Healing Textiles

Ikat as a Healing Textile

Big, protective Banyan tree, wrapped in 
magical poleng cloth, Bali, 2012. 
Such trees harbor spirits.

Indonesian and Sarawak Malaysian ikats are important cultural objects thought by villagers and some city residents to possess supernatural powers. These cloths are often involved in the protection and healing of individuals and communities. One such textile is the geringsing, produced in a village cluster in East Bali called the Tenganan settlements. Tenganan Pegeringsingan is the most famous of these. A case study of the geringsing as a healing textile in contemporary Bali shows that the use of textiles for spiritual protection and healing appears to be declining as biomedicine in Bali increases in scope and public legitimacy. Geringsing is undergoing significant secularization, as Bali’s cloth worlds increasingly commercialize. For background on geringsing, see sources cited in suggested readings; see also Susan Rodgers and Robin Cumella, Holy Cross class of 2011, Geringsing in Transition: A Balinese Textile on the Move (2011).  This pamphlet accompanied a small exhibition of geringsing textiles at Holy Cross in spring 2011.

Textiles and Supernatural Forces

Indonesian and Malaysian textiles are traditionally not mere pieces of art or of clothing but are ritual, spiritual objects possessing magical, sacred qualities. Ikats are power-filled cloths; as noted, their powers connect especially to women’s fertility forces. These “empowered” textiles are embedded in Indonesian cultural worlds (as mentioned, there are over 300 of these in the nation) and are the center of important spiritual beliefs and practices.

Due to the association of spiritual powers with ikats, numerous taboos characterize these cloths’ production.  This belief system aligns fertility, age, gender, health, and the natural dye process. In some places, such as Kodi in west Sumba, only certain older women can do indigo dyeing (Hoskins 1989). They own the secret knowledge of herbalism, midwifery, tattooing, and witchcraft. This “blue arts” knowledge yields high social status. In many eastern Indonesian weaving societies, younger, lower status women who are menstruating or pregnant are not allowed to weave or dye threads, for fear of harming the fetus and ruining the cloth.

Power-filled ikats are also used as sources of protection from illness and danger. These textiles are crucial in rites of passage for protecting the vulnerable soul as it moves from one stage of life to the next (it is feared that death can occur in these transitions). Other textiles serve as important cultural objects which protect the spirit from various types of harm. Below are a few brief descriptions of how some ikats are used as a source of healing and/or spiritual protection from dangers and harm. In addition, the case study below discusses the geringsing as a healing, protective textile – one undergoing change today as biomedicine gains in public attractiveness throughout Southeast Asia.

Healing and Protective Cloths of Southeast Asia

Batik in Java: Batik is still used today in an important Javanese ceremony named Mitoni to protect a women and her fetus during pregnancy. The Mitoni ceremony is held during the seventh month of a woman’s first pregnancy. After seven months of pregnancy, the baby is thought by the Javanese to have a soul. During the Mitoni ceremony, the pregnant woman is wrapped in seven layers of batik. This snug wrapping is thought to protect the developing baby from harm, secure the soul of the infant-to-be, and bring good fortune to the expectant family.

Blue Sibolang ulos cloth, Toba Batak.

 Toba Batak Ulos Cloaks: The ulos cloaks made by the Toba Batak people are often used in ceremonies to envelop a social unit and bring good fortune and protection to that unit. One such social unit is a couple about to be married. The Batak people wrap ulos cloaks around the shoulders of the woman and man in a wedding ceremony. This symbolic wrapping brings good fortune to the pair, and protects their marriage from harm. The wrapping is also thought to ensure that the marriage is fertile. The ulos cloak is a gift from the bride’s kin to the groom’s family (that is, from the wife-givers to the wife-receivers).

Batik with the Parang rusak motif: Found mostly in Yogyakarta, Central Java, the parang rusak motif is thought to convey healing and protective powers. The parang rusak is a design with a diagonal “broken sword pattern,” and the textile can be used as a long carrying cloth for a baby. This is thought by many people to cure a small child’s illness or guard a sick youngster from further harm.

Kaot Baite Rarote

Kaot Baite Rarote:
In one of our lessons at Threads of Life in summer 2012, we were shown a type of protective cloth, Kaot Baite Rarote, found in East Timor.  This cloth, shown on the left is worn by a woman during pregnancy to guard her unborn child from any source of harm and to ward off complications with the pregnancy. During our lesson, we were taught that one of the motifs on the cloth is the placenta motif and that is the particular part of the textile that is protective.


Geringsing Cloth Case Study, Contemporary Bali

The geringsing is both the most renowned textile of Bali and a sacred and magical object for families in ideological transition today. Geringsing is a double ikat, which means dye resists are tied on both the warp and weft threads to create complex patterns. This process is done only in one village in Bali: Tenganan Pegeringsingan. The tied threads are sent out to weavers in the smaller Tenganan villages to be woven on backstrap looms in continuous warp. Handspun cotton is used, and the classic muted red, brown/black, and tan colors come from natural dyes.

Geringsing is much-studied as it is the most important Balinese cloth for ceremonies (see For Further Reading, especially works by Urs Ramseyer). When properly woven, these cloths can protect vulnerable persons from illness and harm. When the geringsing’s warp is uncut, the textile is in its most sacred form. Cutting the warp supposedly releases exorcistic powers and creates a fringe thought to have healing powers. A small piece of fringe mixed with holy water can magically heal sick children or livestock when given as a drink (some Balinese say). Burnt fragments may also provide a base for medicines and curative balms. If a geringsing has been “ruined” due to overuse or poor quality, then it may be sold out of the Tenganan villages and a small piece will be used in tooth filing ceremonies. This is a highly dangerous transition in Bali and the soul is vulnerable to harm or even death during tooth filing. By laying a piece of geringsing on the pillow upon which the initiate lays his or her head during the rite of passage, the textile is thought to protect the soul from harm as it leaves childhood and enters adolescence (and sexual awareness). Geringsing is similarly used in cremation ceremonies throughout Bali.

While in Bali we made trips to Tenganan Dauh Tukad, a smaller Tenganan weaving village, to study geringsing. Interviews with Pak Kadek, a calendar maker and tour guide whose wife weaves geringsing,(shown below), shed light on the cloth’s role as a healing textile in contemporary Bali. In one interview docent
Tricia Giglio inquired about geringsing as a healing textile. Pak Kadek stated that geringsing was still believed to be a protective textile today. He commented that the textile was not so much a “healing” cloth used for specific sickness as it was a textile used as protection against all bad things, or bala. The meaning of the word geringsing means protection from illness, he asserted (or, “no epidemic”).

When Pak Kadek was questioned further on the healing powers of geringsing and asked if there were magical powers in the fringe, his hesitation was evident. He did eventually tell a story about a sick cow who was cured after drinking water which held a small piece of geringsing fringe. His hesitation was of particular interest to us and has led us to question if the use of geringsing in healing practices is as prevalent as the literature suggests.  We wonder why the Balinese are hesitant to share information on these practices with foreigners if the practices still persist.

Ultimately, this situation raises questions of how textiles fit into traditional healing practices as these interact with ascendant biomedical systems in use today. Contemporary Bali has many clinics, hospitals, physicians, and nurses. How is this impacting geringsing’s mystique as a healing cloth?

Suggestions for Further Research in Medical Anthropology

Further fieldwork in Bali could address that important question. What is happening to geringsing, and ikatsin general, as traditional medicine (anchored as it is in cloth production and use) contends with the rise of biomedicine?

Contemporary medical anthropology could inform such studies. Medical anthropology draws on social, cultural, biological, political, and linguistic anthropology to understand factors that influence health, disease, treatment, and medical systems throughout history and today. Indonesia and Malaysia are of interest to medical anthropologists since internationalized biomedicine is on the rise there, against a backdrop of vibrantly sophisticated traditional medical systems. Dual medical systems result. Although most Indonesians and Malaysians seek biomedical treatment, they often also consult traditional healers. For instance, in an article in International Journal of Breast Cancer M. Muhamad et al found as many as 80% of Malaysians consult traditional healers at some point in their lives ( 2012). Why is this?  Answers are rooted in complex beliefs tied to religion, access to clinics and hospitals, and the costs of biomedicine.

One factor contributing to the dual medical system pertains to the idea of the body. In internationalized biomedicine, the body is viewed as a complex machine where the mind and body are completely separate. However, in Indonesia and Malaysia the body is viewed as a “microcosm of the universe,” where being at peace with the family, village, clan, and ancestral spirits is extremely important. Traditional medicine’s ability to provide healing for this spiritual, even cosmic body partly explains its continued appeal to many, including the highly educated.

Further research on the full social context of geringsing healing in an era of assertive, technology-based, globalized biomedicine would demand insights from the most recent scholarship in medical anthropology.  This literature also looks to politics and national contexts. Geringsing’s anxious and shifting relationship with globalized biomedicine (very much supported by the Indonesian state) calls for subtle political analysis.  Geringsing interpretations are about large issues of Balinese and Indonesian identities, and “tradition” and “modernity.” Once again ikat cloths have become sites of cultural contestation.


Good, Byron J., Michael M. J Fischer, Sarah S. Willen, and Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good, eds.
   2010     A Reader in Medical Anthropology: Theoretical Trajectories, Emergent Realities. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Maxwell, Robyn J.
   2003    Sari to Sarong: Five Hundred Years of Indian and Indonesian Textile Exchange. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia.
Muhamad, Mazanah, S. Merriam, and N. Suhami
   2012       “Why Breast Cancer Patients Seek Traditional Healers. “ International Journal of Cancer.Ramseyer, Urs
     1991     Geringsing: Magical Protection and Communal Identity, in B. Hauser-Schaublin, M. Nabholz-Kartaschoff and U. Ramseyer, Balinese Textiles (1991, London: British Museum Press), pp. 117-135.

World Health Organization: Indonesia and Bali.

For Further Reading

On medical anthropology, see Thomas M. Johnson and Carolyn Fishel Sargent, Medical Anthropology: A Handbook of Theory and Methods (1990, New York: Greenwood). Urs Ramseyer’s many works on textiles in Tenganan (listed in the bibliography for Balinese Textiles, 1991) are excellent sources on geringsing cloths.  On Bali Aga society more generally, see especially Thomas Reuter, The House of Our Ancestors: Precedence and Dualism in Highland Balinese Society (2002, Leiden, the Netherlands: KITLV Press). On Balinese modernities, see especially Adrian Vickers Bali: A Paradise Created (1997, Singapore: Periplus) and Adrian Vickers, editor, Being Modern in Bali (1996, New Haven, CT: Yale Southeast Asia Studies Series).