Tuesday, 28 October 2008
Salt of the Earth
The Nyadar Ceremony in Eastern Madura
Originally published in Jakarta Post Weekender Magazine, October 2008
The village of Pinggir Papas is deserted. It is a stark place, near Sumenep in the far east of Madura, surrounded by a patchwork of glittering white salt pans, a barren and strangely wintry landscape, despite the fiery breeze.
Almost every adult in the village works in salt manufacture, a major industry here for centuries. On a normal day there would be dozens of figures at work out on the pans, raking over the drying crystals, shrouded against the blazing sun. But on this Friday afternoon in August there is no one, and in the village itself flimsy wooden doors are bolted and windows shuttered. The people of Pinggir Papas have important matters to attend to elsewhere.
The Nyadar ritual of Pinggir Papas is held three times each year between July and October, with dates specified according to the stages of the moon. The biggest ceremony comes in mid-August. The ritual is connected by legends to the coming of Islam, the founding of the salt industry and a history of warfare. It is at the heart of the salt makers’ identity.
The afternoon sun is dropping away to the west and the light is taking a copper-colored glow. The villagers are gathered on the banks of a muddy river that runs through the mangroves west of Pinggir Papas, the men dressed in sarongs and black pecis, the women carrying cloth-wrapped baskets. They are waiting for the fishing boats that will ferry them to the far shore, for Nyadar, though it is celebrated only by the people of Pinggir Papas, is held in the neighboring community of Kebun Dadap where the ancestors of the salt-makers are buried.
The ancestral tombs stand in a neat courtyard above the river. Kebun Dadap lies beyond the salty wastes of Pinggir Papas and here frangipani trees with sugar-white flowers break the fading sunlight. Red-tiled roofs and neatly painted white and green walls shelter the resting places of revered forebears. Most important of these is a man named Angga Suto.
Angga Suto – a local leader at some unspecified time in the early Second Millennium – is credited with both introducing Islam to Pinggir Papas, and inventing salt production. The story tells that he discovered the process after noticing that the seawater that filled his footprints in the clinging mud around the village evaporated to leave a crust of salt crystals. A commemoration of this man, and a thanksgiving for the salty prosperity of Pinggir Papas, is the focus of the Nyadar ritual.
Kebun Dadap, a village of simple white bungalows, is crowded. Nyadar is the most important time of year for the people of Pinggir Papas, and even those who have joined the huge Madurese diaspora return home for the celebration.
On a shaded pavilion outside the tomb compound, women are working to blend packages of leaves and petals – offerings for the ancestors – into one sacred mass. Each family has brought their own package, but it is handed over and added to the communal pile.
As evening approaches the crowd gathers before the gateway to the tombs. A dozen old men and women – direct descendents of the people buried here – hurry inside the compound to undertake secretive preparatory prayers. Overhead the sky is clear and pale and a full moon floats between the stands of bamboo.
A kyai – a village religious leader – conducts the waiting crowd through a chant of simple Arabic – la il aha il Allah – more and more urgently and insistently until the elders reemerge. Then the most dramatic element of Nyadar erupts: a hell-for-leather rush to enter the complex. All the usual conventions of deference collapse as men, women, young and old struggle to run through the narrow gateway and across the outer courtyard in search of a prime position within the inner sanctum. People push and shove, stumbling over gravestones and dragging others down with them. It looks more like a rugby scrum than a religious ceremony.
Once everyone is inside, a low hum of prayer begins to rise from the crowd. Offerings of petals and leaves are placed before the headstones, the tombs are doused with holy water from old brass pitchers, and villagers dab their ears and foreheads with rice-water – a strange echo of Hindu practice.
As darkness falls people filter back out and into the village and a bustling night market gets underway, the alleyways a mass of hissing paraffin lamps and glowing faces. But the people of Pinggir Papas do not return home. Instead they seek shelter in the houses of the Kebun Dadap locals – who play no other part in the Nyadar ceremonies – and begin to prepare for the second stage of the ritual.
The hint of Hindu practice in the Nyadar ritual may be more than a coincidence. Locals in Sumenep say that the people of Pinggir Papas speak an unusual dialect that “sounds like Balinese”.
According to legend, in the 1560s a Balinese army attacked Sumenep. A fleet of warships landed and Balinese soldiers torched fishing villages and advanced on the capital. But the Madurese defenders were victorious; the Balinese ships and camps were destroyed. Many of the invaders killed themselves rather than face defeat, but one small band fled from the battlefield to Pinggir Papas where they were given refuge on condition that they converted to Islam.
Saturday; the morning after the night before. The stalls of the night market have been cleared away; the alleyways of Kebun Dadap are silent and the villagers have returned to the area around the tombs. The ground is covered with upturned red and black baskets. During the night the Pinggir Papas people cooked a ceremonial meal of rice, chicken and eggs. This food, an offering to God and the ancestors, has been heaped on the platters known as panjeng that are the most important heirlooms of each Pinggir Pappas family. The red and black baskets have been placed over this food and the final stage of Nyadar is about to begin.
A group of elders in Balinese-style head-cloths enter the tomb compound to pray while the other villagers wait in the rising heat. Four ancient men are moving through the crowd. They are dressed in harlequin waistcoats dappled with rag-bag patches of color. On their heads are twists of gold and black batik. The hereditary duty of these men, called Pangolo, is to count the rice offerings.
As the elders return from the tombs everyone takes their place on the open ground under the trees, sitting cross-legged amongst the rice baskets, hands cupped in prayer. At the centre of the crowd the Kyai leads the ceremony, his head bowed. Clasped to his chest is a bulky object wrapped in tattered red cloth. It is said to be the sacred weapon of Angga Suto himself. The Kyai mutters a string of prayers and mantras. Fragments of different holy languages drift through the air: Arabic, Sanskrit and old Javanese.
When these prayers are finished the plates of rice – now imparted with the blessings of Nyadar – are uncovered and a chaos of chatter erupts as people hurriedly scoff a few symbolic mouthfuls. Then, with almost the same urgency that they rushed the tombs the night before, the rice is covered, wrapped and lifted onto heads and shoulders. The villagers dash to the river bank, eager to return to Pinggir Papas where the rice will be dried in the hot sun and a little added to the cooking pot each day throughout the coming year to ensure success and prosperity. Within half an hour Kebun Dadap is deserted, only a few scraps of leaves and paper to mark where the ritual took place.
For the people of Pinggir Papas the Nyadar ceremony is a celebration of their unusual heritage. Like so much in Indonesian religious practice, currents of older traditions run through it. For the locals however, Nyadar is very much part of Islam and the fact that their Hindu ancestors became Muslims as a condition of their asylum is an important point. But they are proud of their Balinese connection.
As the crowds disappear into the morning one Pinggir Papas man named Munir is still sitting in the shade of the pavilion in the graveyard, watching them go. He says that Nyadar is a sign of respect for the village ancestors, the leluhur, the people who came from Bali.
“Nyadar is the most important thing for Pinggir Papas people. Everyone must follow it, even if they have already left the village,” he says.
But Munir is not rushing back across the river to Pinggir Papas: he has lived in Kebun Dadap for a decade.
“My wife is from Kebun Dadap,” he says with a smile. “The Kebun Dadap people don’t join Nyadar, but there’s a connection between us because we stay in their village on the night of Nyadar.”
On that long murky night more than a few pairs of shy eyes meet over rice pots and panjeng. “There are lots of marriages between Pinggir Papas and Kebun Dadap people,” says Munir, grinning.
© Tim Hannigan 2008