A collection of batik shirts I have. Photo by Darrell Pinontoan / North by Northwestern

A fancy shirt with cool designs and colors is how my friends would usually describe the batik shirts I wear from time to time. While they are intricate and colorful (at times), they’re not just some basic fabric I wear without meaning. Batik is something specific to my Indonesian heritage that carries a long history of traditions, culture and storytelling.

If you ask any Indonesian where batik is from, they’re going to give you an adamant answer that batik is exclusively Indonesian. They’ll fight you on it, and I will, too. Nevertheless, different forms of batik can be found in Malaysia, South Asia, China and Africa. While they may have their similarities, you shouldn’t equate them to Indonesian batik.

While the name "batik" is usually associated with the cloth itself, it’s actually the name for the Indonesian method of wax-resist dyeing. This is where wax (usually beeswax) is applied to cloth with a canting (pronounced “chanting”) before dying so that only specific areas are dyed. This can then be repeated multiple times depending on how intricate the design is and how many colors are used. The canting method can be traced back all the way to the mid-18th century in Indonesia. Since 2009, Batik has been designated by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

So, why is batik so important? Batik has a long history associated with traditions from different regions of Indonesia. Batik can be used to signify different stages in a wedding ceremony, historically differentiate between different social castes and identify different provinces in Indonesia.

This is a batik motif from the city of Cirebon, it’s called “Megamendung” and meant to depict clouds. By Darrell Pinontoan.

While batik is mainly found in Java and originates from there, there are different batik motifs that belong to other provinces in Indonesia, too. A well-informed person (like my mom, for example) can identify where a specific motif comes from just by looking at the patterns.

Batik is close and dear to my family too. My family (specifically my mom’s side of the family) is of Mangkunegoro (also written as Mangkunegara in Bahasa Indonesia or English) lineage. Mangkunegaran is a Javanese princely state that can be found in the Surakarta region in Indonesia.

Today, the state holds no power and my lineage only carries cultural, rather than political, significance. The princely state is also now fully integrated into Indonesia, with its ruler only holding a ceremonial role. Batik was originally only worn by members of the royal family: Anyone who did not have the royal lineage was forbidden from wearing it and could be punished for doing so. Even within the royal family, different castes were set from rulers, princes, noblemen and so on. All these different castes were given different motif designations. These motifs were known as batik parang, and its origins can be traced back to the royal lineage in my family and the surrounding rulers in the region.

The word “parang” translated “dagger.” Batik parang resembles rows of daggers, specifically an Indonesian dagger called “keris.” By Darrell Pinontoan.

In addition to its historical significance to my family, batik was something that we held onto dearly during our time living abroad. It was the one thing that we could wear to represent the country we come from. It was also a way to randomly run into other Indonesians around the world.

Batik was the one thing that I could visibly show people to associate myself with Indonesia. It was the one thing that I could use to hide the un-Indonesian-ness that lies within me. Batik helped unite me with my family, my countrymen and anyone else who was intrigued by the intricate designs found on the shirts I’d proudly wear. Batik is literally the thread that unites us.

Batik is something I will always cherish and hold dearly in my heart. The cultural implications of batik and the rich heritage that comes with it have always fascinated me. We can argue all day about its origins or whose is best, but I’m sure we can all come to an agreement about how beautiful it is. So, the next time you come across someone wearing a fancy looking shirt with interesting designs, ask them what it’s about – who knows what you’ll learn.