Saturday, 22 May 2010

In Pursuit of the Dragons of Alor

Traditional belief, myths and legends in Alor, Nusa Tenggara

Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 06/05/10

In the fishing village of Lanleki on the island of Alor I met an old man who had seen a dragon. His name was Achmad; he wore a white Haji’s skullcap and he told his tale simply, sitting in the narrow front room of his little house. Outside the hot wind rustled in the palm trees and the children of Lanleki jostled in the doorway, more interested in the foreign visitor than in hearing Haji Achmad’s familiar story.
He had seen the dragon forty years ago, he said, long before he made the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. He had been walking along the narrow path that leads to Lanleki when the dragon emerged from the sea and chased him through the trees. It had horns like a buffalo and seven flickering tongues…

Alor is a place of pale beaches and dark, myth-filled hills. The most easterly landfall in the stuttering island chain of Nusa Tenggara, like many parts of Indonesia it has gone through incredible changes in the last century. In 1938 the American anthropologist Cora Du Bois visited and recorded an island where people knew little of money and spoke no Indonesian. Though there was a long-established halo of Islam around the coast, in the hills Protestant missionaries had met little success and most people worshiped only the spirits of the countryside. Dutch colonialists had supposedly pacified the island at the turn of the 20th Century, but clan warfare and even headhunting were still very much current concepts.
Seventy years later roads have snaked into the hills, whitewashed churches have sprouted in remote villages and most of the population has become nominally Christian. The island capital, Kalabahi, has filled with buzzing motorbikes; there are daily flights from Kupang and even a nascent tourist industry. But as I was to find out, Alor is still a place where old beliefs and customary adat traditions hold strong, and where there is no distinction between history and myth. This is an island that could still be marked on the map with the words “here be dragons”...

I first heard about dragons in Probul, a village in the hills behind Lanleki. An old man there had told me that in the days before Christianity there had been many dragons – he called them naga. Mostly they were invisible, but they were dangerous if not appeased. Then there was Haji Achmad’s story, in which the dragon was unmistakably a real thing. If I wanted to learn more about dragons, Haji Achmad told me, I should go to the village of Alor Kecil, on the other side of Kalabahi Bay.

Alor is smaller than Bali, and with a population of just 168,000, but it is perhaps the most linguistically diverse place in Indonesia. As many as 17 separate, mutually incomprehensible languages are spoken here, and distinct dialects are numbered in the hundreds.
There is a similar diversity of culture, with the creation myths of one village often meaning nothing to the people of the next. But there are certain threads that run throughout the island. The moko is a bronze, hourglass-shaped kettledrum, thought to have originated in the ancient Dongson civilization of northern Vietnam. Just how the moko reached Alor, where the “lost wax technique” used to decorate the drums was never known, is a mystery – locals claim that they sprung fully-formed from the ground – but they are a key motif of the island. When the Cora Du Bois visited they were the main form of currency and even today they are used to pay wedding dowries.
Another common connection is the misbah, a round altar of rough stones at the heart of each village. This is still the focus of the lego-lego, the Alorese circle dance performed at weddings and other celebrations, and in the not-too-distant past it was the place where heads taken in warfare were placed. And now it seemed that I had stumbled on another connecting thread – the dragon.

Alor Kecil lies at the western tip of the rugged peninsula that bulges to the north of Kalabahi Bay. Offshore rides the little islet of Pulau Kepa, location of Alor’s first dive resort; in mid-channel rises the volcanic cone of Pura Island, while beyond it is the dark coastline of Pantar.
Like Lanleki, Alor Kecil was a Muslim village with modern concrete houses and tin-roofed mosques in the shade of huge banyan trees. But here too there was a misbah, with a few buffalo skulls resting on its weathered stones in lieu of human heads. There were rumah adat – the lineage houses of each of Alor Kecil’s five clans – and as I picked my way through the village I spotted dragons everywhere. There were dragons carved into doorframes; dragons woven into pieces of local ikat cloth, and statues of dragons outside the modern community hall.
Sitting outside the lineage house of the Suku Bao Raja, Alor Kecil’s royal clan, I met a young man named Jason. I asked him about the dragons. The dragon, he said, was the protector of the village. It had come originally from the ground in the hills to the north, but today it lived in the sea. I repeated Haji Achmad’s story and Jason was unsurprised.
“People do see the dragon, but not often. It’s usually outsiders who see it, not locals,” he said.
The dragon was not the only mythical presence around Alor Kecil; there were also Sea People. In ancient times, the story goes, the Sea People were regular visitors to their brethren on the shore, and though these days they stay beneath the surface, one of Alor Kecil’s tribes, the Mang Lolong, still claim to maintain a connection with them. A popular rumor has it that a few years ago a foreign tourist, diving near Pulau Kepa spotted an underwater village full of mermen dancing the lego-lego in the blue depths beyond the edge of the reef.
Jason said that all of the people of Alor Kecil and the surrounding settlements are descended from a man who rose from the earth in a place called Bampalola in the hills above the coast. Following his directions I traveled up a steep track that wound between the ridges.
Bampalola itself was a modern village with a school and a mosque, but a kilometer downhill through the maize fields, on a high promontory at the end of a razor-sharp ridge, stood the old village, Lakatuli. Many villages in Alor shifted from defensive hilltops to more convenient locations once the age of clan warfare was over; no one lived in Lakatuil now, but the place was still used for adat ceremonies. Tall thatched roofs rose above bamboo-floored platforms. Elaborate carvings on beams and banisters were picked out in white and ochre, and there were dragons chiseled into the woodwork.
Looking at them I was reminded of a grainy black-and-white photo in the anthropologist Cora Du Bois’ 1944 book, The People of Alor. It was a picture of an Ulenai, the carving used in that era to represent the village guardian spirit. Though the Ulenai lacked the stylistic touches clearly borrowed from Chinese art that I had seen on the carvings in Alor Kecil and Bampalola, it was very obviously a dragon.
Du Bois had written of ancestor myths and guardian spirits that “this whole concept will undoubtedly become the center of revivalistic cults when Alorese culture crumbles as it inevitably will under the impact of foreign colonization”. But it seemed to me that nothing had crumbled, let alone been revived. The idea of the dragon as a powerful protector, and a real entity, had probably never faded from the scene in the villages here.

From Bampalola I returned to the coast and the hamlet of Alu Kai, just east of Alor Kecil. In the front room of a clan house with a carved dragon in the corner two of the village elders, Pak Amir, and Pak Mo, told me more about dragons and sea people – they called all this “history” rather than “legend” and made no distinction between the wilder tales and the stories of the arrival of Islam in Alor from Ambon and Makassar.
The dragon first appeared from the earth in Bampalola many centuries ago, before the birth of mankind, they said. The first man rose in the same place later and his descendents traveled downhill to the shore where the founder of Alu Kai hamlet, Jai Manu, married a princess of the mysterious Sea People named Eko Sari. Pak Amir and Pak Mo themselves, it seemed, were half-merman!
While they talked children gathered in the doorway, just as they had done in Lanleki. Pak Amir smiled.
“It’s important for old men to talk; if the old men just keep silent then how will the children know their own history?” he said.

There was one more place to visit in my pursuit of the dragon myths of Alor. At the tip of the stony headland beyond Alor Kecil, Pak Amir had said, was a shrine dedicated to the dragon. Chickens and goats were routinely tossed into the sea there as offerings, he said.
Leaving the road and the houses behind I picked my way through stony fields and thorny scrub. It was late afternoon now and a dense, humid heat had risen. Insects buzzed in the undergrowth and I could hear the sea, hissing onto the rocks nearby. I lost my way in the web of pathways until I met a tall, barefoot man named Haider who led me to the shrine.
It was a small structure, a low tin roof sheltering two shelves painted with long, black dragons, and on the top level a heavier, cruder dragon carving. The ground around the shrine was scattered with old coconut husks. A bunch of dried goats’ ears hung on a rusty nail. It felt like a place of dark magic.
People often came here to make offerings to the dragon, Haider said, not only local villagers but also big men, police chiefs and politicians from Kalabahi looking for the protection of the mysterious beast.
The spot where the dragon was fed lay beyond the shrine, a ledge of scaly, reptilian black rock over deep blue water. The dried carcass of a chicken hung from a branch. It was a strange, faintly unsettling place, and as the afternoon sun slanted away over the hills of Pantar I peered down into the water, half-expecting to see a horned, seven-tongued serpent rise from the depths. In the 21st Century the myths and legends of Alor are, it seems, still powerful enough to impress a skeptic…

© Tim Hannigan 2010

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