Tenun Ikat Tapestry of India and Indonesia


Medan, KoverMagz – A few days into my tenure in Sumatra, I was presented with ‘Ulos’ at various public events as a mark of respect and honour. I was blown away by the texture and intricate designs of this drapery or shawl. But it also gave me a sense of strange familiarity as it reminded me of several textile items produced in certain parts of India. After a little research about its historical traditions, I have come to treasure my collection. Surely, Ikat is one of the many traditions that bind India and Indonesia.

Ulos of North Sumatra by Batak community

Ulos is the handwoven fabric which is an integral part of the Batak community of North Sumatra. What began as a traditional piece of daily wear in that community has evolved into a signature textile product of North Sumatra that is used for special occasions, festivals and to honour specialguests. Ulos is just one of Indonesia’s many other special textile creations that are being produced under its now famous ‘Tenun Ikat’ tradition.

Considered the oldest form of textile making, the Tenun Ikat tradition probably dates back to later bronze era, spread across 20 countries. The story of Ikat tradition is a fascinating one. It points to the innate desire of mankind to embellish cloth with designs and colours. It’s evolution over the years is equally fascinating as it narrates a saga of human creativity, sharing and transmission of acquired techniques through trade and people to people contacts.

Given its wide spread, it is not easy to zero in on the exact place of its origin of Tenun Ikat, but many historians opine that Ikat was present in Indonesia about 2000 years ago. In support of this, historians point to the presence of ikat weaving with Dongson cultural decorations such as geometric motifs, trees, flora, fauna and even humans. They point to the cultural influence of the Last Zhou with asymmetrical designs in the form of animals or humans found on the Iban Dayak Ikat, Toraja, Batak (Ulos), and Timor.

North Sumatra Ulos

On the other hand, history also records that the the oldest surviving example of an Indian Ikat in Odia style, was found in a Pharaohs tomb in Egypt, which date back 5,000 years ago. Though the Indian Ikat predates the Indonesian one, it would not be correct to assert that Tenun Ikat in Indonesia was a cultural import from India. Just suffice it to say that this technique is very ancient and has been enriched by the close ancient trade routes binding nations and civilization in a tapestry of cultural synergy. India and Indonesia, being important flagposts on the ancient silk trade route, have been part of this historic cultural exchange, which includes Southeast Asian countries, China, Central Asia and parts of Latin American.

Like in Indonesia, Tenun Ikat is deep rooted in India too, but interestingly, this age old technique is known world wide by the generic term Ikat which is Indonesian. ‘Tenun Ikat’ in Bahasa Indonesia means “to tie” or “to bind”. The word “Mengikat“, also meaning to bind or tie, is also used in Malaysia and Indonesia. It is interesting that the word encapsulates the entire process involved in the making of an Tenun Ikatfabric. For example, the word ‘tali’ means threads or ropes, being Tenun Ikat (tied, bound, knotted) before being put in celupan (dye by dipping method), then berjalin (woven, intertwined) resulting in berjalin ikat – which has been reduced to the word ‘Ikat’.

Today, however, because of its reputation and popularity, it has become a loan word to delineate a process and the cloth itself, regardless of origin of place or its pattern styles.

Instances of Tenun Ikat traditions in early Indian societies find mention in several historical texts, architectural paintings, edicts and murals. For example, the Buddhist text ‘Lalitavistara Sutra’ written in 3rd century mentions about fabric called “Vichitra Patolaka” of Gujarat. The influence of Patola designs can also be seen on the Palembang Cinde shawl (Songket) or Flores cloth of Sumatra. Another historical text ‘Manasollas of Someswara’ written in 12th century reaffirms the varieties of the tie-dye technique of Patola tradition of Gujarat.

Silken double ikat Patola from Gujarat in 19th century

But what can be said with some certainty is that the Indian Patola Ikat from Gujarat influenced the Tenun Ikat tradition in Indonesia around 1400-1600 AD. When Gujarati merchants traded their glittering and luxurious looking silk Patola textiles with several Indonesian islands for spices, metals, aromatic resins etc, this double Ikat technique with all its vibrant designs anddeep dye colours, fascinated the Indonesian weavers.

The animal, human, floral and geometric motifs on the Patola, were previously unseen by the Indonesian people, who immediately replicated them using the single Tenun Ikat technique drawn on local aesthetics, dye colours and local cultural motifs. This tradition was patronized by many Hindu and Buddhist Kingdoms. Patola-like cloths can be seen even today in many parts of Indonesia.

Ikat in Ajanta Murals

The famous murals of the Ajanta caves in Maharashtra belonging to 7th Century depict several Ikat designs of ‘Bandhini’. The Veerabhadraswamy Temple in Lepakshi, Andhra Pradesh, also depicts geometrical Ikat designs of the weaving tradition of Paagadu Bandhu and its most famous product Telia Rumal. This is practiced in Nalgonda and Prakasam districts in today’s Telegana.

The Telia Dupatta and Rumal, with its red, black and white chequered pattern was used as lungis by fishermen in those days and got exported to Myanmar, parts of Africa and Middle East somewhere around the 18th century.

Similarly, in Odisha, the Ikat tradition, known as ‘Bandha’ has been practised for centuries, especially in Sambalpur, Cuttack and Bargarh districts. Most Bandha products of Odisha were single warped ones, except for the Saktapur design which is a double Ikat. The design has been inspired by Chaupad, a local board game and has bright red and white squares against a black canvass.

Completed double ikat using the Telia Rumal technique

The Sambalpuri saris which are generally used during festive and ceremonial occasions had animal, floral and other motifs derived from Odisha’s mythology, its coastal influences and rituals associated with weddings and ceremonies.

Distinctive motifs on Odishan ikat, or bandha

The Pasapalli Ikat saree of Odisha and Puttapaka saree of Telegana are also made employing the same double Ikat technique used in making of Sambalpuris. Since early times, Indonesia had been using the single Tenun Ikat technique, which is either only the warp (twist) or the weft (fill-tied and dyed), with different colours so as to create patterns. The double ikat technique, which is the more difficult and in vogue in India for a very long time, is where both the warp and weft yarns are resist-dyed, making the weaving process complex and ornate.

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Indonesia most likely inherited the double ikat technique from India during the 12-14 centuries. Today, the double ikat is produced only in three countries: India, Japan and Indonesia.

In Indonesia, the double Tenun Ikat tradition has been followed only in Tenganan in East Bali. Tenganan is a prime example of the special double Ikat tradition crossing borders. It imbibed this technique from the Patola designs of Gujarat and soon internalized them to suit local tradition and cultural preferences.

Double Ikat at Tenganun Village, East Bali

Some of the Tenganan double ikat motifs are taken directly from the patola tradition. Stories abound on how Gujarati Indian traders would convey to their Indonesian counterparts about the types of Patola Ikat being made and what are the popular ones and the Indian traders would then customize their products to suit the requirements and fancies of the Indonesian traders.

Young Women dressed in Geringsing in Bali

The Balinese double ikats are called Geringsing cloth, which has a high ceremonial significance in Bali and acquired legendary status today. They use to be worn as ritual costumes during religious cermonies, but today Tenganan has become a regular fixture on the international heritage tourism circuit and on any tourist trail of an international visitor.

It is also important to mention that the Indonesian Tenun Ikat textile tradition has not entirely adopted Indian or other external styles and techniques, but continued to flourish on the strength of their rich indigenous weaving techniques. Indonesia also had a rich and deep knowledge about dyeing techniques, before intense trade contacts with India resulted in cross cultural influences.

Since weaving and batiking have been a vital and thriving component of way of life in Indonesia for several years, naturally it has other textile techniques beyond Tenun Ikat. Three major examples are Batik, Songket and Prada.

Batik cloths in Sumatra

Batik does not come under the Tenun Ikat technique of textile making, but is as specialized and painstaking as the double Ikat. However like ikat, it also employs a resist process that blocks off a portion of the textile from soaking up dye in a dyebath. But in batik making the undyed part of the cloth is placed on a frame and then patterns are drawn over it with a soft pencil. Such patterns can be floral, geometric, or images of animals etc depending on local cultural preferences and orientation.

The molten wax is written across the pattern and left to dry, which forms a effective resist. The cloth is then removed and placed in a dye bath. The areas inside the wax resists will not absorb that colour. This cloth is then put in boiling water to wash off the wax. This process is repeated several times to make multi coloured designs.

In Javanese courts, certain colour and design for Batik denoted nobility, some others for commoners. Around the 1800s, Batik was commercialized and sold to new target groups of wealthy Chinese ladies and colonial era Dutch women, who liked to wear sarongs. Today Batik has taken off in a big way and emerged as a thriving industry in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Batik is today the Indonesia’s national costume and worn by almost everyone on a daily basis. A wide variety of Batik shirts, dresses, tops and even caps for men and women are therefore mass produced using both the traditional resist wax method and pattern printing. No foreign tourist goes back without a Batik product.

Songket is a variant of the Tenun Ikat tradition in which the cloth is handloomed, but additional wefts are employed using metal wrapped thread to give it a more ornate patterns and a lustrous look. Songket tradition is common in parts of Sumatra, East Bali, South Sumatra (esp Jambi) and in the Minangkabau villages in West Sumatra. It is signifies wealth and high social standing of the user. An interesting aspect of  Balinese Songket is that it draws inspiration from Wayang shadow puppet shows, which are linked to Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Prada is a highly decorated form of batik, where regular Batik cloth is enhanced with gold coated or threads designs lending a flashy shiny exterior. Prada has been sought by the modern fashion industry especially for the evening gowns.

From the Sari to the Sarong, India and Indonesia have experienced an incredible combined cultural exchange in last 1000 years. Ikat originated in both these countries as a product of local genius and cultural experience. Also both have been witness to the changing influences of their respective historical eras and witnessed amazing innovation in their Tenun Ikat traditions.

It is also a tribute to both countries that they adapted to imposed external cultural influences of their times to redefine and reinvent Ikat to suit changing mores, while maintaining their original cultural identity.

Both countries used almost similar techniques and began as unsullied ethnic traditions, yet they have produced highly prized signaturized textile products of high national significance for their countries. Sambalpuri, Patola, Paagadu Bandhu, Bandini, Jamdani to name a few from India and Batik, Prada, Geringsing and Songket of Indonesia.

The Tenun Ikat tradition has evoked awe and intrigue among Western researchers for years. A unique perspective has been offered by researchers at the Textile museum in Washington who are of the view that Ikat principles may have been founded on basic geometry since Ikat employs precise geometric patterns & colour divisions that are repeated. Assuming that the Tenun Ikat artisans of the day had great conceptual understanding of mathematics, the question that arises is: Did mathematical principles too were transmitted from India to Indonesias, along with Ikat know-how? It can only be a matter of speculation for now.

Written by : Raghu Gururaj, Consul General of India to Sumatra (Resident in Medan)