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Asian art

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'Phaa biang' (ceremonial scarf)

late 19th century-early 20th century


Unknown Artist


Lao-Tai women wrap 'phaa biang' cloths around one shoulder and the torso. These cloths are also used for healing practices ('phaa sabai'), as head wraps ('phaa khan soeng'), and as shoulder cloths ('phaa phai'). As a curative cloth, the textile was believed to be powerful enough to help the healing process through its combination of colours and motifs. Phaa biang are composed of several sections, and as sections become worn, they are replaced with new weavings.

This 'phaa biang' has red warp and weft yarns. The cream yarns are the continuous decoration that was added during the weaving process, and form the concentric lozenge (horizontal diamond) shape that is called' kaap khoam' (lantern). The pattern not only symbolises light, but Buddhists consider it to be the opening of the third eye bringing knowledge and enlightenment. This is probably a remnant of Mahayana and Tantric Buddhist ideas and is evidence of their presence in Southeast Asia before the societies became strongly Theravada Buddhist. The other end of the textile has more varied decoration. The cream yarns are continuous supplementary weft threads, and the coloured ones are discontinuous supplementary weft threads, which means that they occupy a limited section and do not travel across the entire piece of cloth. The decoration at this end of the 'phaa biang' includes geometric and stylised motifs, particularly 'kuut' (ferns), 'mae nyaa mor' (newts), house gables ('kaap'), an elephant-bird with an ancestor on its back ('saang hong'), and a zigzag line that represents an abstract 'naga' (mythical serpent). Birds, elephants, and snakes are important animals in the Lao belief system, and are therefore popular designs on textiles and other art forms.

Asian Art Department, AGNSW, December 2011


Place where the work was made

Sam Nuea Laos

Cultural origin

Tai Nuea people


late 19th century-early 20th century

Media category


Materials used

silk, natural dyes; continuous and discontinuous supplementary weft decoration


45.4 x 187.0 cm


Gift of Nomadic Rug Traders 2003


Not on display

Accession number