How Did Batik Come to Java?

While fragments of wax-resist or batik cloth have survived in parts of the world, dating to early 5th and 6th centuries AD in Egypt, and 8th century AD Japan, it’s not known with certainty where this process began. Some researchers feel the technique was developed in India then spread out from there.

One thing is sure, trade between India and Southeast Asia was mentioned as early as the 1st century AD. By 1200 the Hindu religion and culture was a major influence in many parts of what is now Indonesia. Imported Indian textiles continued to have a deep impact in the region well into the early 19th century. In 1518 the first known use of the word tulis was associated with a shipment of trade goods from Java. (Elliot p. 22)

Today distinctive traditional batik styles can be found in Africa, China, Malaysia, Sri Langka and Northern Thailand. But of all the places known for traditional batik, none are as famous for their rich heritage of patterns and colors as Indonesia, especially Javanese batik.

Batik in the Royal Court Cities of Central Java

Unlike the more open, free-spirited north coast of Java influenced by traders from Europe, India, Arabia and China, the royal court cities of Central Java looked inward, building on a different set of rules and values.

In 1755, the nearly 200-year-old Mataram Sultanate of Central Java split into the two court cities of Yogyakarta and Surakarta, or Solo as it’s also known. These ancient aristocratic, feudal societies placed much emphasis on tradition, a sense of order within a strict code of conduct, an awareness of spiritual values and the use of symbolism. Power was concentrated at the top under the sultan as supreme ruler.

These deeply held values are clearly reflected in the batik of this region. From the Hindu-Buddhist era in Java come stylized forms from nature, using rounded, flowing lines rather than realistic depictions of flowers or leaves. Believers of Islam, which came to Java in the 1500s, are not allowed to portray any living creature. This in turn pushed batik into more geometric designs.

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