Sunday, October 28, 2012


Claire Holt stayed in a pasanggrahan in Palopo and attended dances 15 km. to the south in a place called Ponrang, in the home of Luwu’s former royalty. Palopo holds caché for me not just because of Claire Holt’s adventures, but because iron was fetched from there to make the sacred Javanese kris. Holt mentions that between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, the Luwu kingdom used to be the mightiest in Celebes. After that Makassar rose in importance.

As luck would have it, we were to enter the former Luwu kingdom on the Islamic holiday of Idul Adha. the day when cows and goats are slaughtered by those who have means and the meat divided among the poor. The town of Palopo was more or less deserted. Not a shop or restaurant was open. By the time we arrived, we had already been driving for hours and breakfast had receded into the distant past. We spied a hotel and decided to see if we could find some lunch within.

The hotel was lovely and all the place settings were inviting. There was tremendous hustle and bustle in the kitchen and eventually we were told to simply eat from the remainders of the buffet. It was a feast day.

Eventually the owner came to sit down with us. She was Bugis, swathed in Islamic black, and was clearly very joyful. She explained that it was a happy day. Many animals had been slaughtered and the meat was being given to the poor whom she had found in advance and to whom she had given coupons.

In our turn, we explained our mission, saying that we hoped to find remainders of the old kingdom and also the iron mines. She had heard of the Luwu and knew that the modest little mosque next door was reputed to be the oldest in Indonesia. Beyond that, she said, there was not much interest among the people in the town for their history and culture. She knew nothing about the source of iron, but knew that there had been fine krisses made in the vicinity.

In fact, she had a kris that probably originated with Luwu royalty but she did not know how to care for it, and may perhaps have damaged it in her attempt. I suggested that she could learn from the Kraton in Yogya. She responded that the kris was just a material item and it did not interest her very much. She declared that was, in fact, not interested in the kris. She was interested in immortality and worshipping Allah. She would be willing to sell the kris.  Apparently a sale belonged to the category of matters of interest to her.

She would not let us pay for our meal and expressed joy that she had been given the opportunity to give food to travellers passing by. She would not touch the hand of Pak Tauhid and Mas Nashir when we bade her goodbye because she had set this boundary as a Muslim woman.

We left to visit the old palace – now – museum. I left with a feeling of deep regret that our hostess’s generosity did not extend to culture. I would have liked her to give her kris to the local museum.  And I would rather have paid for my meal.

Nenek Panggao

Today we visited Nenek Panggao. This meeting was the central purpose of our trip. On the first day of my travels, three years ago, with my photographer MJA Nashir, he said that he would like to take me to visit her.  Nenek Panggao is high up there in our pantheon of amazing textile makers. She is also a member of our collection of "The Last Weaver".

She is a Sa’dan Toraja spinner. She had learned to spin from her grandmother during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia (WW II). The cloth was all used up and people turned again to their cotton shrubs, spinning wheels and looms. But why does Nenek Panggao still spin? For tourists! And she let us know that the elderly woman living on one side had died and been buried. On the other side, the elderly woman was ailing. There is only herself left now, and she is 83 years old. “Will it all be over when you leave?” I asked. She pointed to her daughter. Her daughter will take over –but the yarn that she makes is not as good. She needs more practice.

Nenek Panggao had a variety of textiles in her stall, the nicest of which were made with handspun yarn. She said that while she was the last in Sa’dan, there were spinners in the more Westerly Toraja area where the cloths were woven. They fetched her finished yarn, used it in their textiles and sold them in Nenek Panggao’s stall.

Nenek Panggao had learned to weave but she could only weave plain black or white cloth, as used ritually by the Sa’dan. She couldn’t make either ikat or supplementary weft textiles. She explained that each region had its own strengths – and hers, clearly, was spinning.

“Tourists think it is easy, so I invite them to try it. They discover that it is very difficult.”

“I know it is difficult,” I said, “but I would like to try it with your help.”

She was delighted to be accommodating and I received a lesson in which I learned that there must be balance between the speed with which the wheel is turned and the speed that the spinner pulls on the cotton being spun (coordination between two hands). The hand holding the cotton must not pinch it too tightly. The wheel must be spun at the right moment. The spindle must be balanced or it will fall out. And so on. There are so many factors to take into account at the same time. Spinning is top sport. Feeling, Hand-eye coordination. Practice. Balance. 

Perhaps I will spin when I am old. Watching Nenek Panggao, it seemed such a nice way to pass the time.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

From Segeri to Kalosi

Claire Holt visited the town of Kalosi between Parepare and  Tanah Toraja. Inevitably I encountered the landscape that she described.
“We passed vast stretches of empty undulating prairie-like land. Then, after having approached some mountains to the east, we entered the fertile plains of the Sa’dan river and its tributaries. Luminous green sawah’s, buffaloes with their calves, men planting out young rice-shoots in inundated fields – their familiar beauty reminded one of Java. Further all associations stopped. We were in wild mountainous country. In the distance before us appeared a sharp peak of a rocky mountain towering high above the other mountain masses, like a solitary giant guardian. …”

Claire Holt spent the night in Kolosi.
“The fame of Kalosi’s pasanggrahan had reached us … The rest-house was renowned for its picturesque situation for the fresh European vegetables grown by the keeper, an ex-soldier, and the keeper himself.
“The rooms into which we were shown upon arrival, by the prim russet-haired man, disclosed that the ex-soldier was an ideal housekeeper. Mosquitoe-net, bed-linen, curtains and towels laughed with dazzling freshness, doilies flirted with flowers in vases, every piece of furniture looked as if it had been painted yesterday.”

I decided to look for the pasanggrahan. A network of pasanggrahan, or lodgings, had been built by the Dutch. Hotels at that time were few and far between and pasanggrahan were dependable places where one could spend the night. Claire Holt mentions, between brackets, in a subsequent chapter, “(Rooms at the government rest-houses in Celebes have to be reserved in advance, which is easily done owing to the net of telephone lines which connect all stations and their officials into one big community.)” When I did my first fieldwork in the 1970’s, I was still able to use the pasanggrahan in Pangururan in the Batak region. Claire Holt’s use of these lodges demonstrates their usefulness.

We saw an elderly man on the corner of the road as we drove into Kalosi and the driver stopped immediately to ask if he knew where the pasanggrahan was located. We were in luck! He knew! And we were precisely in front of the road leading to it. We were told to go straight ahead and then turn left. It was a forgotten road and it got worse as we drove up it. Eventually it came to a dead end. There was a view over the town below. Presumably the setting had been carefully chosen for the renowned pasanggrahan.

We asked a local – and then barely made out the word pasanggrahan on the edge of the roof covering the dated and declining cement building.

The pasanggrahan from the 70's. Photo by MJA Nashir
The architecture looked too modern to me. I doubted that I had found the real pasanggrahan from the days of the Netherlands East Indies. I went wandering and snapped some pictures of little boys in the wooden building next to the one labeled ‘pasanggrahan’. It, too, was in sharp decline and while a sign indicated that it was a ‘silk centre’, it seemed to be passing as a storage place for wood.

I then spied a neighbour with a long knife dangling by his side and I approached him to ask about the pasanggrahan. 
Luckily the neighbour was there to tell me that the Dutch pasanggrahan was beside the cement structure.
He confirmed my suspicion that the cement building had been constructed after the colonial era. To my surprise, however, the original had not been torn down!  The wooden building with wood stacked on the veranda was the original!

The pasanggrahan in the colonial era.

We set about making pictures and realized that every detail pointed to its colonial origins: the tile floors, the drains along the walkways outside, the kitchen at the back, the doors, the veranda, the expansiveness of the building, the semi-circular stairway leading to the front door. Despite its glory being long past, there were still well tended plants in front and in pots, that brought a caring housekeeper to mind. More recently the end of the building had been used as a tiny dry-goods store.

The end of Claire Holt’s tale brings one down to earth with a thump.
“Little could we suspect at that time that some six months later the neat ex-soldier-housekeeper would be murdered in his sleep by a house-boy he had employed and who was said to have been the lover of his plump, dark Menadonese wife.”

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Parepare and Mandar

The first day ended in Parepare. Parepare is south of the Mandar area, and, although 3 hours away in the car, relatively speaking not far. Anybody who has researched Batak textiles knows the word ‘mandar’. It is the Ulos Hela, the ritual sarong given to the son-in-law during wedding rites. I know that the mandar in the Batak area used to be brought in from Minangkabau. Presumably the Minangkabau obtained it from Bugis traders. I declared myself crazy if I did not investigate mandar textiles a wee bit when I was in Parepare.

I discovered that the young woman I was talking to was Mandar!
The first step in this process was to try to find the market and start up a conversation with a seller of sarongs. I never got that far. While my driver was looking for the market, I was standing beside a women’s clothing shop that was just opening. The woman mopping the floor kindly let me in. She turned out to be a Mandar. She called her boss, who was Bugis who promptly ran off to find some mandar sarongs for me as she had none in stock.

I wanted to know if there was any weaving left in the Mandar region or whether it had all become centralized in Bugis hands. I was told that the weaving was in sharp decline. The young woman remembered women weaving with backstrap looms when she was growing up. She, herself, had not learned it. She did not know the current state of affairs.

They made the distinction between weaving with the walida (or balida), that is, weaving with the sword, and bola-bola weaving, that is, weaving with the ATBM. As I understand it, the bola-bola refers to the shifting of the heddles using the feet. I was pleased to learn this. In Pekalongan, this distinction is not made. It seems as though backstrap weaving has been forgotten entirely there. They refer to weaving with the ATBM as gedogan – the word that is used by the Batak to refer to backstrap weaving in contrast to weaving on the semi-mechanized ATBM.

The women could tell me that there used to be natural dyes in Mandar, but they could not tell me whether there were still natural dyes being used. They obtained a maroon and a black colour using natural dyes. These colours are still popular, although obtained using synthetic dyes.

The sarongs they showed me had the traditional simple pattern of squares made by stripes in warp and weft. The stripes now contained synthetic silver yarn so that they would gleam. This is currently all the range and is woven into virtually everything that is made. The Batak are not the only ones to obsessively follow this flashy trend!

I now long to visit the Mandar villages as I wish to know whether I will hear the sword beating the weft into the fabric, where they obtain their silk, whether they are still using natural dyes, what their looms look like, whether there is a revival movement, how they used to market their textiles and how they do it today…. This time around, I did not get that far.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Bissu of Segeri

One of the women who so kindly greeted me in Pangkadjene, invited me to visit with her father. He was ailing and elderly, she said, but he was a writer and knew a great deal about the local history. He lived in the neighbouring town of Segeri, the next stop on Claire Holt’s trip.

Segeri is located just over the bridge

She said that he lived close to the Bissu. This really made my ears prick up as the Bissu had danced for Claire Holt. They are a group of transvestites, homosexuals, hermaphrodites, essentially beyond the normal physical pale, men with female attributes. They are inducted into certain rites and knowledge, have ritual paraphernalia, and participate in sacred and secular rites.

We drove on to Segeri and found the home of the elderly Haji Madusilah. It was a traditional, still unpainted, Buginese house with lovely dark wood, very well tended. A young woman invited us in, but she did so with some hesitation saying that her father was not well and we should not stay more than 15 minutes. 

After some time, he was able to receive us. He was almost blind, but still quite lucid and spoke some English as well as Dutch. It was clear to me that he enjoyed having foreign guests. He had once been the head of the Education Office. He mentioned that some local ritual paraphernalia were now found in The Netherlands. He pointed out that the Dutch had been concerned that the objects would not be sufficiently cared for and had therefore deposited them in Dutch museums. Which ones, he did not know. 

He was able to tell us about the Bissu and their dances. They are still in Segeri and still perform their rites. Afterwards the old man’s daughter joined us in the car to find the home of the Bissu – as had been described by Claire Holt. There we learned that while we had been speaking with the old man, the Bissu had gathered to prepare the agricultural rite that they will perform in the coming months. The building was empty when we arrived, however, and only neighbours were still around.

I am quite struck by the acceptance and existence of indigenous ritual here, and also by the Buginese homes. There are no bungalows, as in the Batak area. Everyone lives in traditional architecture. How charming the Batak area could be if the people had more pride in their culture.


Arriving in Pangkadjene, the first major town on Claire Holt’s trip, I knew that it would not be possible to see the dances that had been performed for her by local people. I decided to search instead for the home of the Dutch ‘Controller’ who had been their knowledgeable host. It quickly became apparent that there was little Dutch architecture. We drove around a little in the area where government buildings are located and started to ask people. Finding nobody, I decided to approach a large house. It struck me as having architecture that combined Dutch and Bugis elements. 

Walking up to the gallery, I met a group of women who most graciously invited me to sit down and explain my mission. 

This I did. They knew nothing about a Controller’s home in the Dutch era. I decided to approach my questioning from a different angle. I complimented them on the beautiful building and asked if it had once been a Dutch building. They quickly acknowledged that it had been renovated. I asked if it was the largest Dutch building in town and they also acknowledged this. It turned out that I had walked up to the home of the Bupati -- roughly equivalent to the Dutch controller in the government hierarchy.  During a later interview with an elderly man, I learned that my hunch that I had stumbled upon the Controller's home was correct!