Cultures In Focus: Indonesia

This post explores the culture of infant carriers in Indonesia, where the carriers are offered as gifts featuring special symbolism in their colors and prints.


(originally written by A.P. for Evolution of Babywearing)

In Indonesia, the Luwu people of South Sulawesi wrap the newborn and the placenta (think lotus birth) together in a sarong. 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.

mapIn East Nusa, Tenggara Province, sarongs are also used as baby carriers, in East Flores they are referred to as wėngko molė, or “making the blanket”– wėngko refers to the placenta. Infant carriers are considered an artificial womb, a substitute placenta for the baby.

In Java, the first moment of an infant’s life are believed to begin around three months prior to birth, and 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.

Similar to the custom of the Luwu people, here the father places the placenta in a pot, places it in a special red and white sayut, a type of slendang, and buries it near the back door of the home. The infant is worn in a sling, naked against the mother until the umbilical stump falls off, and only then is dressed in clothing. 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.

Typically, infants are carried in a slendang– which is also an article of clothing. They come in two sizes: tapih wijar/ kain panjang which is wider and typical 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. Geography also 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.
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, 96).

java anatomyDiagram of Gendhongan, (Heringa, 96).

Sayut 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. 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 pipitain, which means, “closely tied together”, and  links the new baby with their maternal ancestors. The paternal grandmother gives a gift of a sling with a single color, indigo; this sling is called putihan, which means “pure”. The putihan will be employed when the infant is sick or injured, or for ritualistic purposes. The distinction between the pipitan and the putihan also alludes to the differences in relationships between the grandparents and 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– the paternal grandparents live outside the community and may only be seen on special occasions. 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.

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 Feminity.” Beloved Burden: Baby Carriers in Different Countries. By I. C. Van Hout. Amsterdam: KIT, 2005. 92-97. Print.

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