Across Indonesia infants are carried in slings formed from rectangular pieces of woven cloth. These carriers, called by many different names, are used in birth rituals welcoming the newborn to the community. All aspects of the carriers have special meanings: from the cut, color, design, and style of folding one can infer state of the infant’s health, the occasion, family status, and the carrier-gifter’s relation to the infant.
Sarrongs: South Sulawesi & East Nussa
In Indonesia, the Luwu people of South Sulawesi wrap the newborn and the placenta together in a sarrong. The placenta is referred to as the newborn’s “older sibling”. When the placenta is ready to separate from the infant, the father carries the “older sibling” out of the house, in a sling (just like a baby) and buries it near a tree.
In East Nusa, Tenggara Province, sarrongs are also used as baby carriers, in East Flores they are referred to as wėngko molė. Molė means “making the blanket” and wėngko refers to the placenta. Infant carriers are considered a kind of artificial womb, a substitute placenta for the baby.
In Java, the first moments of an infant’s life are believed to begin around three months prior to birth. But they are not fully integrated into the social fabric of the community until around seven months after birth, when for the first time the infant’s feet are allowed to touch the ground.
Infants are carried in a selendang which is also an article of clothing. They come in two sizes: tapih wijar or kain panjang which is wider and typically worn as a hip cloth by men and women, and the tapih ciyut, or “shoulder cloth”, which is narrower and worn only by women. When used as an infant carrier, the width of the fabric used is an indication of status, high status infants will be carried in the wider tapih wijar.
Sayut is a type of selendang, and is another term for infant carriers in Java, it has various meanings, including “wrapping around”, “encircling”, or “mutually supportive”. The sayut is made by three generations of women living together, and invokes the female ancestors. The newborn infant is worn in a sling, naked against the mother, until the umbilical stump falls off, and only then is dressed in clothing.
Similar to the custom of the Luwu people, the father places the placenta in a pot, places the pot in a special red and white sayut and buries it near the back door of the home. After the placenta has been buried, family and friends gather to offer the family gifts, including those of slings. During the ritual the newborn is passed to each woman present, each placing the baby in their sling for a time throughout the event.
The colors, patterns and folding method of the infant carrier indicate the occasion– whether shopping, attending a wedding or working. It is highly personalized, and is considered a replacement womb for the infant. The patterns of the sling may represent land, relationships, and even the female genitals.
“Giggling shyly, the women explain that the long fringes represent pubic hair.”Heringa, pg 96
Geography plays a part in the style of the fabric, on the north coast gendhongan is used. Gendhongan means “to carry” and is a brightly colored batik cloth, which is close in size to the tapih wijar, however, the stripes are perpendicular to the short sides which indicate that it is a tapih ciyut or shoulder cloth.
Grandmothers: Pipitan & Putihan
Another style of Javanese sling is the pipitan, which is created by the maternal grandmother of the infant using no more than three colors. The pipitan, which means “closely tied together” links the new baby with their maternal ancestors.
The paternal grandmother gives a gift of a putihan, which means “pure”, a sling with a single color: indigo. The putihan will be employed when the infant is sick or injured, or for ritualistic purposes.
The midwife, or dukun bayi, acts as a third grandmother, representing the ancestors. She presents the baby with a three-color pipitan, made from reddish-brown cotton.
The distinction between the pipitan and the putihan also alludes to the differences in relationships of the grandparents to the infant. The pipitan, offered by the maternal grandparents is an everyday carrier, the maternal grandparents are part of the community and are an everyday feature of the infant’s life. The putihan is a special-occasions-only carrier as the paternal grandparents live outside the community, and may only be seen on special occasions.
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Russell, N. U. “Aspects of Baby Wrappings: Swaddling, Carrying and Wearing.” Ed. Susanna Harris and Laurence Douny. Wrapping and Unwrapping Material Culture: Archaeological and Anthropological Perspectives. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast, 2014. 43-58. Print.
Heringa, R. “Java– Symbol of Feminitiy.” Beloved Burden: Baby Carriers in Different Countries. By I. C. Van Hout. Amsterdam: KIT, 2005. 92-97. Print.