The Traditional Easter Celebrations in Eastern Flores,
Originally published in the Bali Times, 09/04/10
Nuns in grey habits stand squinting in the sunlight beneath the banana plants. Offshore, white boats, overloaded with spectators, jostle and try to hold their position in the furious current that flows north through the narrow strait. From the seashore chapel of Tuan Maninu mournful lamentations in OldPortuguese rise into the air, and the blustery tropical wind snaps at the black flags of the Catholic brotherhoods. It is midday on Easter Friday in Larantuka at the far eastern end of Flores, East Nusa Tenggara, and the little town’s famed Easter procession is about to begin.
Larantuka is the one of the oldest centres of Catholicism in Indonesia. The Portuguese first visited Flores – and gave it its name, meaning “Flowers” – in the early 16th Century, and enthusiastic missionaries soon followed. By the end of their first century in the island they claimed to have converted around 100,000 locals.
But by the 17th Century the Portuguese were already in decline as a naval power, and when in 1613 a Dutch frigate arrived near Larantuka and bombarded the fort on the small neighbouring island of Solor, then the main Portuguese settlement, the occupants quickly conceded defeat and many of the soldiers retreated to the Malay Peninsula port of Melaka. The priests, however, were left behind in Larantuka.
At midday the congregation emerges from the little chapel, old women in black blouses carrying candles and rosaries. The focus of the procession is a black-draped casket containing the centuries-old statue of Christ, known here as Tuan Maninu, one of a pair of devotional objects that are at the heart of Larantuka’s Catholic identity. The casket is carried to a waiting outrigger fishing boat, and then, pursued by a swarm of black canoes, and watched from the flotilla of overloaded ferries offshore, it is paddled south against the current to the heart of Larantuka town. There it is brought ashore near the former Raja’s residence, and paraded to the Cathedral, where it is placed beside Larantuka’s other votive object, a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary, known here as Tuan Ma. Tuan Ma is the focus of intense worship in Larantuka and the surrounding small islands.
Though Flores remained a Portuguese possession until the 19th Century, it was largely forgotten as Lisbon’s fortunes continued to decline. The pocket of Catholicism at the far end of the island became isolated and fossilised. Prayers were still said in Portuguese and Latin, the mixed-race descendents of early settlers who married local women kept some kind of Iberian identity alive, and the statues of Tuan Maninu and Tuan Ma became the object of a cult that mixed Catholicism with local lore.
When Portugal finally ceded Flores to the Dutch in 1859, on condition that it remained Catholic territory, the new missionaries were dismayed to discover what they called “an island of baptised heathens.” But in Larantuka, at the far end of the island, a strangely old-fashioned Catholicism remained strong. In 1887 the whole town was consecrated to the Virgin Mary.
At the end of the first procession the faithful flock into Larantuka’s grand cathedral, the overspill seeking shade in the gardens outside and listening to Bishop Franciscus Kopong Kung’s sermon through crackling loudspeakers. As a heavy tropical dusk descends on the town the casket of Tuan Maninu and the tall, velvet draped statue of Tuan Ma are carried out of the building to follow a candlelit processional route through the town, stopping along the way at chapels dedicated to each of Larantuka’s main clans. The statue bearers wear the tall, pointed hoods still used today by penitents in Easter processions in Spain and Portugal (a mode of dress given unfortunate connotations when it was misappropriated by the Ku Klux Klan), and the murmuring of prayer rises from the crowd.
This year’s Easter celebrations in Larantuka were bigger than usual, for according to local tradition 2010 marks the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Catholicism, and of the statues of Tuan Ma and Tuan Maninu, in the town. According to one local myth the statues were miraculously washed ashore from a shipwreck and were made the object of devotion by the ancestor-worshiping locals. There are, however, records of the arrival of Portuguese missionaries – with devotional idols in tow – in the very early years of the 16th Century.
According to local officials some 15,000 pilgrims from throughout Flores and beyond visited Larantuka during the celebrations. The procession was also joined by the Portuguese ambassador to Indonesia, Carlos Manuel Leitao Frota, and by Indonesian Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro. Extra ferries to Kupang were laid on to carry returning pilgrims home.
The procession goes on long into the night and a strange atmosphere of mournful calm descends on Larantuka. Soft candlelight flickers and across the channel the hills of Solor and Adonara are dark silhouettes against a starlit sky. As the vast crowd slowly circuits the town, the statue of Tuan Ma borne along in the flow, prayers and hymns shift back and forth and the soft shuffling of feet rises to an insistent whisper.
It is long after midnight when the procession finally makes its way back to the cathedral. Pilgrims walk home along empty streets, greasy with melted candle wax, and the statues are returned to their respective chapels and locked away out of sight – until next year.
© Tim Hannigan 2010