Friday, 25 April 2008

Keeping Tradition

The remote island of Sumba, Indonesia,

Originally published in Jakarta Post Weekender Magazine, November 2007

Sumba eased up over the horizon an hour before sunset, long after the green hills of Flores had fallen away in the wake. Below deck the cargo of seasick pigs grunted unhappily. I leant against the rail of the ferry’s upper deck and watched the long, dark ridge of the island rising in the dusk.

Sumba is an island apart. Riding south of the main chain of Nusa Tenggara, the string of small islands east of Bali, it stayed aloof from the rest of the archipelago for centuries. Hinduism, Islam and Christianity did not cross the Sumba Straight; Dutch colonialists arrived only in the early 20th Century, and long after Independence Sumba kept the rest of the world at arm’s length. Today it remains one of Indonesia’s most intensely traditional islands.

The day after coming ashore in the little port of Waingapu I visited Wunga. Sumba is famous for traditional villages with soaring roofs of shaggy thatch, and according to legend, Wunga was the prototype. It was here that the first Sumbanese settled after arriving in the island sometime in the first Millennium AD.
A dozen houses, roughly built and roofed with great witches-hat peaks of dried grass, stood on an escarpment of old limestone, looking out over the strange, barren landscape of East Sumba. The place smelt of wood-smoke and chickens. Everything here was as it had been since the days of the Ancestors, the villagers told me. No modern building materials were used; even metal nails were forbidden and the floors and stilts of the houses were made of uncut branches bound with palm fiber. Ancestral tombs between the houses were built from unfinished stone, and the hand-woven cloth of the village was plain and unembroidered. All the people in Wunga followed the traditional, ancestor-worshipping religion of Sumba, known as Agama Marapu.

The Marapu Religion is a complex system of ritual and custom. The Sumbanese believe that they are protected by ancestral spirits – the Marapu – that dwell among the sacred heirlooms in the high roof space of the village houses. Life in Sumba is governed by strict taboos, and by the dualism of masculine and feminine. Elsewhere in Indonesia I had often seen Islam and Christianity making strange compromises with older beliefs to produce complex syncretism, but here in Sumba I was among people who followed a faith that belonged only to their own soil.

But Sumba is changing. The next day I traveled west by bus through the centre of the island. The landscape softened; there were more trees here, and small fields of red earth. Villages with high roofs stood beside the road, and enormous sarcophagi of carved limestone marked the burial places of venerated ancestors. But there were other buildings too: simple churches of whitewashed concrete.
Some guidebooks say that half the population of Sumba still follow the Marapu Religion. That was probably true a little over a decade ago, but the percentage of Sumbanese who declare themselves to be ancestor-worshippers is probably in single figures now.
When I stopped in the district of Anakalang – a place where village houses huddled conspiratorially on low hilltops and long ranks of buffalo traipsed through the fields – there were churches everywhere. Cheap crucifixes hung from the necks of village women with betel-stained teeth and it seemed that every child was called Maria or Matthias.

The first Christian missionaries in Sumba did not fare well. A Catholic outpost in the late 19th Century was abandoned after the local “heathens” proved too unruly, and the Dutch were too preoccupied suppressing headhunting, tribal war and insurgency to bother with conversion. But in recent years a majority of Sumbanese have become Christian.

Waikabubak, the main town in West Sumba, was a remarkable place. It had a scruffy main street with fly-blown warungs and dusty hardware shops, and men stalked through the market with long machetes tucked into the twists of woven ikat cloth around their waists. But what made it special was that on the little hilltops of the town were some of Sumba’s most traditional communities.
Kampung Tarung, a hundred meters up a narrow lane from the Waikabubak bus stand, was far removed from the busy street. It was a beautiful community with every house built in traditional style, adorned with buffalo horns from the bloody sacrifices that accompany Sumbanese funerals. The people offered me betel nut and invited me into their homes. They said that the village was an important centre of Marapu traditions. It was strange that it was right here, so close to the government offices and shops that constitute modernity in Sumba, traditions were at their strongest.

After a couple of days in Waikabubak I traveled south on a rented motorbike. The countryside poured away in interlocking spurs and ridges, running down to a lonely ocean. I followed backroads through dry forest, finding empty beaches at the end of rough tracks and carved tombs standing sentinel on windswept hillsides.
After pushing the motorbike across a river and climbing a steep footpath I reached the village of Sodan. Sumbanese villages occupy these defensive hilltops for good reason. Unlike other areas of Indonesia, Sumba was never unified by a local king. Warfare between neighboring villages continued long into the last century. Many villages still have a “skull tree”, the dead branch where the heads of slain enemies used to be hung; the last headhunting raids took place in the 1960s.
The thatched houses of Sodan were strung along a high ridge. This was still a stronghold of the Marapu religion, and I sat on a bamboo veranda chewing betel nut with one of the Rato, the Marapu priests. He explained that his role was to communicate with the Ancestors. The spirits, he said, sent messages to the living which could be read in the intestines of a sacrificed chicken or in the liver of a freshly slaughtered piglet.
The ridgetop fastness of Sodan was well-designed to hold out against change, but back at the bottom of the hill there was a new church. As I traveled further from Waikabubak the roads became rougher, the countryside emptier, and my arrival prompted near-hysteria in the villages that I visited. But always there were the crude concrete churches and the crucifixes.

At sunset I reached the fishing village of Pero, a Muslim enclave on the lonely southern coastline. I stopped the night in a simple homestay, and in the morning I woke under a billowing mosquito net to the sound of goats and chickens outside my window.

From Pero I walked west along the coast. There were no hilltops here, but the roofs of the thatched houses in the village of Tosi were almost as tall as the bending palm trees. There were great ranks of tombs built on the cropped grass beside the track. Tosi is one of the venues for the Pasola, ritual horseback battles held each year in February and March, but now the patch of grass where the riders fling spears at one another was abandoned.
The people in the village told me stories of the journey of the Marapu Ancestors from India, down through Southeast Asia and across the sea to Sumba. Then they told me they were Christian and asked for cigarettes. It seemed to me that they were at a sad and strange stage of conversion.

I wandered on along the coast. A little way beyond Buku Bani Kampung I heard the sound of a gong tolling in the trees. A boy in a red t-shirt was wading through the chest-high dead nettles and he called out to me.
“Come on, there has been a death in the village, come and see!” I didn’t want to intrude, but he was insistent.
Dozens of people were milling around in the glaring sunlight outside a traditional house. The tarnished metal gong – used to announce the death – was set up at the end of the bamboo veranda. People cleared a space for me to sit and gave me food and water, and a man in a black sarong with a twist of red cloth around his head explained that a young man from the village had died in hospital in Waikabubak the night before. His body had been brought back to the village and he would lie in the family home for three days while a tomb was prepared. When it was ready the body would be interred and buffalo, horses and chickens would be sacrificed – to join the spirit of the dead man.
It was dark inside the house, and it smelt of smoke. The body lay just beyond the doorway. He was swaddled in folds of rich ikat cloth and a single candle burnt beside his head. His face was beautiful and calm, with the corners of his mouth turned into the beginnings of a smile. The women of the family sat around him, mourning silently.
The man whispered to me, “There is no crying. This is what we believe in Sumba: when the body is still in the house we cannot cry.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because his spirit is still here, and crying and noise will make him angry and dangerous. We can cry after the sacrifices when he has already gone to the Ancestors.”
The eyes of the women were hollows of stoic sadness.
“What is your religion?” I asked dreamily.
“Christian,” he said, “we are all Christian here.”

Belonging to a “modern” religion is seen by many – both inside and outside traditional societies – as a requirement for full membership of an Indonesian nation and a modern world. But as I walked away from the village, through the trees and into the sunlight, I felt more confident of the future of Sumbanese traditions. Right now the island is in transition into the accommodating syncretism that characterizes much religion across Indonesia. In twenty years there will probably be no true followers of the Marapu Religion, but traditions will still be strong; they will still be building houses with the towering roofspace for the spirits and heirlooms. And as in the village I had just left, they will probably still be sacrificing buffalo for the spirit of the dead when it goes to join the Ancestors.

On the Quiet

Sumba has always been off the beaten track. Early European explorers missed it altogether and even today few of the island-hopping tourists who skip through the rest of Nusa Tenggara make it across the strait.
It’s hard to see why. Visiting Sumba’s wild landscapes and ancient cultures requires no Indiana Jones-style expedition: you can fly there in an hour from Bali. Tentative, low-key tourist development over the last 10 or 15 years has left a handful of little castaway resorts marooned around the wild coastline. One of them, hidden in the coastal wilderness of Northwest Sumba, is the Newa Sumba Resort.
The word “resort” conjures images of inappropriate swimming pools and karaoke bars, but Newa is not like that. There are just a few simple rooms of cool, dark-paneled wood in three buildings with soaring Sumbanese roofs at the end of a long, narrow road through the dry scrub. It is a place of white seashells and sun-bleached wood in a wild garden of roses and bougainvillea at the head of an empty white beach.
You would never know the resort was there unless someone told you: it is several kilometers back along the coast to the west of the little fishing hamlet at Waikelo where the inter-island ferries dock; to the east there is nothing. The thick, low forest around Newa looks, smells and sounds more like outback Australia than Indonesia, and at night the darkness is heavy and thick. It would be hard to find a more private or remote spot.
Newa is owned by the family of a local man who bought a patch of wilderness and built the resort a decade ago, and the place runs with quiet efficiency. The staff buy fresh fish, meat and vegetables from the village markets, and there is little to do but eat, swim and read.
On the clearest of clear days a yellow ghost of Sumbawa island shows faint above the horizon to the northwest but usually the only connection to the outside is the sight of a small plane, banking and coming in to land at the little airport at Tambolaka, ten minutes drive inland from Newa.
There are several flights a week to Bali, and an hour and a half after leaving the little resort you can be in the mayhem of downtown Kuta. There are few visitors though, and chances are you’ll be alone in splendid isolation on the empty coastline.

© Tim Hannigan 2007


williamtaylor29 said...

Sounds like a really magical place!
I really enjoyed your post on the Is Indonesia Safe thread on the Lonely Planet thorntree. I have been to Indonesia before and visit Gili off of Lombok. However I think I will give that region a miss this time and go to Sumba instead.

Eric said...

thank you for this wondefull information. I will visit Sumba at the end of this year.