The earliest evidence of the spice trade out of Indonesia goes back to 1700 BC. Cloves found in archeological excavations of household kitchens in Mesopotamia could only have come from the Maluku islands in what is now Indonesia. Merchants from the Indonesian archipelago probably carried the early trade. Evidence of this can be found in Madagascar. When Indonesian seafarers colonized the island nearly 2,000 years ago, the language they brought with them had not yet absorbed much Sanskrit, and therefore pre-dated the significant cultural influences brought by Indian traders.

Early evidence of Indian participation in this trade is found in the textile arts. The words used for cotton throughout the Indonesian archipelago derive from the Sanksrit karpasa, which seems to indicate that cotton arrived from India, though at an uncertain date after the Madagascar migrations ended. Vocabulary connected to weaving, however, shows indigenous origins, suggesting the technology pre-dated the use of cotton. Early weaving traditions probably used bast or abaca fiber.

Linguistic comparisons also suggest that the use of Symplocos by Indonesian dyers may have been introduced through trade with India. In Ayurvedic medicine, the bark of lodhra (Symplocos racemosa) is an important medication for maintaining a healthy pregnancy. It is also said to reduce acne and wrinkles, and protects against diabetes and liver disease. Though not used in any of these ways in Indonesia, it seems more than coincidence that languages in southeast Indonesia name a similar plant loba (Symplocos cochinchinensis). It is hard to get a good red on cotton, and would not be surprising if a technology for the red dye that included use of Symplocos followed the introduction of cotton from India.

Possible linguistic influences in plant names do not confirm usage influences, and there is counter-evidence, too. For in West Kalimantan, where Symplocos cochinchinensis is abundant, other plant mordants are used by Dayak weavers, even when they are harder to find. Reasons for this may be cultural. Dry-field rice will not germinate in swidden systems where Symplocos has grown, forming an aluminium-rich leaf litter and topsoil. With the ritual potency of the rice agricultural cycle matching the ritual potency of the weaving arts, a plant unwelcome to the former may have been actively avoided for the later.

Whatever its origins, it is likely that Symplocos use by Indonesian weavers dates back nearly two millennia. Its use was almost lost however over the past forty years with the promotion of synthetic dyes by the Indonesian department of trade and industry. Weavers who maintained their natural dye traditions through this period were bucking the trend. Today, their work is setting a new trend. With the help of the Bebali Foundation and its commercial fair trade partner, Threads of Life, many are utilizing their cultural integrity and their ancient dye knowledge to lift themselves out of poverty, earning at least 370% more per day than using synthetic dyes.

A remaining challenge is to convince conservative traditional dyers across Indonesia to use sustainable Symplocos leaf rather than unsustainable Symplocos bark. The Bebali Foundation’s development of an international market for Symplocos aims to address this issue in two ways. First, telling traditional dyers that natural dyers overseas are enthusiastic about Symplocos leaf powder reinforces the message that using fallen leaves is better then using bark. Second, international sales will support the Bebali Foundation’s ongoing work on this issue.