Malay Garment Technology

Malay sarong sarung kain palikat batik lungi veshti dhoti

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ast weekend featured the most exciting Malaysian cultural event I’ve heard of in a long time:  a flash mob of people wearing sarongs descended on the LRT lines in Kuala Lumpur.  I would have joined in solidarity from Kuching, but, alas, we have no trains.  We have Jalan Keretapi, but the train, tracks and station are all missing in action. No matter.

Well should Malaysians be proud of their sarongs.  It is local technology that has spread around the world, from Yemen to Fiji.  I had first encountered the sarong in Sri Lanka, where it is the household garment of choice for the Sri Lankan man.  Upon arrival as a uhhh foreign exchange student, I was instructed to cut my unacceptably feminine shoulder-length hair.  Next I was told to trade in my trousers for a sarong.  Savor the irony.

with Goviya Mudiyanse Tennekoone, Sri Lanka 1991
with Goviya Mudiyanse Tennekoone, Sri Lanka 1991

Sri Lankans are no strangers to cloth wraps.  The lungis, veshtis, dhotis of the subcontinent are all lengths of cloth worn around the waist, as is the izar of the Arabs, worn by Our Master Muhammad, peace be upon him.  The key distinction, which affects the way it is tied, worn and looks, is the sarong is stitched to create a hoop or sheath of cloth.  The Malay word sarung can also mean the sheath of a sword or any other thin wrapping or skin of an object.  Malays brought the word and presumably the innovation itself to Sri Lanka, where a small community of ethnic Malays still exists to this day.  Sarong has now entered English as well, making it another Malay Contribution to English, for the record.

Despite gifting this word to the rest of the world, in Malaysia the word is rarely used nowadays.  Instead the term kain batik is used for the ladies, who get stunning floral ones, and kain palikat (pelikat/plikat/plaikat) for the men, who get dull plaid ones. I wondered about that term: palikat.  No one could tell me what it meant.  But it dawned on me one day.  I had been searching for a nice cotton sarong. Thin, breathable, cool, like the ones I wore in Lanka.  All I could find were 100% synthetic materials.  They certainly looked sharp, they didn’t fade despite the sun, and they dried quickly despite the humidity.  But it wasn’t what I wanted.  When I found one that felt a bit more like a soft, natural fabric, the store owner told me it was a polyester-cotton blend: a poly-cot. Polycot.  Palikat.  The word Kain palikat replaced sarong because synthetic fiber blends were enthusiastically adopted by Malaysians as superior to cotton fabrics.  You heard it here first, folks. Fanciful etymology? True unearthed origin of the word? Preposterous rubbish? I stand by my theory until a better one comes along.

PulicatPreposterous Rubbish!  Preposterous Rubbish it is! Saudara Jordan (who knows from sarongs) quickly pointed to the five-hundred-year-old writings of a Portugeuse traveler to the region, one Castenheda. This Castenheda records that Tamil-speaking traders at that time were importing great volumes of cloth for sarongs, originating from the seaport of Paleakat, “a region of Thondai Mandalam which is made up of the south eastern districts of Andra and the north eastern districts of Tamilnadu” according to Dr. S.Jayabarathi. That corresponds with the present-day town of Pulicat, up the coast from Chennai (Madras). I’m convinced though quietly disappointed . Truly, the fabric of life in Malaysia is woven of threads from all over the world.

A cotton sarong from Pulicat
UPDATE: Incontrovertible proof. Chop Sipoth (Snail brand) all-cotton sarongs from Madras (now Chennai) and Pulicat!


Sarungs are good enough – in fact awesome – for lounging aound the house. Malay women, strictly in the privacy of their homes, will often tie a kain batik under the arms for a one-piece house dress. Malay men will also wear them to the mosque or to religious functions in the neighborhood, with a shirt of course. But they fall short of what is needed for occasions of high formality. For weddings, high holidays, royal ceremonies and the like, there is the songket:



When holding thread to stitch a songket
Back and forth stitch threads of gold
When you recall a small favor done
Be not concerned to ask in return


Ada benang kain disongket
Benang emas ikat berbelas
Apa dikenang budi sedikit
Bukan cemas minta dibalas

As the pantun mentions, the songket is a sarong woven through with golden or silver threads. The result is magnificent. It is worn differently from the ordinary sarong, above the ankles, typically just below the knees. Matched with traditional Malay shirts and trousers in complementary tones, it makes a striking outfit. I wore one at my wedding, and never since that I can recall. Guys who like looking good will wear them every Friday for congregational prayer, but I lack the necessary swagger.


Dad and I in Songkets

And now, we conclude with the utterly ridiculous Sarong Song by Anuar Zain Ft. Ellina. Sisqo, watch out!

Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarongs can be used so many ways

Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarong, Sarong! Wear them here and there

Sarongs are such special clothes
They let the air in all around
Wear over your head with such ease
Mothers, sling your child, it’s a breeze

To rest at home they are divine
At wedding days they really shine
Sarong Sarong! Don’t you let
Your eyes rest on that rip!

Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarong, Sarong! So dang comfortable!

Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarong Sarong lalalala
Sarongs, you oughta wear them all the time!

Kain pelikat lalalala
Kain pelikat lalalala
Kain pelikat diguna aneka cara

Kain pelikat lalalala
Kain pelikat lalalala
Kain pelikat dipakai disini sana

Pakaian istimewa
Berangin-angin keliling
Kelengkapan tudung kepala
Ibu menggendong anaknya

Ke kamar rehat sesuai
Bila kenduri dipakai
Kain pelikat dielak
Bertenggok koyak

Kain pelikat lalalala
Kain pelikat lalalala
Kain pelikat selesa memang selesa

Kain pelikat lalalala
Kain pelikat lalalala
Kain pelikat diguna semua ketika

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Malay pantuns courtesy of Malay Civilization.
Sarong Song lyrics courtesy of lirik lagu muzika.
English translations entirely the fault of Bin Gregory Productions.

International Poetry Translated

If you’ve enjoyed my feeble attempts to translate Malay poems and songs over the years, perhaps you’d like the Poetry Translation Centre.  Contemporary poets of Asia, Africa and South America are translated into English by a two-step process: a native speaker translates the words literally, then the poets of PTC render it in poetic English.  It looks very faithfully done, unlike how Coleman Barks does Rumi, where he “interprets” Rumi based on his own inspiration after reading Arberry’s translation.  There are no Malaysian poets translated by the PTC as yet.  If you are a native BM speaker, you should submit!

Di dalam kuali bertemu juga


Garam di laut, asam di darat

Di dalam kuali bertemu juga

Limes* from dry land, salt from the sea

In the pot may meet eventually

After ten years, I’ll finally be returning to the motherland with my whole family.  Five of my children have never set foot in the US before.  Of all the difficulties inherent in an international marriage, the constant separation from half one’s family has been by far the most difficult for us.  For five years, we endured it with her side, and now for ten we’ve endured it with mine.  But O happy day!  We fly on Monday for a one-month trip.  When next I write, it should be from Three Roods Farm. 7 children on a 36-hour voyage:  May Allah have mercy on us.


Asam di darat

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* Asam refers to any sour ingredient in Malay cooking, from limes to mangoes to tamarind to kelubi.

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Previous journeys to the motherland.


Buah Macang Buah Kuini

Buah macang buah kuini,
Masak sebiji dalam daun;
Mengapa begini hatiku ini,
Habis bulan berganti tahun.

A pair of fruits, Machang and Kwini
Each one ripening wrapped in a leaf
Oh why does this poor heart of mine feel like this?
Each month of passing has turned into years

Mangifera odorata, kuini
Mangifera odorata, kuini

Sarawak is blessed with an abundance of fruit, but mangos are not one of them. The common mango, Mangifera indica, can grow here, but the lack of a significant dry period prevents it from fruiting well. (We have two seasons here: Wet and Very Wet.) Instead, there are a few semi-wild mangos that are collected and eaten. The first is the kuini, Mangifera odorata, a smallish green mango that is the favorite eating mango among the Malays in Sarawak. It is pungent, sharp and hot, but sweet too. A handful of ripening kuinis will perfume the whole kitchen with a smell something like gasoline, but, uh, in a good way.

An even more strong smelling mango is Mangifera foetida, macang (“c” pronounced as “ch” in English). It is rarely eaten on its own: the flavor is too intense and the flesh is very fibrous. So the ripe fruit is pounded in a mortar together with fermented shrimp paste (belacan), fresh cilis and God knows what else, to prepare a sweet and spicy sambal to eat together with the meal. According to what sources I’ve been able to find, the macang ought to look more or less like kuini, and in fact kuini is thought to be a hyrbid of indica mangos and macang. This is backed up by our next pantun:

Dari sana hendak ke sini,
Sampai ke sini melipat kain;
Telah masak macang kuini,
Kulit sama rasanya lain.

Running from here, to there I must go
Folding the laundry I must make haste
Machang and Kuini, two sun-ripe mangos
Their skins are the same but not so the taste

If that’s true, then I haven’t yet discovered the true macang. What I have found is another wild mango, very large and chocolate-brown. It isn’t fragrant like kuini, but the flesh inside is sharp and hot, and filled with tough fibers. I’d been told it was macang, but after kicking around the web, this site in particular leads me to think

Mangifera pajang: Bambangan
Mangifera pajang: Bambangan

what I’ve got is actually Mangifera pajang, a mango variety unique to Borneo, what is known as Bambangan, or Mawang in Iban. Macang or bambangan, it pounds into sambal real well just the same.

As you can see, kuini and macang have their place in Malay literature, even as they become harder to find in West Malaysian markets. I’ve been quoting and translating pantuns about them from Karyanet, a searchable database of thousands of traditional Malay poems. The first two lines of the pantun are meant to strike an image, frequently drawn from the natural world, before the second two lines deliver the heart of the poem. Kuini and Macang, enough to inspire poetry. Here’s one more:

Buah macang setangkai lebat,
Belum dimakan manis dahulu;
Budak ini menghantar surat,
Belum dibaca menangis dulu.

Branche of machang hanging so heavy
No need to eat it to know it is sweet
Your letter has come by this child’s delivery
No need to read it to begin to weep

Eid Mubarak, Selamat Hari Raya

Two, three cat running
Not the same dog running
Two, three day more raya coming
Everything is ready huh??

Pandan Island far-far in the middle
Daik Mountain has three branches
During Ramadhan everybody struggles
So during Syawal don’t spoil the chances

Jump frog jump
Jump high-high
What knowledge u try
Ketupat rendang very delicious

High-high were the sun
Buffalo kid dead in tied
10 finger hamba susunkan
Fault & mistaken harap dimaafkan

A friend forwarded this to me just before raya. It is in the Malay poetical style of pantun; the first couplet establishes the rhythm and strikes an image, often totally unrelated to the second couplet, which delivers the meaning. It reads almost like a direct translation except for the malay in the last couplet, which would be “Your servant holds ten fingers together/ begging forgiveness of faults and mistakes.”