Thursday, 16 February 2012

Here Be Dragons

The myths and Legends of Alor, East Nusa Tenggara

Originally published in Bali and Beyond Magazine, June 2011

Everyone knows that the map of East Nusa Tenggara, the chain of beautiful and culturally diverse islands to the east of Bali, could be marked with the words “here be dragons”. Komodo, the first landfall in the province for travelers coming from the west, is famed for its huge reptiles. But if local legends are to be believed there are more dragons far to the east at the other end of East Nusa Tenggara, in the remote island of Alor…
Alor is the last link in the stepping-stone chain of islands that runs all the way east from Java. On the map it’s an insignificant place, smaller than Bali and dwarfed by neighboring Timor. But this island, with its fringe of white beaches and its dark, myth-filled hills, is one of the most culturally intriguing islands in all of Indonesia, and a place with more than a few wild stories to boot…
Alor was once the preserve only of travelers prepared to brave fifteen-hour rides on overloaded ferries, but these days, with daily flights from Kupang, there’s a nascent tourism industry. The majority of visitors who step down at Alor’s little airport are there to dive in the deep, clear waters that surround the island. But this is also a spectacularly rewarding place to explore traditional villages, and to dabble in the weird and wonderful mythology of the Alorese people.
Alor’s capital is the little township of Kalabahi at the head of a long, narrow bay flanked by steep green hills. Kalabahi is the best base for exploring the surrounding countryside, and you don’t have to travel far beyond the town before you run into the first traditional villages.
 At least part of the reason why Alor is so culturally complex is the staggering linguistic diversity. Though the total population of the island is well under 200,000, as many as 17 totally separate languages are spoken here and on neighboring Pantar, and distinct dialects are numbered in the hundreds. Locals like to say, without too much hyperbole, that in Alor every village has its own language – and every village has its own unique myths too.
But there are some connecting threads that unite this Babel-like island.
Inland villages are mostly Christian, while on the blue shoreline Muslims predominate. But for both communities dowries are paid with moko drums. These bronze kettledrums are thought to have originated in the ancient Dongson civilization of northern Vietnam. No one knows how they got to Alor – but locals will tell you they appeared, fully formed from the ground! Another island-wide emblem is the circle of stones at the centre of each village. Known as a misbah, this is the place where the heads of enemies taken during warfare were once placed – for Alor has a violent history. Supposedly pacified by the Dutch in the 1900s, in fact clan wars and even headhunting continued well into the 20th Century. Today there is peace, but the misbah is still the focus of the lego-lego, the Alorese circle dance held to celebrate weddings and other ceremonies.
Alor’s most famous traditional village lies about 15 kilometers east of Kalabahi. The ridge-top fastness of Takpala stands at the end of a steeply rising track through the trees from the coast. The roofs of the houses rise to great peaks of shaggy thatch over platforms of smooth bamboo. Disks of wood stop mice from climbing the foundation poles to get at the food stored above, and in the high roof space the villagers keep their mokos and other sacred heirlooms. Locals work farming little plots cleared from the steep slopes where they grow corn, tobacco and cassava. From the edge of the village a sweeping view of the ocean opens, with the dark hills of Alor’s northwest peninsula rising to the left.
 Up in those hills, where of course the local language is wildly different from the Abui tongue spoken in Takpala, you’ll find more traditional villages, and you’ll also run into the first tales of dragons.
 Monbang, just a few steep kilometers uphill from Kalabahi, is another village of tall thatched houses. The name of the place means “Village of the Dragon”, and at the peaks of the rooftops there are simple carvings of a serpent-like creature. In Alorese tradition, these carvings represent the guardian spirits of the community in the form of a dragon.
 Beyond Monbang a potholed road leads through the cool green shade of the forest. White churches stand in little clearings and there is a smell of wood smoke and fresh coffee. The road leads eventually to the peaceful hilltop of Omtel, the highest spot in this part of Alor, and location of what locals claim is the grave of the first man in the world – a 20-metre-tall giant!
 But the best place to chase tales of dragons is in the villages on the cobalt-blue shores of Kalabahi Bay. In the little Muslim fishing communities here the dragon is more than just a myth. Locals swear that a great scaly beast really does live beneath the waters of the bay, and if you ask around you’ll probably meet someone who claims to have seen it.
 The cultural focus of the coastal communities is the village of Bampalola, on a high mountainside with spectacular views across the bay to the little conical island of Pura, and to the dark hills of Pantar beyond.
Bampalola itself is a modern village, but a path through the terraced maize fields leads to the spectacular ceremonial complex of Lakatuli. This spot, occupying a perfect defensive position at the end of a razor-sharp ridge, hints at the troubled past of Alor. Today no one lives in the village, but its fabulously decorated traditional buildings are still the scene of ceremonies tied to the harvests and the changing of the seasons. This is a place of rituals that long predate the arrival of either Islam or Christianity in Alor. The buildings, raised above the ground on thick wooden posts, are decorated with elaborate carvings, picked out in white, black and ochre, and there are dragons carved into beams and joists.
 There are more dragon carvings downhill in the villages of Alor Kecil and Alu Kai, as talismans over doorways, as motifs woven into ikat cloth, and as a mythical presence in the waters offshore.
 According to clan elders the people of this part of Alor are descended from a man who rose fully formed from the ground – like the moko drums – in Bampalola. He descended to the coast where he married a princess of the Sea People, a clan of mermen who, the story goes, still have their own villages in the depths offshore. And the dragon, which rose from the ground before the first man, is the guardian of the community.
 At the end of the stony little peninsula that juts out like a crooked tooth at the mouth of Kalabahi Bay, on a shoreline of scaly black basalt rocks, is a shrine to the dragon. Decorated with carvings, this is a place where the people of Alor come to seek the power and protection of the beast, bringing offerings of coconuts and freshly slaughtered chickens and goats.
Just offshore stands the little islet of Pulau Kepa, location of some of Alor’s best dive sites. With all those stories of dragons and Sea People, even those who come to Alor in search only of bright corals, manta rays, sharks and sunfish, would be well advised to keep an eye out for even more fabulous beasts in clear depths of the bay…

© Tim Hannigan 2011

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