Friday, 25 April 2008

Islam Wetu Telu

Traditional beliefs in Lombok, Indonesia

Originally published in Bali and Beyond Magazine, January 2008

“Allaaaaaah uh akbar…” Five times a day the Muslim prayer call rings out through the stands of palm trees from whitewashed mosques with brightly shining stainless steel domes. Men in skull caps and loose tartan sarongs make their devotions among the rice terraces and in the distance the broken cone of Gunung Rinjani shows purple against a clear sky.

The island of Lombok, to the east of Bali, is a place of perfect beaches and stunning scenery where tourist development is still low key and the “real Indonesia” is easy to find. It is sometimes described as “like Bali twenty years ago”, but this tag does neither island justice, for Lombok deserves to stand as a destination in its own right, and importantly, it has a very different culture. Bali is a Hindu island, while on Lombok the native Sasak people are Muslim.

Local legends tell that Islam arrived on Lombok in the 16th Century, brought ashore by a wandering Javanese mystic who built the first mosque near the north coast at the village of Bayan. Over the years as the new religion spread across the island it mixed with the web of local beliefs. A combination of indigenous ancestor and spirit worship, elements of Hinduism that drifted across from Bali, and the very basic tenants of Islam produced a belief system unique to Lombok. It was called Islam Wetu Telu, and a century ago the majority of Sasaks described themselves as Wetu Telu Muslims.

Wetu Telu means “three elements” in the Sasak language. Just what those three elements are depends on who you talk to, but people on Lombok will tell you that the trinity might be birth, life and death; conception, the egg and its hatching, or perhaps ancestors, god and human life. Wetu Telu Muslims had ceremonies to honour local spirits, to give thanks for harvest and to ensure rain. From Islam they took little more than the belief in an almighty god, and a vague notion of Mohammad as the prophet of that god. Corrupted Arabic prayers were uttered along with fragments of old Sanskrit or Javanese mantras; Wetu Telu Muslims celebrated only the most important of the Islamic festivals, they showed no interest in the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and abstained from food for only a few days during Ramadan. They brewed a fiery rice liquor known as brem, and many were happy to eat the meat of the wild pigs from the forest – both forbidden to orthodox Muslims.

But old traditions fade. After Lombok came under the control of the Dutch colonialists a more orthodox Islam began to take hold. It was still a tolerant and typically Indonesian form of the faith – far removed from the austere ways of the Middle East - but as the 20th Century progressed the subtle nuances and the twists of local flavour faded. In Lombok this new, orthodox religion was sometimes known as “Modern Islam”, but more often as Islam Waktu Lima – “Five Times Islam” - referring to the required number of daily prayers, and differentiating it from the “Three Elements” of Wetu Telu.

By the late 1960s there were very few Sasaks left who would describe themselves as Wetu Telu Muslims and the old beliefs seemed to have been consigned to the history books. But not entirely.

The greatest stronghold of Islam Wetu Telu was always the very place where Islam first took root in Lombok: the remote villages around Bayan on the north coast, beneath the towering outline of Rinjani.
Today tourists come to the area to take in the stunning views across tumbling rice terraces, or to start the arduous but rewarding trek up from the hamlet of Senaru, through the forest and on to the summit of Rinjani, Indonesia’s second highest volcano. They also come to see life in the deeply traditional Sasak villages that dot the area. But few realise that they are among people who have made a remarkable effort to preserve their Wetu Telu culture.

These days many Sasaks are a little reluctant to talk about Islam Wetu Telu, and even around Bayan many will insist that they are “modern” Waktu Lima Muslims, though they will admit to being far from strict with their daily prayer routine. An old myth about Wetu Telu Muslims is that they fast only three days during Ramadan, and the people of Bayan will make it clear that this was never true: they fast for about nine days. A full month without food or drink during daylight hours would be impractical for busy rice farmers they say.
Islam Wetu Telu still exists here, they will explain if you ask with polite interest, but these days it has been re-designated as a system of traditional adat, or “custom” alongside the orthodox religion. The people of Bayan celebrate each of the major Islamic holy days twice, once in the modern mosque, and then again a few days later in the old mosque – said to be the oldest on the island. This ancient mosque is close to the road on a low hilltop in the centre of Bayan. Built of bamboo and rough wood with a roof of shaggy thatch, it is only used for Wetu Telu ceremonies. When praying there the locals wear traditional Lombok sarongs and headscarves, and mark their foreheads Hindu-style with a dot of chewed betel nut known as sembek.
Those who maintain Wetu Telu traditions still hold celebrations to give thanks for the yearly rice harvest, and they still venerate the ever-present bulk of Rinjani as the home of powerful spirits. Residents of villages on the slopes will tell tales of people turned to stone for behaving disrespectfully up in the cool air above the tree-line – something trekkers might want to keep in mind.
And deep in the forest above Bayan, far from the modern mosques there are mysterious shrines, preserved since centuries past. Hidden in the dense undergrowth, along slippery paths are simple platforms of mossy stones. Most important is the Gedeng Daya, a place of huge importance for the Wetu Telu people. The shrine is the abode of spirits and is watched over by the Perumbaq, a guardian who lives in a simple hut nearby. Mysterious ceremonies are held here on certain nights of the year when the Perumbaq calls down the spirits from the mountain, and offerings are made.
There is a similar shrine, the Gedeng Lauq, on a stretch of remote coastline to the north, and this too is guarded by a Perumbaq. The position of shrine guardian is passed down from father to son, and the Perumbaq and his family are bound by certain taboos. They live in special house outside the main villages, and must always dress in traditional Lombok sarongs. The Perumbaq Lauq has long, uncut hair.
Traces of old Wetu Telu ways remain scattered throughout the villages of Lombok, but it is in the Bayan area that these things have remained strongest. Orthodox religion and deeply un-orthodox tradition exist side by side here in a strange marriage of convenience, with the mournful Arabic of the prayer call ringing out from the minarets of new-built mosques, while deep in the forest the Perumbaq guards the spirit shrine. Islam Wetu Telu still survives, and the people of the Bayan area are proud of their ancient traditions. And in case you were wondering, yes, they do still brew that fiery rice liquor called brem – it’s quite nice, though it will give you a terrible hangover…

© Tim Hannigan 2008


pahrur rozi said...

oh man,wetu telu is not a islam practice. its just philosify birth, life and death.
sometime im being suck the people define wetu telu is mean 3 times without clarify the truth. #TellTheTruth

Tim Hannigan said...

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