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Design Traditions – the Javanese Heritage


For hundreds of years batik textiles have played a vital role in Indonesian culture and society.
Along with literature, dance, puppet theatre (wayang kulit) and music (gamelan), batik is one of the most important elements of traditional Javanese art. Although it is not known precisely when batik as a technique of dyeing originated, or whether it is indigenous or of adopted origin, its spiritual content and artistic meaning synthesizes influences from many cultures.

For centuries trading contacts had existed amongst the peoples living around the Indian Ocean. By the beginning of the Christian era, China and the Mediterranean world with their enormous demand for spices, aromatic woods, resins and gold were added to the trading network. The straits of Malacca between the Malayan Peninsula and Sumatra linked the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. Trade was based on a system of bartering with Indian textiles as the principal trading commodity.

Hindu and Buddhist Influence

Around about the end of the 7th century Hindu and Buddhist cultural influence from India began to take hold of the islands and culminated with the founding of the kingdom of Sri Vijaya in the 8th century followed by the domination of the Majapahit Kingdom from the end of the 12th century. The great Buddhist and Hindu temple complexes of the Dieng Plateau, as well as the monuments of Borobodur and Prambanam date from this period.

From then on Indian textiles made their inroad into South East Asia, and the peoples of the Indonesian archipelago discovered block printed, as well as ikat-decorated textiles (see glossary) from Gujarat and cloths with hand-drawn motifs (kalamkari) from the Coromandel coast. The Indian ikats (patola) took prime position amongst these and very quickly became sacred objects used in various rituals. They were treated as heirlooms, and it is thanks to this custom that some of the oldest Indian patolas have survived. Throughout Javanese textile history producers have tried to imitate Indian patolas. Even batik patterns are said to be strongly influenced by these ikat cloths.

Popular Indian motifs and symbolism thus further enriched the Indonesian decorative repertoire. Snakes (nagas), the wishing tree, the tree of life, the cosmic ocean, the sacred mountain (Mt Meru), the lotus, the “monster” head, the mythical eagle Garuda (the vehicle of the god Vishnu) and many other motifs found parallels in the indigenous system of beliefs and symbolism and were easily assimilated and transformed for decorative purposes. Both shadow puppet theatre, with its rendering of the great epics of India (“The Mahabharata” and “The Ramayana”), and the art of batik are permeated with references to Indian philosophy and religion.

Islamic and Chinese Inflence

During the course of the 13th century Islam was brought to north Sumatra by Muslim traders from India. From there this new religion spread to other islands so that by the late 15th century the Hindu era had come to an end in Java, and new values were introduced to the Indonesian archipelago. The Muslim rulers had a big influence on the arts, including batik.

The Islamic ban on representing living creatures led to the development of complex geometric and other highly stylised motifs in the arts. In the courts of central Java this interdiction was strictly adhered to. On the north coast, however, a more flexible attitude to creature-motifs was maintained. This was due to the arrival of a new wave of Chinese traders and immigrants, at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, who set up wax printing factories.

European Influence

The desire to secure spices at their source brought about European colonisation of South East Asia at the beginning of the 16th century. However it was not until 100 years later that the word “bathik” is actually mentioned in a Javanese chronicle and also in Dutch sources, in reference to a shipload of fabrics decorated with colourful patterns. The motifs of batik textiles began to reflect the taste for European fashions. The flower bouquet motif (buketan) became very popular, probably inspired by the tapestry embroideries on canvas brought by or sent to the new immigrants. Filigree-like motifs in imitation of European laces started to appear. European wallpaper too had a big influence on designs during this period.

At the beginning of the 20th century several European women started up their own workshops. Their designs were often based on elements from traditional batiks as well as their own. The European taste (especially the Dutch) for simplicity resulted in designs that were purely decorative. Until now the identity of the wearer had been important. From now on it would be more usual to see batik textiles signed by their creators. Occidental individualism was introduced to the tradition of batik. Along with this trend the underlying meaning of certain cloths became irrelevant, and motifs that had formerly been the reserve of the sultans became common property.

Colour and Dyes

Until the middle of the 1800s plant dyes were used in the production of batik; one rarely found more than three or four colours on a textile. These were blue in varying shades extracted from the leaves of the Indigofera plant; red was obtained from the bark of Symplocos fasciculata mixed with the root of Morinda citrifolia and brown from the bark of the renowned Soga tree, Peltophorum pteroccupum. The superposition of these colours in different combinations varied the palette somewhat. The preparation and mixing of the dyestuff was a family secret, and all activity related to the dyeing of cloth was considered sacred. It was the domain of elderly women. Since the beginning of the 20th century chemical dyes have slowly replaced natural dyes. This has had the result of liberating women from the arduous task of extracting dyes from plants and allowed them to concentrate on other stages of production. Nowadays men are in charge of the dyeing processes.

As with motifs, colours bear a variety of messages. In the old days the colour code was understood by everyone and strictly adhered to. According to its colour a batik could be attributed to a certain region or worn on a specific occasion. It could also indicate the age or social rank of the person it was made for.


Traditional batik cloths were charged with a profusion of visual messages. They were the visual expressions of the philosophical and spiritual concepts of the Javanese people. These motifs may often seem enigmatic and their message cryptic to the uninitiated, but most of the people who wore them understood their underlying meaning. What one wore was not arbitrary. One can marvel at the patterns of certain batiks and be content with the visual experience, but more often closer study will reveal a second level of experience.

Batik motifs are generally divided into two categories. Those based on geometric principles and those on non-geometric.

Geometric patterns

These are based on geometric configurations but may also incorporate naturalistic forms such as plants, animals or even figures from the shadow puppet theatre. Some of the motifs belonging to this category are:


Image may contain: Cobalt blue, Blue, Electric blue, Pattern, Line.

Tumpal is also a very old and popular design seen on batik clothing. It consists of rows of elongated lying triangles. It symbolises life force and is considered to have magical powers. The design often appears at the ends of a sarong/kain panjang. When these ends are sewn together, as in the sarong, a panel is formed with two rows of tumpals facing each other, creating a lozenge of a contrasting colour in the middle. Tumpals are most often filled with flower or animal motifs.

Garis miring

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Garis miring patterns are diagonally aligned designs that are some of the most striking and typical of Javanese motifs. Diagonals and intercepting diagonals forming diamonds are regarded as auspicious patterns. Amongst the garis miring designs is the parang (knife, dagger, blade), the motif par excellence of Javanese batik. In days gone by this motif was the exclusive property of the courts of Surakarta and Jogyakarta. Nowadays as a result of the breakdown of rule by the sultans, the parang motif is worn by all and sundry.


Image may contain: Pattern, Brown, Tile, Floor, Flooring.

Ceplok, basert på firkanter, romber, sirkler o.s.v.. Til denne gruppen hører de sterkt stiliserte blomster-motivene som hevdes å være imitasjoner av indiske dobbelikat.

Udan liris

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Udan liris (light rain, misty rain) is another motif arranged in the garis miring manner. It consists of diagonal row upon row of narrow bands of well-known classical batik designs.


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Kawung, based on a combination of the square and circle in parallel rows. The kawung motif was formerly reserved for the sultans’ use. Its original meaning has fallen into oblivion over the course of time.

Tambal miring

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Tambal miring design is a patchwork of well-known designs set within triangles, circles, and onion-shaped lozenges arranged in diagonal or horizontal rows. This design is said to commemorate the humility of the Buddha who wore robes made up of patches.


Image may contain: Font, Text, Line, Pattern, Design.

Banji/swastika, the auspicious symbol of the Hindus and Buddhists. Ceplok, based on squares, rhomboids, circles etc. To this group belong the highly stylised floral patterns that are said to be in imitation of the Indian double ikat from Gujarat.

Nitik motifs

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Nitik motifs are composed of small dots and lines imitative of weaving structures of fabrics and matting.

Non geometric patterns

At first sight these designs may appear to be more spontaneous in their expression. The motifs that make up the design seem to be placed at random over the cloth. However on closer inspection one discovers a certain repetition here too. The largest and the best-known group of motifs in this category are the semen type (“semi”, small buds and young leaves). Here we find representations of all that is most luscious in Javanese flora. Plants in all stages of growth; roots, leaves, buds, flowers, (or parts of these) enlarged details of any part of the above used as principle motifs can be represented, as are mountains, stylised waves, trees, etc. Scattered in this profusion of pulsating plant life and nature are living creatures from the real and imaginary world, creatures of the air, land and sea: phoenixes, dragons, snakes, eagles, (garudas), butterflies, insects, fish, crabs and many others. The imagination of the artist is the limit. All are symbols of the regenerating and fecundating properties of the earth, sea and sky. As such, batiks with these symbols were understandably reserved for the use of the sultan (a larangan or forbidden motif). The iconography can be further enriched with temples, pavilions, and ships. All charged with spiritual content.

To this category of motifs belong plant, bird and animal motifs as well as the representation of landscapes:

Plant motifs

Plant motifs may be vines or creepers (lung-lung) or trees like the banyan tree (under which the Buddha reached enlightenment) with their aerial as well as underground root systems. Associated with these may be stylised banana leaves and flowers (pisang bali) and lotuses (symbols of purity and perfection). Modern semen patterns feature flowers like the hibiscus.

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Banana flower (Pisang Bali)

Bird motifs

Bird motifs from the real and imaginary worlds are scattered amidst the flora of the jungle.

Birds have always played an important role in both the symbolism and art of Indonesia and the garuda most of all. Garuda is the legendary mount of the Hindu god Vishnu. It has been given great prominence and is the national symbol of Indonesia. It is associated with power and success and is invariably present in semen batiks as a single wing, in pairs or as two flattened out adjacent wings with a wide-spreading tail.

The Phoenix

The Phoenix is another popular motif, imported from China where it is an emblem of beauty. It is associated with peace and prosperity and wards off bad luck. It is represented as a flying feathery creature with a long tail and with a crest on its head.

The Peacock

The Peacock is a motif with antecedents in Indian and Chinese mythology. Other birds to be found in semen batiks are the rooster or chicken - symbol of the sun, courage and fertility - the nightingale, the pigeon, the parrot, the crow and many others. However all are not readily recognisable.

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Image may contain: Illustration, Leaf, Plant, Tree.
Image may contain: Drawing, Illustration, Sketch, Line art.
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Other animal

Other animal motifs which are commonly depicted in semen batiks are:

The lion

The lion in its Indian, kala form - a sort of monster head - or in its Chinese form with a curling mane and flowing tail.

The Snake/dragon

The Snake/dragon motif, symbol of fertility, water and the underworld is also a frequent motif in semen batiks. They are often depicted in pairs facing each other or looking away from each other. They are guardians of temples and are often considered to be very auspicious.

Other living creatures frequently appearing in semen type batiks are caterpillars, beetles butterflies as well as sea creatures such as the shrimp, lobster, jellyfish and others.

Image may contain: Line art, Head, Illustration, Drawing.
Kala (Indian lion)
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Chinese Lion
Image may contain: Seahorse, Syngnathiformes, Illustration, Organism, Line art.
Naga (Snake)

Natural phenomena

Natural phenomena may be rocks (in Taoism symbols of the creative force of nature, its strength, endurance and majesty) and clouds. In Javanese mythology, placed together they symbolise the union of the earth and sky suggestive of procreative powers. Ranges of mountains are also often depicted on semen batiks in white on a dark background with the highest mountain representing Mount Meru, the centre of the Hindu-Buddhist universe. In Javanese mythology mountains are the home of the gods, ancestors and supernatural beings and a place to which one goes to acquire magical powers.

Image may contain: Pattern, Brown, Organism, Carving, Design.

Pavilion-like temples

Other motifs often found in the non-geometric category may be pavilion-like temples (candi) or ships symbolising the passing from one world to another.

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Temple (Candi)

Flower patterns

Once the production of batik moved out of the hands of the Javanese (and to some extent the Chinese) these textiles started to lose their symbolic content. For instance the buketan patterns have no hidden meaning; they are to be enjoyed at face value, for their flowing lines and colour.

Image may contain: Textile, Plant, Flower.


Published Mar. 27, 2020 11:47 AM - Last modified Dec. 21, 2020 11:30 AM