It is no big news that traditional crafts are steadily disappearing. In most industries, it is understandable: machines and automated production lines pump out merchandise incomparably faster than the most agile craftsman possibly could. The product usually comes out more durable and reliable, too, or at least more uniform and predictable. But some items vanish entirely – not only the craft becomes obsolete, but the product goes completely out of fashion and ends up forgotten. One such art is the making of parasols, decorative umbrellas. Has it been displaced by sun cream? Perhaps, but the only few places in Asia where one can observe the manufacture of parasols are Pathein in Myanmar, Bo Sang in Thailand, Juwiring in Central Java, and Tasikmalaya in West Java. It is a pity, since they look beautiful even by themselves, and would definitely add some charm to a lovely young woman, don’t you think? More than some fancy shades, anyway. At the very least, an embroidered parasol makes a nice souvenir.
In Tasikmalaya, the manufacture of decorative parasols is an old custom. They go under the name “payung geulis” – “beautiful umbrella” in the Sundanese language. While not used every day, even in Java, they still play an important role in traditional festivals, both civil and religious. A Sundanese woman in full ceremonial attire, dressed in a kebaya (traditional blouse) and a sarong, with a payung geulis colored to match them, is a sight you won’t forget soon. Since multi-tiered ceremonial umbrellas are an essential part of Balinese temple paraphernalia, a large percentage of the produce is shipped off to Bali as well. Recently, the art has been noticed overseas, and some of the masters in Tasikmalaya now work with Western and Japanese customers.
Parasols are still made by hand in Tasikmalaya, the only exception being the handles: they are carved with simple electric devices. The handle is then fitted with thin bamboo ribs held together by a silken thread. One or more layers of paper are glued over the ribs. This is the initial structure; painted paper or embroidered fabric will be placed on top of it, and finally, optionally, adorned with ribbons and festoons. Almost everything is held together with glue, and between every two stages, the umbrella must be dried. Hence, during the rainy season, the production slows down or halts. So long as it is sunny, a skilled craftsman can make close to 100 pieces per day. A family of craftsmen, actually – it is a family business, where the home is simultaneously the workshop, and each member takes care of one production stage.
Tasikmalaya is a small, but a reasonably modern town in West Java. There are regular bus connections with destinations both east (such as Purwokerto) and west of it (Bandung, Jakarta). Panyingkiran, a neighborhood in the northern part of town, specializes in traditional umbrella making, and a few more workshops are scattered in other areas. The masters are as kind and hospitable as you would expect Indonesians to be and do not mind foreigners watching and photographing them at work. In fact, given the usual Indonesian curiosity, and the fact that very few tourists stop in Tasikmalaya, the chances are half of them will pull out their phones and ask for a joint selfie. If you can think of a way to transport an umbrella home, and would like to have such a rare and beautiful souvenir, a piece should not cost more than 3-4$, even less if it is tiny, made for decoration only. Keep in mind that those are parasols, not rain umbrellas, they are not waterproof, and will quickly dissolve if used in the rain.
Did you like the travel story?
Get more! Subscribe to our monthly inspiration newsletter.