Each month, NOW! Jakarta brings you tales of hidden heritage from our intrepid traveling Stephanie Brookes, writer. During 2018 they have brought stories back from Lombok, Sumba, Lembata, Belitung, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Bali. From meetings with traditional whalers, to discovering the rituals of the Dayak Iban deep in the Kalimantan forests to chasing down a story of the traditional practice of child jockeys in Lombok, here are a few highlights from their 2018 journeys.

Ancient Rites and Rituals of Sumba

Sumba Island in the province of East Nusa Tenggara is usually associated with pristine beaches, picturesque terraced rice fields and megalithic tombs. Contrasted with this peaceful image, the island’s annual pasola
event can at first appear to be in a different realm altogether. The pasola is an intoxicating frenzy of skilled horsemen challenging each other with their fighting and spear-throwing prowess on a mock battlefield. It is a wonderful display both exciting and frightening at the same time. The festival is heavily influenced by the local faith of Marapu and is closely connected to the harvest season.

I stood at the edge of the large grassy field as two teams of spearwielding horsemen charged towards each other with lightning speed. They balanced their weight perfectly as they hurled their sola (spears) at their opponents with frightening precision. The battle went on for five hours under the intense heat of the sun. The warriors kept up their assaults on each other throughout the battle. They were determined to score as many hits as possible and draw some blood, which would in turn raise their esteem in the village. The more blood spilled, the better the harvest, according to the beliefs of this ancient culture. If insufficient blood is spilt by the horsemen, the tournament is often finished off with hand-to-hand fighting by the opposing clans to rectify the situation.

The pasola is traditionally performed in four different villages in West Sumba and usually takes place seven days after the full moon in February and March each year. The actual date and the time of the tournaments are only revealed a few days beforehand. They are preceded by the nyale ritual, in which the rato (high priest) watches over the ocean during the full moon and waits until the nyale worms are washed up on the shore. Once the first batch of the nyale is found on the beach, they will be brought to the council of rato to be analysed. If the nyale are fat and healthy, this is a good sign that the ensuing rice harvest will be successful.

“The pasola is not a tourist event,” my guide Daniel explained. “It is our tradition. We must wait for the signs and cannot set the date very far in advance. The pasola is important for ensuring a good harvest and is also a way of giving thanks to the ancestors. The spirits of the ancestors are our bridge to the gods.” Sumba Island offers the traveller a glimpse into a very old culture and the annual pasola is an event not to miss.


The Sea Gypsies of the Togeans, Sulawesi

I had the honour of meeting Rohani, a wise, proud man, on the front porch of his home in Kabalutan Village in the Togean Islands, Central Sulawesi. He is a Bajau, a man of the sea who has been a fisherman or, as he likes to say, a hunter, all his life. In his more active days, armed with just a simple wooden spear gun and hand-fashioned wooden goggles, Rohani would roam from island to island in pursuit of fish. It is said that the Bajau have a genetically larger lung capacity than average, and that some can even spend five minutes underwater on just one breath.

Rohani was born 82 years ago on a boat off an island near Makassar, but Kabalutan is now his home. According to Rohani, his life as a sea gypsy has been a good one. As well as being a spear fisherman, he was able to turn his talents to other types of fishing. He once joined a Japanese fishing boat and travelled great distances. Now a widower, Rohani explained, “At times I had to be away from my wife and family for long periods, but I always returned, and was always able to provide for my family.” He went on, “Now I am too old to hunt. My muscles have weakened, so I just sit here on this porch. I enjoy having more time to spend with my family and people like you, who come to visit me.”

Rohani explained, “I was eight years old when I did my first dive. I could hold my breath the longest. I would have competitions with my friends. No one taught me. I knew from a very young age – you must go down, down, down, very slowly. You must be careful.” The waters of the Togean islands, nestled in the Gulf of Tomini, are crystal clear and fringed by beautiful coral reefs. In the morning you see hundreds of tiny wooden boats, some supported with spider-like outriggers and many with single triangle sails, heading out for a fishing run. The sheltered bay protects the Togeans Islands from harsh weather conditions and usually the only things to disturb the calm waters are schools of flying fish and dolphins, which can frequently be seen breaking the surface.

The Togeans are a naturalist’s delight, not just under the sea, but on the land and in the sky as well. Jungle trekking is popular among the still relatively small numbers of tourists who make it there. The forest-clad islands are the habitat of the babirusa, tarsier, Togean macaque and hanging parrot. In the early morning you can hear the call of the Togean hawk-owl. It is common to see flocks of 20 to 30 knobbed hornbills peacefully gliding to the mangroves to feed. However, it is the Bajau people, with their strong culture and seafaring peaceful way of life, that tugged at my heartstrings. I loved getting to know a little more of their life. The beauty and purity of this remote place in Sulawesi offers a little piece of paradise with a timeless Bajau culture.


Life in a Longhouse – Sungai Utik Village, Kalimantan

I entered Sungai Utik Village, a small village on the edge of a forest in West Kalimantan, with quite a bit of fanfare. Some young Dayak Iban dancers were anxiously waiting at the entrance of the village, their glittery headpieces catching the afternoon light. With a few nervous giggles, they motioned for me to follow them into the village. With a tinkling of anklets and sweet voices serenading us, I ascended the ancient, ironwood carved staircase and entered the longhouse. All the families from the longhouse, 318 people in all, sat waiting with beaming smiles. I was invited to join them on their rattan tikar mats and take part in the tolak bala ritual.

Bandi, the elderly Dayak Iban village leader, conducted the welcoming ritual. I could not take my eyes off his tattoo motifs, especially the flowers adorning the top of his shoulders and the intricate designs on his hands. His back, chest and neck were also tattooed. I soon noticed that all the men had tattoos, and later found out that tattooing forms an important part of the tradition for males, with the motifs on their shoulders symbolising strength and protection. “You can call me Apay Janggut,” said Bandi, pulling on his white beard. “That means the bearded one. This afternoon you can take a rest or maybe go to river and swim.” Then he added with a chuckle, “Be careful, because once you swim in our river, you will return. That is what we say.”

I spent three days in the village, sleeping in the longhouse and living with the Dayak Iban. Every morning I awoke to the longhouse clack-clack-clack of the looms and got to talk with the women weavers, who ply their craft most days. I took walks in the forest or in the rice fields. There was always an open invitation to sit and join some farmer in his rice house and talk about village life. In the late afternoon daily office meetings would be called, which meant sitting on the mat out the back and drinking some home brew tapped from a local tree called ijuk!

It was a delight to feel so accepted and welcomed into village life and to discover firsthand more about the Dayak Iban world and their relationship with the forests. The Sungai Utik Iban people’s customary forest covers 9,452 hectares. Protected forests take up 6,000 hectares and the rest is used for cultivation of orchards and crops and their rubber plantation and widen rotation crop fields. Retention of such a vast tract of primary forests means the animals can roam free and native plants can thrive. The forest, as the source of life of the Dayak Iban, is in safe hands. Sungai Utik embraces longhouse communal values and a traditional way of living. It is impressive that, at the same time, these forest people are so open to sharing their world with visitors.

Published NowJakarta Magazine, December, 2018

Story by Stephanie Brookes


Stephanie Brookes is a travel writer, author and blogger with tales from Indonesia and beyond.




Author –“Indonesia’s Hidden Heritage; Cultural Journeys of Discovery”



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