Ahead of our arrival I emailed our guide Yuli, asking if she could arrange an audience with the Queen of Rende. Extraordinary vibrant textiles brought us to the island in the first place and I was well aware that the best traditional weavings were to be found on East Sumba and the best of the best were in the village of Rende, and the pinnacle of all were from the queen herself.
In the best of Asian tradition of never saying “No” to anything, Yuli wrote back saying she would. So the very first day after our arrival I was very excited to head to the village, but as the tall traditional thatched roofs came into view Yuli admitted she didn’t not know the queen and had no idea how to get her to see us.
“Leave it to me,” I said. “I am good at weaseling my way in.”
Turns out it was easier than we thought. We were welcomed and presented with the visitor log by the very cousin of the queen. After initial exchange of pleasantries I pulled out my iPhone and started showing her the photos from the textile gallery in Bali where years ago I first saw the extraordinary weavings from Queen Eti. I had a photo of a beautiful woman weaver but when I said I would like to meet her, the cousin said, “No, you don’t want to meet her! She is just a slave!”
“Um, OK then, how about meeting the Queen?”
When I shamelessly dropped the name of Jean, the American owner of the Bali gallery we were whisked to the “palace” right away. Well, it was really just a nicer version of the traditional house, more intricate and made out of many buffalo hides and wood in addition to bamboo, and flanked by stone sculptures with layers of powerful animal carvings.
The woman who came out to greet us with a smattering of English bore close resemblance to her cousin, but was older than her, wearing gold rimed glasses. She was very gracious and elegant in her dress and demeanor, even if I could not call her regal. But then, how many queens have I met in my life? Waiting for the tea to be served
Rambu Eti was the daughter of one of the last kings of the nearby village of Pau and was at birth betrothed to a noble boy from the kingdom of Rende. While she was studying at the university on Java for her degree in education she got a call from her father that her mother had died and she had to return home to get married.
Dutifully she honored her obligation and married the young man. She proudly showed us the photographs on the walls of her palace porch depicting her ancestors, her wedding and her husband. Soon after marriage she realized that raising children and rice was not enough for an educated young woman and that weaving could become a good source of income and respect for her and the women in her kingdom. She perfected old techniques and invented new patterns and combinations using only natural dies and now her creations are sought after by discerning international collectors.
Seeing my enthusiasm for weaving she kindly unlocked wooden cupboards and chests and had old treasures brought out into the light. She showed us teaching tools-reed and cotton patterns for especially difficult raised pahikung weavings that she combines with regular ikat designs.
Those were secret patterns only allowed to be used by the queen and her trusted weavers, passed down upon the queen’s death to worthy weavers. She told us they were the tools to teach her children.
“Oh, her children are weavers, too?” I asked.
No, actually her children, two daughters, were university educated, one of them a dentist and the other a lawyer.
Yuli whispered that “children” was a synonym for slaves.
Quickly catching on, I asked, “How many children do you have in your household?”
“Oh, I had forty, but when my daughter got married I gave her five. Some where educated themselves as they took turns taking care of her when she studied on the mainland. I gave them special permission to study, too.”
Though slavery has officially been banned in Indonesia there are de facto slaves or at least very indentured servants still in existence on Sumba. Lack of education and jobs keeps people “in service” to their masters, who keep them in clothes and food, making decisions about their lives as if they were their children, never allowed to grow up. Yuli told us that those with gumption might be able to escape to the mainland where there are more job prospects. Same goes for brides who want to avoid arranged marriages or couples who don’t get the blessings from their families.
There are three main ‘castes’, maramba (royalty), kabihu (freemen) and ata (slaves) in Sumbanese society. It is hard to get away from the limitations and trappings of your caste. It was no surprise when we visited another royal house in a different village to find the dentist princess from Rende married to the prince of that house. The other two princely siblings there were married to an Australian and a Scotsman. We couldn’t stop laughing when Yuli told us the family spread word that the husband was a Scottish prince.
“No royalty in Scotland since 17th century, my dear,” we told her. “And as for the (white) Australians, they are all descendants of convicts.”
Surely these village kingdoms must be the tiniest kingdoms in the world and the least royal. When I asked Queen Eti where her husband was, she said he was working in the rice fields. “Many children’s mouths to feed,” she explained, “no time for retirement.”
When she saw how interested we were in the sculptures and the stories behind them she had one of the “children” bring out a few that were for sale. We had a great laugh together over a sculpture of a woman, that was used as a sugar cane press with a significant body part used as the repository of the sugar cane. We agreed that men everywhere in the world had a similarly working brain. There was talk about bumble bees intoxicated by the sugar cane juice and of boys in the rice fields unable to work when a pretty girl walked by. Just like with birth and death, sex is considered a natural part of life and nothing to hide. And breasts are definitely not a sexual object, but a useful appendage to feed the children. In old times men and women, both, went bare chested. Like in Bali and many other islands women only wore a sarong and a beaded necklace.
In fact in one of the villages we met an old weaver and dyer that still worked in this old, traditional outfit.
Yuli was very excited to come across her and see her special lot of indigo color in a clay pot, as she herself was reviving old dying techniques.
Some Sumbanese women today proudly wear a beaded necklace with a mamuli, an omega shaped, stylized anatomical female symbol. Or in fact just a cheaper version of a mamuli, as original golden mamuli were in the past worn in stretched out earlobes. They were given in at least the quantity of eight as a special and expensive gift to the mother of the bride by the groom and his family to acknowledge the pain of giving birth to the bride and as a special thanks for bringing up the bride. I think it also was the gift acknowledging the pain of loosing a daughter.
Being made of gold which per legend originates from the hot sun they are very powerful and as such are kept in the treasury with other special objects such as drums made from human skin to be only brought out every fall for the special traditional village festival when the whole clan gathers.
Besides mamuli, other gifts, such as buffalos and horses are expected by the bride’s family and in return are exchanged for woven treasures and pigs. As such the gifts to the bride’s parents are really a bride wealth not a bride price, though Yuli told us a nasty husband will throw into his wife’s face these words: “I bought you with the buffalo and you should work hard for me like a buffalo.”
The exquisite woven cloths given in exchange were usually not worn but saved as treasured items speaking of wealth and rank and the best ones saved for many years and only used for wrapping a body at the funeral.
No girl could get married until she learned how to weave and weave well on a simple back strap loom, as she was expected to not only keep her husband in good clothes, but to also provide the family with an endless supply of quality weavings to give away during ceremonies.
Every pattern and animal shape used in the weavings as well as stone, wood or bone carvings speaks of a symbol and the traditional Marapu cosmology.
They even show up on old women’s tattoos.
Besides the ever important (and demanding) spirits of ancestors there are many deities and nature spirits worshiped and appeased, but the main one is, according to Yuli, a dual male and female entity: Ama Namawgolu =Father Create –
Ina Namaravi=Mother Take Care.
Turtles are symbols of the queen, she must be wise and walk slowly and elegantly as a turtle. Lions and horses are symbols of kings and their strength, white cockatoos connote wise royalty. If you know what you are looking for or at least have someone to answer your questions you can get some glimpses into the past, too. For example in the weavings there is a motive of a skull tree with heads that the headhunters brought home, to capture the spirits of the killed enemy.
Not only animals but also colors were prescribed in dress, common men could only wear blue and white,
the royal ones also red and black, and if you dared to defy the convention you could be killed for the transgression.
Luckily those times are gone now and I was allowed to try on one of the best dresses that Queen Eti had made.
Learning how to walk like a turtle…
In the olden days one could, just by a quick glimpse of the clothes a person wore, immediately know exactly what their station in life was and where they came from. Nowadays T shirts and Western clothes dominate even in the villages and traditional clothes are only used for very special occasions. We were lucky to drive through a village preparing for a special church celebration and see some spectacular outfits.
As much as I hankered for any and all of the pieces Queen Eti showed us, our travel budget did not allow us to splurge. “Don’t worry,” whispered Yuli, “I will take you to the biggest shop-a Women’s coop, and you can pick your favorites there for better prices.”
So we drained the last of the tea from the cups that one of the “children” made for us and said goodbye to the queen. We left with the hope that the young girls will continue to learn how to weave their stories, their beliefs and perhaps a bit of modern creativity into the sumptuous Sumbanese cloth.