Indonesia’s wealth of cultural handicrafts is as diverse as its many cultures. Each month we explore the archipelago’s offerings through a different traditional craft.

A traditional batik cloth prominent in Bengkulu province on the west coast of Sumatra, batik besurek (which means ‘batik with letters’) draws inspiration from elements of Islamic culture.

Believed by some to have been introduced in Bengkulu in the 14th and 15th centuries by craftsmen from Demak, then the largest Islamic kingdom in Java, and by others to have been brought by Prince Sentot Ali Basa who carried batik materials and equipment to Bengkulu during his exile in the Dutch Colonial era, besurek has been present in Bengkulu for centuries and has become an integral part of the province’s cultural history.

Just as all batik is intertwined with the identity of the Indonesian people, besurek reveals Bengkulu’s rich history and identity, having been shaped over centuries by different local tribes, as well as local flora and fauna. Aside from Islamic calligraphic patterns, besurek often features jasmine and rafflesia flowers, which are commonly found in Bengkulu, as well as pheasants and other symbols of the province. Arabic calligraphy and motifs constructed from a series of calligraphic letters, while combined with other patterns, remain the most constant artwork elements, however, upholding besurek’s status as not only an art form but also a form of stylised writing.

From Colours January 2018