The Malay world extends from southern Thailand, through the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, and on to Java, Sulawesi and the southern Philippines. This archipelago has been the most easterly frontier of Islam for the past 500 years. Lush as the tropical land itself, the art of the region is a synthesis of many traditions.
For centuries, Southeast Asia was part of the greatest trading route the world had ever seen, surpassing the Silk Road for quantity and variety. It was a meeting place for different Asian empires, as well as the new trading powers that emerged from the West. Central to these global influences was Islam, guiding a culture of restrained opulence.
Subjects such as stylised plants, fruit and clouds are found in a wide variety of media. On textiles, these are often taken to a degree of abstraction that puts them in the realm of pure geometry. Parallel with this is the use of calligraphy, to give an even more visible expression of religious belief. The material from which these cloths were made gives them an added grandeur. Gold thread and elaborately tie-dyed silk reflect the esteem in which they were originally held.
Qur’anic manuscripts of the Malay world are immediately identifiable by their vegetal scrolls, trailing tendrils and other floral motifs, showing once again the region’s debt to nature. The palette is also exceptional, resonating with a contrast of red, yellow and black, embellished with gold on manuscripts for the royal courts.
Craftsmanship in wood and metal is another tradition for which the Malay world was once renowned. Liveliness of concept and quality of execution were very much part of Malay artisanship. This was especially true for objects of hospitality, often expressed in the form of exquisite silver betelnut sets or elegantly proportioned brass trays.
The harmonious marriage of iridescent colours in Malay textiles is perhaps best seen in examples pf finely woven kain limar. Principally produced in the states of Tererengganu and Kelantan on the East Coast of the Malay Peninsula. While these cloths are now associated with the Sultanate of Terengganu, in the past they were also part of royal ceremonial costume in Riau and Lingga archipelagosWoven only in silk, the kain limar is at times further embellished with the occasional supplementary gold weft – producing a magnifiencet cloth known as limar bersongket.
Once the preserve of royalty and aristocrats, ‘cloths of gold’ such as the songket still hold pride in the many Southeast Asian cultures. The stiffness of fabric helps it to drape across the body, usually worm by women upon their shoulder; or worn by men, as it is secured around the waist as part of a ceremonial attire. The songket remains popular in the Malay culture till today.
Batik bertulis which are often inscribed with Qur’anic verses are highly regarded for their protective qualities. They were once essential to the daily life, ceremony and ritual of Muslim communities throughout Southeast Asia. The batik bertulis has its many uses, such as head cloths for men and draped on the body as a shoulder cloth for women. Other possible uses were as temporary covers for coffins or tombs in funerary rituals, as well as ceremonial hangings or banners.
The kris is the most venerated weapon throughout the Malay world, and has become a symbol of national identity in Malaysia. These daggers with a distinctively wavy blade symbolise the warrior spirit of Southeast Asia. Whether intended for ceremonial or practical use, they have always been regarded with awe. Astonishing feats are still attributed to kris, which are believed capable of everything from weeping tears to flying unaided to kill their victims. Beyond doubt is the quality of their manufacture. In addition to blades crafted with devotion are superbly executed hilts and sheaths.
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