Textiles and trade

The nature of the textiles represented on Javanese statuary is still a subject of debate. What techniques were used to make them: ikat (in which the warp or weft is tie-dyed before weaving), batik (wax-resistant dyeing technique) or a compound weave? It is probable that by the thirteenth century all three techniques were known in Java. The clothes on the Singosari sculptures may also represent imported textiles. The patterns of Nandishvara’s loincloth closely match in an Indian piece of cloth found in Egypt which dates to the thirteenth or fourteenth century (now in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum - Acquisition number EA 1990-1099. Whether of Indian or Chinese origin, these patterns show wide distribution over South-East Asia. They are depicted not only on many East Javanese statues, but also on the walls of Angkor (in Cambodia) and on the ceilings of Pagan (in Burma), and constitute evidence of the involvement of South-East Asia in a booming pan-Asian trade.

The period from the tenth to the mid-thirteenth century indeed saw a dramatic increase in maritime trade in the Indian Ocean and in the China Sea. This trade boom largely resulted from growing insecurity along the northern Silk Road and the need for the Song dynasty (960-1276) to find additional revenues to support its army. To broaden its tax base, the Song government introduced new foreign trade policies, such as tax incentives for traders and the development of emporiums. The main East–West trade route shifted from the steppes of Central Asia to the maritime route that passed through South-East Asia. At the same time, Arab and Tamil merchants expanded their activities in the Indian Ocean and established trading outposts along the major trade routes. In Java, trade – instead of agriculture – became the most important source of revenue for the state. Among the products from China, India and the Middle East imported to Java were silver and copper currency, metal utensils, ceramics, lacquer-ware, silks, dyes and ready-dyed silks. Java exported overseas as well: spices, rice, forest products and textiles were among the most important Javanese exports. Silk (both woven and raw) was imported from China, while woven cotton was mainly imported from India. Nevertheless, silk and cotton were grown, dyed and woven in Java as well. Inscriptions tell us that Java had many professional dyers, weavers and cloth vendors and thus that textile production was an important industry. According to the inscriptions, the most common colours for clothes were red and dark blue, colours that for a long time were favoured by traditional Indonesian societies.

The attention given to the patterns on clothes reflects the importance of textiles in ancient Javanese society. Gifts of gold and textiles were part of the ceremonies associated with the establishment of freeholds for temples and monasteries. Inscriptions – particularly those from the ninth and tenth centuries – are filled with lists of the gifts made to the persons involved in those ceremonies. The person ceding the land to the temple, the individuals performing the rituals, the members of the communities living on the transferred land, the representatives of the neighbouring villages and the witnesses of the ceremonies all received gifts, most often in the form of textiles. The textiles were carefully chosen, since they reflected the role, status and sex of the receiver. Later inscriptions were keen to place restrictions upon the use of certain textiles and patterns, presumably those which were associated with high status or ritual occasions.