batik. Nevertheless, this phenomenon could not go unnoticed because it made batik patterns more popular and the real batik tulis more valued.

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Shortly put, the original technique is as follows: the design is first drawn on paper and then transferred on the previously prepared piece of cotton or silk which is intended to be used. Some very experienced batik professionals could start directly with drawing with wax, as they know the pattern by heart. In order to draw with wax, a tool called canting is used. It looks like a pen, so that is why the batik completed with this so called hand-written technique is called batik tulis, after the Indonesian word for writing, being the most time-consuming and most expensive batik. Another option, available since the 1840s is using a cap, which means a copper stamp designed in the shape of a certain motif, which makes the job far more faster. A lot of batik of nowadays is done by mixing the tulis and the cap techniques, which makes it affordable for a larger audience. After finishing the first wax pattern, dying follows. The more colors are used, the longer the process becomes, as the colors that need to be saved according to the design, are covered with wax on both sides of the cloth, before applying the next color. Eventually the wax is removed and the batik product is finished. Every detail of each of the previously mentioned step should be carefully considered: the texture of the fabric, the wax mixture that is used, the color recipes vary according to each type of design. Some color recipes are family secrets that are passed on!

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the dyeing process

 

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Today, mostly synthetic colors are used, which makes the process faster and cheaper, but originally certain roots and leaves of plants were used to produce the color. Local plants affected the shades of color, making each region of Java to have its characteristic shades.

detail of my latest batik
detail of my latest batik

For me batik is amazing because throughout history and even today the conditions for producing batik have been similar to the ones of sweatshops, but passionate people felt the urge to express themselves creatively into beautiful patterned textiles! Also, the process itself, which requires so much patience, focus and attention, I consider it to be equal to a meditation state, adding to the final product a spiritual dimension.

The importance given to batik in the Indonesian culture of today was recently reinforced during the Indonesian Fashion Week which took place in Jakarta in the beginning of this month of March. One special and highly regarded fashion show of this year was created by Anne Avantie, a highly respected designer. Previously, in December, the most famous market in Surakarta for finding the most exquisite batik tulis, Pasar Klewer, burned down. Anne Avantie went and gathered as much of the burned batik as she could and created a special show with these pieces. A video of the show can be seen here and a review of the show with more photos here.

All in all, I am sure that this experience of studying and creating batik has changed me, having a profound effect over how I look at the design and the color of textiles and not only textiles. From now on I always look for the story.

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A visit at the Borobudur temple

When you come to Indonesia you shouldn’t miss visiting the largest Buddhist temple in the world, located in Central Java: Borobudur. It is impressive! It is actually the number one sightseeing site on the list of every tourist coming to the Java island.

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me among the stupas of the first of the three circular levels on top illustating the Dharmachakra mudra or the so-called infinite sign (the symbolism is that of the turning the Wheel of dharma, the impermanence, one of the Buddhist laws)

Borobudur is basically built in a hill, consists of six square platforms and three circular platforms at the top, being in a shape of a Buddhist mandala, as it can be seen from the photos below:

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directions panel photoed at Borobudur
example of Buddhist mandala – photo taken from the web

The temple is decorated with 2 672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. On the top platform there is a main dome surrounded by 72 Buddha statues which are each placed inside a perforated stupa (a stupa is a hemispherical structure which contains Buddhist relics. Stupas all over the world have slightly different designs. However, one beautiful symbolism of the stupa that I’ve been told of is that of a water lily turned upside-down to protect a Buddhist relic.)

When you visit the temple you are recommended to follow these directions for going around it: you start from the east side and you go clockwise around the paths and up the top. You can get down only from the south, east or west part and eventually exit the complex only in the north.  It is in this way there is formed a pilgrimage path that leads you through the three symbolic levels of Buddhist cosmology, decorated with extensive narrative relief panels: Kamadhatu (the world of desire), Rupadhatu (the world of forms) and Arupadhatu (the world of formlessness).

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following the clockwise prescribed way of visiting the temple (Pradakshina), starting from the East, the mudras (or the palm positions) of the Buddha statues are different, illustrating the Buddhist laws and universal truths

Most probably it was approximated that Borobudur was built in the 9th century when the Sailendra Dynasty – which was actively promoting Mahayana Buddhism – was ruling Java, the temple being designed in Javanese-Buddhist architecture style with Indian (Gupta) influences. Evidence suggests that Borobudur was abandoned around the 14th-century because of the decline of the Hindu-Buddhist dynasties in Java and the conversion to Islam. After its abandonment the temple was covered in volcanic ash and in jungle vegetation and it was mentioned only in folk stories. These stories caught the attention of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British ruler of Java in 1814, who started the process of finding and recovering the monument. It took a long time, until 1835 to clear the entire area of the temple. Still, the temple was no so well preserved and under the Dutch colonial occupation, eight containers full of Borobudur statues were given as presents for the King Chulalongkorn of Siam during his visit to Indonesia in 1896. The relics are still on display in the National Museum of Bangkok. The largest restoration project was unfolded between 1975 and 1982 by the Indonesian government and UNESCO, collaboration which marked the enlisting of the monument as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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About 40 km North West from Yogyakarta, Borobudur is located in an elevated area between two twin volcanoes, Sundoro-Sumbing and Merbabu-Merapi, and two rivers: the Progo and the Elo. The area was known as the mythological Kedu Plain, a Javanese sacred place or the garden of Java because of its high agricultural fertility. What’s even more interesting is that during the restoration in the 20th century it was discovered that the other two Buddhist temples in the area, Pawon and Mendut are positioned along a straight line with Borobudur. Therefore hypotheses about a relationship between the three temples arose. One folk myth talks of a paved road with brick walls that went along from the first two temples to Borobudur. No evidence to support this idea was found though.

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folk story: can you spot in the distance the profile of the giant who is lying down, taking a rest after finishing building the Borobudur?

So, there is no reason to argue, Borobudur is an architectural jewel that was very well preserved under volcanic ash during its time of, not certain why, neglect. During my visit there I could not stop myself to wonder about two things: how was this amazing temple built?? and would any Buddha really want this kind of a devotion monument? The exquisitely carved panels placed along the monument depict a sophisticated society, representing a pictorial history of the architecture, means of transport, clothing and customs of the people who have most probably left behind this astounding temple. Nevertheless, their culture and advanced technology rose and fell more than a thousand years ago for reasons unknown, leaving space for a lot of speculation. One theory goes so far as stating that the culture who built Borobudur had the knowledge to stop gravity and use it in its advantage for building.  As for the second question, I give myself an answer: no, I don’t think any Buddha would want a monument like this, but for sure, the people who are devoted to the Buddhist life philosophy want to express their love, commitment and gratitude for their chosen life view. Also, when designing and building a monument of this magnitude, I think it is a way you want to preserve and show to your followers the truths you discovered and the life philosophy that you believe is best to be undertaken. And when it comes to the rise and fall of the Borobudur and the dynasty that built it, I believe one evidence is sure: nothing is permanent, not even the most sophisticated cultures and their developed technologies. Everything works in cycles: it emerges, it grows, it reaches a peak and then it declines. For this, there is no reason for any of us to be attached of anything, because nothing stays forever.

 

What I have learnt by practicing meditation …

Even in challenging times, a Buddha keeps his equanimity - photo taken at he Borobudur temple in North Yogyakarta, Indonesia by Neel Fleuren
Even in challenging times, a Buddha keeps his equanimity – photo taken at the Borobudur temple in North Yogyakarta, when several nearby shops and waroengs caught on fire – photo taken by my friend Neel Fleuren, while we were visiting the temple

I’ve been an on/off meditator for the last 6 years. I’ve been practicing it more regularly in the last 3 years and I’ve been working on making it a regular daily practice because I am utterly convinced of  its benefits! About its concrete benefits neuroscientists have undergone some recent studies that demonstrate that it actually helps reshape our brain.

My interest lies more in how this reshape of the brain shifts our behavior – which is defined as the action and/or reaction each of us takes in response to external or internal stimuli.

My biggest meditation lesson and challenge in the same time was attending a 10 days Vipassana meditation in silence. The word vipassana means seeing things as they really are. This meditation technique was re-discovered by Gautama Siddhartha Buddha more than 2500 years ago and it was taught to me in its original form, by attending one of the courses here.  Buddha was teaching it as an universal remedy for illnesses and as a way to reach enlightment. It is a non-sectarian technique which aims to totally eradicate mental impurities, allowing you to reach happiness by full liberation.

Makao monkey close to where I live in a deep state of ... meditation? :P :D
Makao monkey close to where I live in a deep state of … meditation? 😛 😀

Meditation is a way of transforming oneself through self-observation. While focusing on your physical sensations you discover the deep interconnections between the body and the mind. It is through this observation-based, self-exploration journey to the common root of mind and body that mental impurities get dissolved, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.

There is just one condition for success: gaining and keeping your equanimity. Equanimity, a state of psychological stability, is not easy to gain, but it is well worth it! Equanimity actually means to keep your inner peace despite of the emotions you might undergo. During meditation the sensations in your body arise life events that come up to your mind, which generate either emotions of repulsion for what you recall as bad memories, either emotions of passion and attachment for what you think are good memories. The key is to observe them, let them be, keep your focus on your body sensations and don’t get involved in the emotions, but keep your state of calm and even-temper to all that is.

It is wrong to think that this state of equanimity means being in a state of indifference, coolness, reservation or cold detachment. No! Equanimity is the steady conscious realization of the impermanence of  reality. Because in the end life is just this: a series of short-length or long-length events that pass. Nothing lasts forever. Having this in mind, how could we allow ourselves to get angry or attached to things or persons that are as well, impermanent? In this way, equanimity is the ground for wisdom and inner freedom. And in this way you learn to be grateful for every single second spent on this Earth.

The Durian fruit: a love story

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Durian sellers in a central market of Surakarta, Indonesia – photo taken by me

My love story with durian didn’t start off so passionately from the beginning … I was warned that one either loves it or hates it. Still, the rule is this: you have to try it three times before you can be sure of your feelings toward it.  At first I found the smell to be a bit disgusting (just to have an idea, some people describe as “the smell of a very dirty toilet”) and the taste not so special. But as I gave it more chances I finally fell in love with it. I observed with surprise how my senses changed their perception: the smell is one of the best, delicate and distinct perfumes  in the world, the consistency and taste are comparable to one of the most delicious artisan Italian gelato you could find out there! And yes, it is all natural!

And it doesn’t stop here! Durian is highly nutritious and it is even used as a medicine (fruit, leaves and roots). Durian fruit is high on natural sugar, Vitamin C, potassium, being a complete source of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Some raw foodies recommend it as a good source of raw fats. In the same time it is considered a high glycemic food and consumption should be limited. Moreover, one interesting side effect of over indulging in durian fruit is getting exaggerated hangover symptoms! 🙂 In the same time, if you choose to consume durian, don’t eat it mixed with alcohol or coffee, as it will acutely slow down your digestion. Nevertheless, Javanese people here believe that the durian has aphrodisiac qualities.

The Durian fruit is quite expensive for the average Indonesian, one of the reason being the challenge to pick it: it is heavy, having sharp thorns on all its surface (actually the name itself comes from duri,the word for thorn in Malay language) and it can just fall off from several meters high! Interestingly enough, it’s been observed that most mature fruits fall by themselves during night time, as if the intelligent nature programmed it like this so it would avoid hurting any people.

There is even an Indonesian saying about the durian fruit that confirms its value: ketiban durian runtuh = getting a durian avalanche or in other words getting an unexpected fortune.

There are about 6 edible Durian varieties to be found in South and South-East Asia and picking a delicious ripe fruit from the stall in the pasar (local market) requires a high level of mastery.

In conclusion: the durian fruit is the proof that God exists and that She loves us!

Happy new year of the Wooden Sheep! Selamat tahun baru imlek! Gong Xi Fa Cai!

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Chinese New Year celebrations in the central square of Surakarta, Indonesia

 

Happy new year everybody! We have officialy entered into the Wooden Sheep (Goat), according to Chinese astrology!

It looks like it is going to be a year of blooming creativity and of peace finding…

I stumbled here upon this poem which would best describe the Sheep and its characteristics for the new year:

I am nature’s child, fortune smiles upon me. All things bloom in the gentleness of my love. I strive to find beauty in all I behold. I AM THE SHEEP.

So, the advice for this year is: get in touch with your inner child, find peace with everyone including yourself and create create create!

Traveling, Travelers …and the Universe

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Why do people travel? People have always traveled, but the reasons for it have changed their shape (but now their nature) throughout the centuries. Originally, people have started traveling, migrating, mainly out of bare necessity: to find better soils, better natural resources, better life conditions. Another reason of traveling is represented by the military campaigns and interventions that have the goal of conquering or preserving lands and resources, ultimately for the same above mentioned goal: better life conditions. Besides these strictly material/economical/political determinants, there’s also a spiritual cause illustrated by the religious missionaries.

Nevertheless, in the last century, with the rapid development of technologies, new slightly different shaped reasons have emerged that determine people to choose to travel, such as getting a better (and sometimes cheaper) education in another area than the one in which you were born in or getting a better paid job abroad. Essentially economic, these two options imply either a new establishment in a geographic space, or returning to one’s original birth area after the tasks/contracts are accomplished.

Ultimately more and more people travel worldwide for short periods of time for mere entertainment and fun, engaging in touristic activities of all sorts (moral or immoral, legal or illegal). What I personally notice is a special, newly emergent category of people that travel for either self discovery/self fulfillment or escape/runaway. Usually young, University graduates, traveling on a budget, mingling with the locals of the culture they are visiting, they are in a search of the missing experiences that no books can ever provide! They are a sort of educated nomads, wanderlusts that see the world as their playground, always insatiable over experiencing new cultures.

Overall it seems that if, in the beginning, traveling in the shape of migration was a necessity for supporting life itself, it has become now a conscious choice (not yet financially accessible to the whole World population) for personal development.

However, no matter what traveling represents to you, bottom line it could be just living life itself, traveling has always been and always will be an enactment of the eternal myth of the hero’s journey. Each of us is the main character of his or her own life in which we are free to choose based either on fear or on love. Our only true purpose is our evolution. We are in competition only with oneself. In this journey we encounter a lot of threats, a lot of dangers, a lot of traps, but also a lot of rewards. We think we control, only to realize that life itself happens to us. Only when we choose to see with our heart we really make dangers disappear and we are able to see the truth. Ultimately, the journey shows you how connected everything is. There is no separation. You lose yourself in the process only to have your identity reborn having the whole meaning of the Universe within.

So, when you are on your path and you feel stuck or disconnected, don’t give up, it’s just a phase, go on and just remember that we are all stardust. And you don’t have to take my word for it, listen to Astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

5 months after. Beyond all good or bad there is a space: Indonesia

Just a couple of days after my 5 months anniversary of my Indonesian experience. These months have been really, really intense!
I was eager to start my Asian adventure and I was expecting a huge cultural shock, which actually happened! On one hand, landing in the airport in Jakarta, I felt immediately extremely familiar to these people here, on the other hand, their behavior and reactions are different…

Indonesia is a fascinating destination and I wasn’t ready for it, at all! Well, I believe it is hard to be totally prepared for another culture, there will always be things that will get you out of the comfort zone …
Which is actually good! It is great to be out of your comfort zone because this is when u grow! And that is what I am experiencing: I am growing and I am becoming stronger! I am transforming and I get to
know myself better and better… And you go through this especially when you don’t speak the language, so you get to spend a lot of time by yourself and you just observe yourself… It is a must! And this is why I love traveling and I believe that everybody should travel! You realize that, despite of the culture differences, you are not so different from the others… and as a side note, what I mean by traveling as a way to inner enrichment is not going to all-inclusive places or going to the spa 24/7, but mingling with the locals and observing their way of living without judgments. For sure you will be uncomfortable and that’s the perfect time to start reflecting upon your own lifestyle and eventually you’d realize that there is no good or bad approach to life and that life just is and it’s perfect.

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After 5 months of observing Indonesia and mingling with the locals, these are some insights, in a nutshell:

  • Indonesia is not “poor”. Before coming here, some of my friends asked me about my choice of going to a poor, un-developed country. Now that I got to know this geography better, Indonesia is an amazingly rich tropical country with a rich soil (just as a note, there are two crops of rice produced per year) and a wide range of other natural resources, with a sum of unique cultures. Therefore, it’s always been a magnet for invaders and colonists… The problem of today is of course, the big inequalities in the distribution of wealth among people. The proportions are met again, here: 20% of the people control 80% of the resources of Indonesia.
  • Being considered undeveloped in the Western standards of today, can be quite a good thing! When most people lack material things, they turn their focus to spirituality.When there is no concept of social security, living in the NOW becomes the predominant lifestyle. Therefore, death is approached differently here: with much ease and lack of attachment to a body, to a status or to a worldly things that are just meant to decay.
  • Indonesian are the MOST friendly people on Earth! They are very warm, open and kind. They really want to help you! Such as this guy to whom I asked some directions and he just offered to drive me there … They are really noisy and they laugh a lot! I mean they express themselves freely and it feels like they are enjoying their life to the maximum.
  • Being a collective society, they don’t have the notion of private space: they start talking to you in any moment, they look into the monitor of your computer, they ask you if you have a boyfriend (and if you say you don’t, they offer to hook u up with somebody hihi), they would even read your
    diary if they could… What I like about this collective type of society is the importance they give to family: Family is everything!

To end it in a funny note, ever since I arrived here I have a different identity: I am a “bule”. “Bule” is the name given to white people. For most of them, Bule= white, rich, with beautiful long noses … and famous!! … This bule label comes with advantages and disadvantages, it depends on how the Indonesians look at it. Therefore, if you are white, you are a kind of superstar here: a lot of people want to take photos with you, sometimes they invite you to get in front of the queue, sometimes you receive free food and drinks at some events where you are the special guest. Now everybody looks kindly to bule, but overall it is kind of prestige to have bule friends… although it’s funny because white people have brought a lot of suffering upon their country…

Photo credits: my sister Daniela who has taken a beautiful photo above Jakarta

Two weeks in Indonesia … Feeling like home already!

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It’s two weeks since I am in Indonesia. It’s been an amazing time, full of discoveries. I’ve been taken out of my comfort zone, I lost my sense, just to end up finding myself.

People here are so warm and friendly! I really like this collective perspective of life in the Indonesian culture and society: everybody is just as beautiful and important! I am inspired by their view over family: once you move in into a place, be it just a room in a dorm, all the people on the street become your enlarged family! So, I have a new family now! It is quite big (I still didn’t learn each person’s name)!

I live in a village just North of Jogyakarta, so I have a lot of relatives here! Nevertheless, it’s been one of dreams to live in the countryside and now I’m living it: I can see fields of rice and chillies from my window! And last but not least: I can see the Merapi volcano!

Still, there is a drawback: everybody here uses motorcycles, so the landscape, as beautiful as it might be, has quite a noisy “soundtrack” and the air is not really the cleanest…

Full Moon celebration in Indonesia, Chinese style!

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What I love about Indonesian people is their strong connection with nature! All over the world, each culture has developed its customs and traditions observing the rhythms of nature, but somehow today I feel that in Western cultures the commercial spirit takes the lead. Like for example Easter: there is now the commercial Easter bunny story and of course the spiritual/religious part of the resurrection of Jesus and we somehow forget that each year the date of this celebration is selected according to the moon phases.

This year, on the 8th of September, I had the great opportunity to celebrate the Full Moon (in Pisces according to European astrology) together with Indonesian people with Chinese background! It was a long and beautiful ceremony, full of magic and symbols, overseen by the Moon above… Also, it was my first time ever in a Chinese temple.

First week of Indonesia

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Indonesia is simply surprising! It’s a total different world, and yet so familiar. People are people and in the end we share the same fears and desires, but we do manifest differently. Just one week of Indonesia was enough for me to feel their collective view about life: there is no privacy, it is important to stay together, a daily dairy is a way of communicating issues within a family. There is no confrontation, but compromise. There is no conflict but only misunderstanding. One says sorry after a presentation or a lecture: management of shame and humility. Overall I meet very nice and kind people, very humble and tender, looking after their family which has an vital part in their lives.

Also, on a more concrete level, a 2 hour traffic jam instead of a 15 minute ride in Jakarta makes you understand a lot about people’s understanding of time: jam karet = rubber time.