The Mystique
of Ancient Traditions
By Chitra Gunderson



As a textile artist, my attraction to fabric is a fascination bordering on obsession. Every time I see a beautiful fabric, I have to touch it and feel it. For me it’s an emotional ‘fabric experience’ that is very important in choosing the perfect piece to work with.

Then, one day almost four years ago was the first time I saw the hand-painted fabric of the Shipibo peoples of Peru, and my ‘fabric experience’ immediately evolved to a new level. Let me explain.

Laying my hands on the fabric, feeling the inherent energy, I sensed the designs represented much more than a piece of art — the intricacy of the patterns seemed to hold an earth connection, containing an ancient wisdom, and spiritual energy that brings healing and blessings to the bearer.

I had to dig deeper to discover the true meaning behind these geometric designs that adorn Shipibo faces and cover their textiles and pottery. What I uncovered was the beauty and mystique of ancient Shipibo traditions, beyond anything imaginable in my mind.

The Shipibo tradition follows that early in Shipibo girls’ lives, they are initiated by their mothers and grandmothers into the practice of textile design and pottery craft. A Shipibo woman explained, “When I was a young girl, my mother squeezed drops of the piri-piri berries (a species of Cyprus) into my eyes so I would have the vision for the designs.”

It is like a rite of passage for a young woman to be given the power by her elders to execute the very important responsibility of creating designs for the village. How honored and empowered the women must feel!

The designs begin when the muraya (Shaman) uses wild plants and meditative trance to receive spiritual design messages from the spirit world in the form of geometric patterns of energy. The patterns emerge through his mouth into a song or chant (icaro). He then conveys designs to the women artists in the form of sound vibration.

Amazingly the Shipibo artist is able to listen to an icaro by looking at the designs, and paint a pattern by listening to a song or music. “I witnessed two Shipiba (Shipibo women) paint a large ceremonial ceramic pot (mahueta), five feet high and three feet in diameter.

Neither woman could see what the other was painting, both were singing the same icaro, and when they finished, both sides of the geometric patterns appeared identical and matched each side perfectly,” explains Howard G. Charing, the organizer of Plant Spirit Medicine journeys to the Amazon Rainforest and freelance writer of Amazonian plant medicines.

Then, retreating from the hustle of the village to her secluded forest hut, the woman takes refuge, and drawing on her shina  (intuition and creativity), elaborates the design visions given to her by the muraya into an intricate intertwining of geometric shapes using simple basic colors, accented with splashes of red, yellow, and green, thus creating her individual _expression of the icaros.

No two designs are the same — all have the unique touch of the individual artist, personalized by her creativity and ability to see the designs, yet holding the spiritual power that connects Shipibo village life with the ancient spirit world and the power of the rainforest.

The actual artistic process uses handwoven cotton, either natural un-dyed or dyed in mahogany bark, to bring a rich brown color. The artist paints the fabrics with a pointed piece of bamboo using the juice of the crushed Huito Berry fruits, which turn into a black-brown dye when exposed to the air.

The painting or embroidery of the patterns begin in the center of the fabric with a cross design (representing the physical world) and intertwine bringing together the inner and outer worlds as a ‘map of the Cosmos’. This Cosmic Cross represents the eternal spirit of a person, the union of the masculine and feminine principles or procreation, and the cycle of life and death.

Smaller patterns flowing within the geometric forms represent the Cosmic Serpent, radiating power as it moves throughout the universe. Within the circular forms is the center of creation surrounded by the circle itself, the Cosmic Anaconda, known as the great Mother Creator of the universe by the Shipibo.

Believing that our physical and emotional health are dependent on balance between the mind, spirit and body, the shaman uses design messages to heal patients by chanting the icaros, and infusing them into the body of the patient to bring harmony, re-balance and protect the per-son’s spirit.

Visual communication with the spirit world lives on in present day Shipibo life. Shipibo women masterfully transform the ancient design messages into symbols that act as channels connecting ancient culture with the spirit world. Simple yet intricate geometric designs covering the textiles, pottery, and decorated faces mix form, light and sound that extend far beyond the borders of the fabric or clay to reach all beings, bringing them into harmony with each other, and the universe.  

Understanding the depth and meaning behind the Shipibo designs has given me a connection to ancient spirituality. The meditative communion I have experienced with the Shipibo fabrics evolved into visions of clothing designs for practical use in our western world. Producing samples of a beginning clothing line has been my pet project to help support indigenous women’s art.

Manos de la Tierra (Hands of the Earth), a non-profit organization of the Amazon Herb Company, participates with eight different communities from the Shipibo, Matses, Jivaro and Ashanika tribes to bring Amazonian women’s artwork and handicrafts to the rest of the world — enriching our lives with the cultural diversity and spiritual tradition of ancient tribal history and adding financial support to the village women and their communities.

For more information about how you can take part in sup-porting indigenous women artists and their communities, contact Chitra at (888) 310-2570, e-mail , or to see the clothing designs visit .

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