Central Sulawesi, Lore region to be exact, has been known as one of the places that still actively produces fuya/vuya or bark cloth, a 4,000-year-old prehistoric cultural heritage.
The sounds of paboba (bark beater made of wood of palm tree) and ike (bark beater made of hundreds-of-year-old marble or granite) hitting bark sheets on tatua (half-round wooden log) created a melodious tune that threw me back to Bada Valley, Central Sulawesi, in 1902. It was the first time Savarin and Savarin, a German writer duo, set foot in Bada Valley and were mesmerized by what they heard and saw.
In the book Reisen in Celebes—Journey in Sulawesi, they describe the insistent sound heard across the villages in Bada Valley as fuya music. The melody was produced by fuya-making women who were beating bark with ike.
Unfortunately, in February 2018, there was no continuous pounding sound of ike in Gintu Village, Bada Valley. More than 100 years after Savarin duo’s note had been written, standing alone before me was Elizabeth Kalahe, usually called Mama Beri, who was showing me how fuya or ranta was made.
“How many ranta makers are there, Mama?” I asked. “Ah! No more than your fingers,” Agus Tohama, the first guide in Bada Valley, spoke for Mama Beri. The nearly 80-year-old ranta craftswoman cannot speak Indonesian. Mama Beri said there are only five to seven ranta makers in Gintu, most of whom are elderly. One of them is in fact over 90 years old. Due to old age, they are unable to pound bark cloth for an extended period of time. Meanwhile, the process of making one sheet of such cloth can take months. Besides, the beating cannot be hurried; it has its own rhythm. The process has to stop whenever a traditional event, such as wedding or mourning, takes place.
Ranta-making in each valley has its own ritual. The ritual in Bada is different from the one in Napu, Behoa, Palu or Donggala.
Bada is one of the valleys in Lore that is part of the Lore Lindu National Park. This valley is famous among foreign researchers and archaeologists as a place where two prehistoric civilizations, Megalithic and Neolithic, met. In this very valley, 4,000-year-old prehistoric traditions are still actively performed, one of which is the making and the use of bark cloth.
Fuya, ranta, or inodo from Central Sulawesi was initially brought infrom Europe in 1657 by Domingo Navarrete, a Spanish monk, who visited Palu Valley. In the 20th century, many explorers, European pioneers and Western missionaries entered the jungle in Central Sulawesi and came across a nomadic community who wore bark cloth, similar to Domingo’s story.
For Lore Valley people, Bark cloth does not only serve as protective clothing and an art of dressing to look attractive, but also as a form of fulfillment for spiritual needs. In addition to being worn daily, bark clothing is also a compulsory attribute in traditional ceremonies. Some villages sanctify and regard it as an heirloom. “Thousands of years ago, our ancestors painted the values of local wisdom and knowledge through motif and colour on fuya,” explains Agus.
“Where can we see that?” I asked while observing Agus’ granddaughter who looked so enchanting in traditional bark clothes. It was her traditional wedding ceremony. Agus, besides being a guide in Lore Valley, is also a respected traditional figure in Gintu Village. His granddaughter’s wedding was attended by many traditional leaders from other villages.
“Motif and colour. There’s a banyan motif on our traditional clothes. This motif is also visible on megalithic stones our ancestors left behind.”
Banyan is an important tree for Lore community since it represents wisdom. Under banyan, many traditional affairs are conducted and settled. In addition to banyan motif, there is also python’s backbone motif as a symbol of devotion, and coconut leaf motif representing unity and balance or fairness in thought and action. “For Bada people, this fairness and unity are our core foundation,” Agus explains.
He then points at one of the colours on his traditional clothes. “Black symbolizes assertiveness. Red is bravery, yellow is glory, and purple…,” Agus directed his index finger to his granddaughter sitting on the wedding dais, “is greatness.”
Mama Beri and Agus mention that natural dyeing techniques have long been practiced by their ancestors. Bark cloth sheets have been coloured with natural dyes, such as charcoal, turmeric, noni/cheese fruit, mud and safflower. In fact, to make a bark sheet smooth and easily joined with another, they would also use a natural method: wrapping the beaten bark in noni leaves.
Despite their simple appearances, peboba and ike are the most vital tools in fuya or ranta making. Sheets of béa (paper mulberry), téa (breadfruit), malo (ara) or nunu (banyan) tree bark are beaten using peboba and three kinds of ike, differentiated by ridges. Ridges on each ike serve a purpose. The first type of ike has large ridges to flatten the bark. The second type has small ridges to smooth flattened bark, and the third has finer ridges that run horizontally, vertically, and diagonally; they smooth and create textures on fuya.
“In one of the documents I’ve read, when it was raining, your ancestors chose to take off their clothes and go naked so their bark clothes would not get damaged,” I say to Agus. He laughs. “Our clothes cannot come in contact with water, otherwise they will get mouldy. To avoid bad smell and damage, just hang them to dry in the sun.”
Fuya tradition in Central Sulawesi also reflects a harmonious relationship that the traditional people have with nature and their conservation efforts. Local wisdom in harnessing natural resources is reflected on the process of acquiring fuya raw materials. Only trees older than two years old and branches with a certain diameter can be taken for fuya material and are cut without cutting down the trunk.
The process of making a sheet of bark cloth into clothes is so sacred that Isamu Sakamoto, a professor and a world-renowned bark expert, considers fuya from Central Sulawesi one of the best in the world.