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  • Syiva Zahra

Threads of Tradition: The Story of Sarung

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

One of Indonesia's traditional attires deeply rooted for generations is the sarung. The sarung holds immense cultural significance in Indonesia and has played a vital role throughout its history. Both men and women in Indonesia regularly wear the Indonesian sarung, also commonly referred to as "kain sarung" or "kain batik," for various occasions, ranging from everyday wear to formal gatherings. It symbolizes the country's rich heritage and holds great cultural value.


The history of the sarung in Indonesia is intricately intertwined with the diverse cultural heritage of the nation. The use of sarung-like clothing can be traced back to ancient times in the Indonesian archipelago. Archaeological evidence suggests that early Indonesian civilizations, such as the Sriwijaya and Majapahit empires, had textile traditions that included the wearing of sarungs. These ancient sarungs were typically hand-woven from natural fibers like cotton.


The development of the sarung tradition in Indonesia was significantly influenced by Indian cultural influences, particularly through trade and Hindu-Buddhist connections. The fabric and draping designs of sarungs were influenced by Indian textiles, such as the lungi and dhoti, which are unsewn garments wrapped around the waist to cover the loins and most of the legs. Additionally, the tie-dyeing technique known as ikat, rooted in Indian textile traditions, became an integral part of Indonesian weaving. Sarungs are often created using the ikat technique, resulting in distinct Indian influences. Indian cultural motifs and symbols, including depictions of Hindu gods and goddesses like Ganesha and Lakshmi, also found their way onto Indonesian sarungs, highlighting the influence of Indian religion and culture.


The arrival of Islam in Indonesia in the 13th century also shaped the history of the sarung. As Islam became the predominant religion in many areas, both men and women began wearing sarungs. Islamic teachings and regional traditions influenced the design, patterns, and symbolism of sarungs. The way sarungs are worn, especially by Muslims, reflects Islamic teachings on body covering and modesty. In Indonesia, the sarung is typically worn by Muslims as a lower garment worn with a shirt or blouse. The loose and flowing nature of the sarung allows for ease of movement during prayers and other religious activities. Islamic art and calligraphy have also influenced the patterns and designs found on sarungs, with Islamic motifs like arabesques, geometric patterns, and Quranic verses commonly featured. These patterns not only serve as decorative elements but also represent the wearer's cultural identity and religious beliefs.


Indonesian sarungs are typically made from various materials, including cotton, silk, rayon, or a blend of fabrics. The choice of fabric depends on the region, occasion, and personal preference. Batik sarungs, in particular, are highly popular and are created using a wax-resist dyeing technique. They feature a wide variety of motifs, including floral designs such as Megamendung or Parang, animals, birds, geometric shapes, and scenes from mythology and nature. Sarung ikat often showcases vibrant, abstract, symmetrical designs in bold colors. Another traditional weaving technique, known as songket, incorporates intricate patterns and motifs woven with gold or silver threads. Sarung songket is highly valued and often displays traditional symbols, floral patterns, or geometric designs. Handwoven textiles, known as tenun, are also used for sarungs and represent various Indonesian ethnic groups and geographical regions through a diverse range of motifs, colors, and patterns. These motifs can be stylized versions of plants, mythical creatures, animal figures, or geometric shapes.


Regional variations are prominent in sarung designs across Indonesia. Javanese sarungs, for example, are known for their complex and symbolically rich Batik motifs. Classic Javanese Batik designs include Parang Rusak, Truntum, Sido Mulyo, and Kawung. Balinese sarungs stand out with their vibrant colors and intricate patterns, often featuring floral motifs such as the bunga palem (palm flower) or bunga kemuning (frangipani flower), as well as Hindu mythological scenes like the Barong or Legong dance. Sumatran sarungs incorporate Malay, Minangkabau, and Batak influences, often characterized by striking geometric patterns and symbols representing the customs and cultures of each ethnic group. Sarungs from Sulawesi exhibit intricate weaving techniques and unique motifs inspired by the natural world and mythological tales. These motifs frequently include abstract patterns as well as animals like the tikus (rat) and toke (gecko).


The Indonesian sarung represents the nation's rich artistic and cultural heritage. It is a cherished garment passed down through generations, valued for its aesthetic appeal and cultural significance. Beyond clothing and textiles, sarungs have a profound cultural impact in Indonesia. They are interwoven into the fabric of the nation's culture, encouraging artistic expression, preserving ancient practices, and contributing to the socioeconomic well-being of sarung-producing communities. Furthermore, sarungs have influenced contemporary Indonesian fashion. Designers often incorporate traditional sarung elements into modern clothing styles, creating fusion designs that blend traditional aesthetics with current fashion trends. This integration keeps the sarung relevant and appealing to a wider audience. Indonesian youths are also embracing the berkain or kain-wearing trend, which further highlights the growing recognition and appreciation of the sarung.

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