Friday, 25 April 2008

Custom Made

An investigation of the syncretic Wetu Telu Muslims of Bayan, Lombok, Indonesia

Originally published in Jakarta Post Weekender Magazine

The night was wet and the lamplight cut the shadows on the faces of the elders of Karang Bajo kampung. The glasses were filled again with brem, the local rice wine, and I strained to follow the earthy Bahasa Sasak as the old men talked. Then I heard three familiar words cutting through the conversation: Islam Wetu Telu. I drained my glass of the fiery lemon-flavoured alcohol and politely interrupted. What exactly, I wanted to know, was Islam Wetu Telu. Silence fell and the men looked at each other. Thunder grumbled in the distance.
Eventually one old man with betel-stained teeth spoke: “Adat,” he said.

The island of Lombok is a place of sprawling rice fields and slow-paced villages dominated by the Rinjani Volcano. The native Sasaks have been Muslims since the 16th Century but the faith that grew around the slopes of Rinjani took a unique color. Mixing the basic tenets of Islam with hints of Hinduism, animism and ancestor worship, it was called Islam Wetu Telu.
A century ago most Sasaks were followers of Wetu Telu, but slowly a more orthodox faith – known as Islam Waktu Lima on Lombok - took hold. Waktu Lima means “five times”, referring to the number of daily prayers; Wetu Telu means “three elements”.
In the 1960s the remaining Wetu Telu people came under huge pressure to join orthodox Islam. Their centuries-old syncretism was not, they were told, one of the accepted faiths of the Republic of Indonesia.

I had read that there might still be a few Wetu Telu Muslims, hidden in the villages on the slopes of Rinjani. But as I travelled north from the capital, Mataram, on a rented motorbike I began to have doubts. There were half-built mosques everywhere and boys in black skullcaps waved collection boxes at passing vehicles. In every village signs pointed to pesantrens, Islamic schools. Orthodoxy was on the rise here and the people were Waktu Lima Muslims, though they said that I might find Wetu Telu Muslims (who they claimed fasted for only three days during Ramadan) in the village of Bayan, further north.

I arrived in Bayan at dusk, and was soon knocking back my fourth glass of brem in Karang Bajo hamlet. Whether or not they were Wetu Telu, it was clear that the people here were not too orthodox.
The old men described Wetu Telu as adat. Adat is a complex word encompassing tradition, custom and culture, but they were at pains to point out that it did not mean religion. Their religion (agama in Indonesian) was Islam; Wetu Telu was their adat. Outsiders who claimed that Bayan people did not follow Islam correctly were mistaken. Tales that Wetu Telu people fasted only three days in Ramadan were lies, though they admitted most fasted for only nine days (a full month was impractical for hardworking farmers).
Once this was clear they were happy to discuss Wetu Telu. The name did mean three elements: conception, the egg and its hatching, or perhaps birth, life and death, or maybe mother, father and god… It was not just the brem that was making me dizzy.
Wetu Telu people believed that ancestor spirits lived high on Gunung Rinjani, a place guarded by jealous ghosts. There were ceremonies to give thanks for harvests and rains; certain villagers held hereditary positions that qualified them to liaise with the spirits, and hidden in the forest were sacred alters. This all sounded like “religion” to me, but when I pressed them they insisted: “No, just adat.”

Nursing a hangover next morning I visited the ancient Bayan mosque, said to be the oldest in Lombok. It was a simple wooden building on a low hilltop. The doorway was bolted, but peering through the cracks I could see a dirt floor and effigies of birds and fish hanging from the roof. All that marked it as a mosque was the mihrab, indicating the direction of Mecca, but even this was obscured by a carving of a Chinese-style dragon.
In a corner of the mosque compound a group of men were clearing the weeds. Their leader, Raden Anggirta, a cheerful man with a thin moustache, said that they were preparing the area for the coming feast of Maulid, the Prophet’s birthday, one of the few dates when the old mosque is used. He explained that in Bayan people celebrated the key Islamic festivals twice. First would come the “agama” observance at the modern mosque, then several days later the old mosque would be unlocked and villagers would crowd the hilltop to celebrate the “adat” version. Once again, Raden Anggirta made it clear that “agama” and “adat” were separate things.
All of the men were wearing sarongs and head-cloths known as sapuk. Their foreheads were anointed with a dot of chewed betel nut, reminiscent of Hinduism. This was essential when working near the mosque they said, for protection from the spirits.

That afternoon I made a strange discovery. In the hamlet of Otak Lendang, west of Bayan, stood a new Thai-style Buddhist prayer hall. The local villagers were Buddhists. They showed me inside the building where a gold Buddha sat on a pink platform and gave me tea while I sheltered from another downpour. They said that the people of the area had always been Buddhists, and that Buddhism had once been the main religion of Lombok. I knew that this was untrue. Lombok had long come under Hindu Balinese rule, but Buddhism had no history here.
But there was an explanation. Until the 1960s a few tiny pockets of completely un-Islamised Sasaks survived, followers of a faith even older than Wetu Telu. These people were known as the Boda, though they had no connection to Buddhism. At the same time as the Wetu Telu were pressured to become orthodox Muslims the Boda were presented with their choice of officially sanctioned religions. Islam and Hinduism were both familiar to the villagers, and held no appeal; Christianity was utterly unknown, but the fourth option, “Agama Buddha”, sounded very much like their own “Agama Boda”. The new Buddhists later realised that they had joined something even more foreign and many drifted into Islam, but I seemed to have stumbled upon a remnant of the Boda people. What was bizarre was that they appeared to be in the process of coming to believe that they had always been Buddhists.

Later that afternoon I visited one of the orthodox religious schools that scatter the Bayan area. The Pondok Pesantren Nurul Bayan is a spread of pale green buildings among the trees on the outskirts of Anyar village. Haji Abdul Karim, a native of Tanjung in West Lombok, established the school fifteen years ago after completing his studies in Iraq. The pesantren now has around 150 students. As we sat outside Abdul Karim’s bungalow boys in sarongs and girls in white headscarves practiced their English on me. Unusually for Indonesia they spoke Arabic just as well. Abdul Karim told me he believed it was important for students not only to recite and interpret the Koran, but also to have a real grasp of spoken Arabic. He said that in Lombok Islam was often “incomplete”; people sometimes had only the loosest knowledge of their own faith. He regularly visited village mosques throughout the area teaching people about correct Muslim practice.
When I mentioned the double feast days in Bayan he smiled patiently.
“Is it a problem, from an orthodox point of view?” I asked.
The same smile, “Not really. They are Muslims, and religion and adat are separate things.”

The next day under a gloomy sky I set out with Pak Jaya, a sprightly sixty-four year old from Karang Bajo, and Bakar, a young man with long frizzy hair. We were going to the Gedeng Daya, one of the holy places of the Wetu Telu. As we walked along a slippery path through the dense jungle that cloaks the lower slopes of Gunung Rinjani I caught fragments of the conversation in Bahasa Sasak between Pak Jaya and Bakar. They were talking about ghosts. The forest, they said, was full of them.
In a remote clearing, high above Bayan, stood the house of the Perumbaq Daya, guardian of the Gedeng Daya, the forest shrine. The Perumbaq was away, but two other men emerged from the trees and pointed out the Berugak Agung, the spirit house. It was a simple wooden building that could only be entered on certain festivals when the spirits of the ancestors were called down. The similarity to the old Bayan mosque struck me.
From the spirit house we made our way along ever slipperier paths, picking over streams, struggling through sharp undergrowth. The rain started again, pouring through the dense foliage. In another clearing stood the Pedangan, a simple platform, and a little further on was the Gedeng Daya, also a low platform surrounded by a boundary of stones. Bakar warned me not to step inside the boundary. The place was the abode of spirits and they must not be disturbed. During the ceremonies offerings are prepared at the home of the Perumbaq, then villagers make the journey through the forest first to the Pedangan, and finally to the Gedeng Daya. The place seemed to buzz with a strange energy, and one thing was certain: it had no connection to Islam.
It seemed to me that the people of Bayan had made a remarkable adjustment. By paying lip service to orthodox Islam, reassigning Wetu Telu as “just adat”, and distinguishing it clearly from “religion”, their ancient culture had survived modern pressure to conform. It certainly seemed that they had made a more pragmatic choice than the Buddhists of Otak Lendang who I felt had lost not only their old religion but even their history.
Pak Jaya was squatting at the edge of the clearing. This was a very important place for Wetu Telu he said.
Here in the dark forest, far from the mosques and pesantrens I tentatively asked, “And is Wetu Telu different from normal Islam?”
He smiled, “A little different.”
I suspected that things would always be a little different around here. And I remembered something Pak Jaya’s son, Juliadi had said the day before when I was struggling to understand the difference between agama and adat. They were separate he had said, but after all, “What is religion without culture?”

© Tim Hannigan 2007

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