Friday, 4 September 2009

Balinese Heritage in a Madura Village

The Nyadar Ceremony near Sumenep, Madura, Indonesia

Originally published in Bali and Beyond Magazine, September 2009

The murmur of Sanskrit mantras drifts through the village beneath the white-flowered frangipani trees. In the shade of a communal pavilion old men with batik headcloths prepare offerings of leaves, petals and holy water for the spirits of the ancestors while women load ceremonial platters with sacred rice. But this is not Hindu Bali; this a remote village near Sumenep on the Muslim island of Madura. Here a community of salt-makers hold annual ceremonies to give thanks for their prosperity, and to commemorate their ancestors – a party of Balinese soldiers.

Madura is separated from East Java by a narrow strait. Some time soon a bridge connecting the island with the nearby city of Surabaya will open, and airline Merpati plans to start flights to Sumenep from Surabaya and Bali. But for now the only way to reach Madura is by ferry.
A history of rebellion against the kingdoms of old Java, coupled with mass immigration from the island in more recent years, has left many Indonesians nervous of the place – and hardly likely to recommend it as a holiday destination; few people visit. This is a shame for the Madurese people are among the friendliest you’ll meet, the landscape of limestone hills and rice and tobacco fields is remarkably beautiful, and there are some perfect, deserted beaches scattered around the eastern coastline.
Madura’s reputation as rough and uncultured proves wildly unfounded in the old royal capital of Sumenep which boasts a fine palace, or kraton, the last surviving in East Java Province. Long the seat of Madurese kings, people here are proud of their refined and courtly traditions. Beyond Sumenep there is plenty more to explore. Aside from beaches and beautiful landscapes there is fascinating traditional culture. In the village of Slopeng you’ll see the very best of the carved dance masks found in Bali’s upmarket souvenir shops being made by craftsmen who learnt the trade from their own fathers. In other villages batik and inlayed woodwork are specialities. But nothing is quite as fascinating as the mysterious ceremonies known as Nyadar, held by the people of Pinggir Papas.

Pinggir Papas lies beyond the fringe of the forested land southeast of Sumenep. The village is surrounded by a stark moonscape of salt pans and every adult in the community works in the salt industry. According to legend, the process of making salt was discovered many centuries ago by Angga Suto, a local holy man. Angga Suto was walking across the mudflats surrounding what was then a poor fishing village, when he noticed that the seawater that gathered in his own footprints evaporated to leave a crust of fine, white salt crystals.
But it is not just their trade that makes the people of Pinggir Papas unusual. Other Madurese confirm that the salt-makers speak a strange dialect, said to be riddled with Balinese words, for their forefathers came from Bali.

In the 1560s, the story goes, a Balinese king led an army against Sumenep. They landed on Madura’s eastern coast and advanced on the royal capital. But the Madurese soon drove the invaders out, torching their camps and destroying their warships. One small band of Balinese soldiers fled the battlefield and found their way to a salty village on the coast where they begged for asylum. It was given, on condition that they converted to Islam, and the refugees settled in Pinggir Papas, intermarrying with the locals and creating a unique syncretic culture all of their own.

More than four hundred years later, this Balinese heritage still finds expression in the Nyadar ritual. Three times a year during the dry season, on dates fixed according to the full moon, the people of Pinggir Papas leave their work on the salt pans, don traditional dress, and cross a narrow river through the mangrove forest to the neighbouring community of Kebun Dadap where Angga Suto and the other revered ancestors are buried.
The sacred tombs stand on a low hilltop amongst the trees beside the river. It is here that the Nyadar ritual is held. Every family brings a package of petals and shredded leaves – reminiscent of the daily Balinese offerings – to place before the ancestral shrines.
Nyadar is the most important time of year for the people of Pinggir Papas, and even those who have left Madura to seek work in the big cities return for the ceremony. And when the gate of the complex that houses the tombs of the ancestors is opened a spectacular, though good-natured, struggle erupts to be first into the inner sanctum. Old men in batik sarongs leap over gravestones, pushing younger men aside in their mad dash, while bulky women in headscarves jostle with their own husbands and sons for a prime position.
Once everyone has squeezed into the inner courtyard, prayers mixing Sanskrit and Arabic are made and the tombs are anointed with petals and holy water. Villagers mark their foreheads with a murky paste made from rice-water and betel nut – another mysterious echo of Hindu practice.
As the sun sets the people of Pinggir Papas do not return home across the river. Instead they take refuge with the villagers of Kebun Dadap and spend the long, hot night preparing offerings of rice to be heaped in a neat cone on special plates known as panjeng – an important heirloom for each family.

In the first light of the next morning the village alleyways are deserted. The salt-makers have returned to the shaded ground near the tombs for the second stage of the Nyadar ritual. Here an enormous spread of upturned red and black baskets sheltering the rice offerings makes a bizarre sight.
A traditional religious leader known as a kyai leads the ceremonies, reciting a string of Arabic prayers, Sanskrit mantras and fragments of old Javanese and Balinese, blending the sacred languages of Islam and Hinduism into a seamless chant. Four old men called pangolo assist the kyai. They wear patchwork waistcoats of coloured cloth, passed down through the generations and only used during the Nyadar ritual. Their task is to make a careful count of the rice offerings.
When prayers are over villagers open the baskets and scoff a few handfuls of the rice, now blessed by god and the ancestors. Then they hurry home to Pinggir Papas where the sacred rice is dried, and a little added to the cooking pot each morning during the coming year, passing its luck and blessing into the daily meal. Within half an hour the place is deserted, only a few scraps of leaves fluttering on the soft breeze to mark where the ritual took place.

The people of Pinggir Papas are proud of their unique heritage, and for them the Nyadar ritual and the memory of Angga Suto is at the heart of their culture. They are happy too for respectful visitors to watch the events – and even to share a little of the scared rice with them when prayers are over. And although they consider themselves to be devout Muslims, they are proud of their Balinese heritage and of the hospitality that saw their ancestors given asylum on this remote coastline. The Nyadar ritual is their way of showing this.


For information about the Nyadar ceremony, or about Sumenep and the rest of Madura (well worth a visit at any time of year), you can contact Kurniadi Wijaya of the official Sumenep tourist office. He can be reached on (+62) 081 79330648 or at

© Tim Hannigan 2009

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