A Day at the Races

Batu Sankar, West Sumatra

August 19, 2017

Throughout the month of August, every Saturday, there are races held in the muddy fields near the town of Batu Sankar. But the locations vary, and are decided on the eve of the race. The only way to find out is to ask locally and that is just what we intended. I had met Martine, a French photographer, who showed me some photos of the race. I simply had to go too!

But this is no ordinary race. Called Pacu Jawi, this is the traditional racing of bulls. Each team is made up of a pair of bulls. Bamboo frames made of long oval hoops are placed over the hump of each bull, their tapered ends joined by a thin strip of wood. The jockey stands with one foot on each of these wooden steps, holding onto the tails. And off he goes, pulled by the bulls. A few well-timed bites on the tails ensure that the enraged bulls set a fast clip.

Up at the end where the race begins, most of the animals have to coaxed and cajoled into stepping into the mud and into the bamboo frames. Some protest mildly but cave in. Quite a few others demonstrate their unwillingness in a decisive manner. It takes the combined efforts of several men to hold them in position. Not that they succeed every time; more than a few bulls canter through and escape, minus a jockey.

Down they come, the hooves splashing through the ankle-deep mud. Up spatters the mud, anointing those who keep a discretionary distance with a few drops, but liberally bathing all those who venture too close to the makeshift plank rails. Not all the bulls take kindly to this form of weekend entertainment. Taking umbrage, they crash through the flimsy barrier and charge up, intent on home. The watching crowd scatters with lightning speed and more than one takes a roll in the mud.

Many of the bull-teams leap through the prescribed course, but rarely do they deign to take their jockey with them. Some of the jockeys manage to cling on almost to the end of the field, while others are left floundering in the mud, gazing at the rapidly disappearing hooves.

Expressions of frustration, resignation and fierce intent race through their faces. But it morphs quickly into laughter, joy and the sheer fun of it all. Yells and cheers greet the ones who make it to the end and laughter and jokes rain down on the hapless ones.

But it is all is taken with good grace. I provided my share of entertainment as I emerged caked in mud from head to toe, grinning helplessly.

It is Martine, that I have to thank for prodding me to go to Pachu Jawi – not that it required much prodding! And it is her that I have to thank for waving her magic wand over a few of my photos.



Rites, Rituals & a Pig Sacrifice

August 15, 2017

“Come” said Baja Toycot. “We go to cure a sick man. You come”.
The day had dawned gray and cloudy and it had been spattering rain most of the morning, with occasional downpours. Even the chickens seemed to have gone to ground. But the mood perked up around mid-morning. Two other shikereis had loped in from the forest and settled down to tea and talk. A healing ceremony was to take place in a nearby Uma requiring all three shikereis, and I was invited to tag along. I needed no second urging. They strode along and I followed in their wake, trying to perform the usual balancing act on slippery logs. My deplorable skills had improved dramatically over the past couple of days and I gave myself a mental pat on the back for not sliding into the mud.

The Uma was not very far and soon we squelched up the usual notched log. This was a much bigger Uma, with more people but identical in design. A newly built long platform stretched out in front leading to the open-sided room. Inside was a large room with a couple of open hearths. Pots bubbled on one while some women were busy preparing sago in another. More people lived in this Uma, but the numbers had swelled even more, thanks to all the family members who had come in for the ceremony. Hung from the rafters and draped from beams were dozens of skulls. A string of numerous pig skulls hung at the entrance. Even more were the monkey skulls, looking like tiny human ones. Added to the gory ensemble were a jumble of antlers and some other unidentifiable animal skulls. The age of an Uma seems to be in direct proportion to the number of skulls it is decorated with, no doubt a sign of prestige.

The owner Baja Somorut and his wife were both elderly and sick. They had requested the shamans to perform the ceremony. Tea and talk were dispensed with, and the diagnosis made. The verdict was unanimous. When the new platform had been built, the Baja Somorut had neglected to perform a ritual to propitiate the spirits. The shamans drew the obvious conclusion; they attributed his current sickness to the punishment decreed by angry spirits. So the first order of the day was to appease the angry spirits. The spirits of the trees, the wood, the twine and the vine used for the construction all had to be appeased, and asked forgiveness.

The three shikereis strode off into the forest to collect the herbs, leaves, twigs and flowers deemed necessary for the ritual and then then began what can only be called a dress-up session. Out came the big boxes that store ornaments. Beads and bangles were slipped on amid convivial chatter. It was apparently commonplace and nobody else paid any attention. It was only I who watched goggle-eyed. Bells in hand, they trooped out to the end of the platform and squatted. A palm stalk had been prepared before, the palm fronds rubbed with turmeric. It was this that seemed to be the focus now. Ringing of bells and chanting filled the air as they implored the spirits, and begged forgiveness. After some fifteen or so minutes of chanting, one particular shaman appeared to have, what seemed like a rational conversation with thin air. In a reasonable voice, he spoke to the spirit, coaxing and cajoling in the sort of tone one would use with a recalcitrant child. And then rose, sprinkling water from a leaf up and down the offending platform.

Spirits appeased, they trooped inside, and sat across from each other. They were preparing bunches of leaves and a basin of water scattered with herbs. Incantations murmured over them for purification and they were ready for the next part of the healing ritual. For the next ten to fifteen minutes, the sound of chanting reverberated from the walls as they swayed and weaved over the heads of the sick duo. The same ringing of bells, sweeping of branches signifying sweeping away bad spirits was performed energetically as the patients sat immobile beneath. Down squatted the shamans, this time, cupping water from the basin and bathing the patients while murmuring chants. The forehead, face, chest and arms were all wiped down, as they reached into the basin repeatedly. Cleansing the body with the now-blessed water, they did a thorough job, murmuring and talking to the spirits the entire time. Each of the shamans in turn, dripped a few drops from a leaf into the mouths of the sick; a concoction of their own making. And all was deemed well.

The cleansing ritual was not quite complete yet. An animal needs to be sacrificed at each such ritual and a pig was brought in. Trussed to the bamboo pole and lain on the floor, it lay squealing as the shamans embarked on yet more chanting. This time, asking forgiveness of the pig. In an almost explanatory tone, they spoke to the spirit of the pig. As they rubbed a leaf over the pig, they explained the need for slaughter. And slaughter it, they did. In one swift cut, the neck lay open, the blood collected in a large wok. Each of the shamans drank some of the blood and then examined the entrails. Nodding heads, I imagine, implied they agreed with what they saw. Despite asking, I did not quite understand what exactly they were looking for, nor what they saw.

The ritual was complete and the patients already claimed they felt better. How much of it is the placebo effect, I wondered. Several family members now busily set about cutting up the meat and preparing the meal for a communal feast. Bamboo tubes were brought forth and stuffed with the meat, to be cooked over the fire in the usual manner. Some of the meat I imagine was to be smoked and stored for future use. I too was given a share of the meat. Delicious it was, infused with the delicate flavor of bamboo and herbs.

Postscript: By happy circumstance, later at Muara Siberut, I met an anthropologist who was studying the Mentawai. Manvir had been living with the Mentawai for seven months and was kind enough to answer my many questions about the rituals, beliefs and ceremonies of these intriguing peoples.

In the House of a Shaman

Muntei, Siberut Island,

August 12, 2017

Tales of hunter-gatherers living in the middle of the jungle in an island off Sumatra had been playing through my mind as I traveled south and I wanted to go see these people. The Mentawai are a chain of islands, some with rudimentary development and some that are famed among surfers. Siberut, is the one where the tribes live and the undeveloped state of the island is largely responsible for preservation of their culture, supposedly still intact. No ATMs, no wifi or connectivity and in the jungle, no electricity – it sounded perfect!

But the tentacles of social media have broadcast tales of the Mentawai far and wide and I found to my surprise that visiting the Mentawai tribes is very much on the package-trip list. Guesthouses in Padang, the closest large city on mainland Sumatra push packages albeit in a low-key sort of way. Predictably, I wanted none of it and decided to take the early morning ferry to the port of Muara Siberut, to try to locate a local guide. And so it was I got myself to the village of Muntei where many of the households have relatives that live in the jungle.

A narrow, paved road leads through the village with houses on either side. Raised off the ground like elsewhere, all have a wide open-sided veranda with seats, a set of shallow steps leading up to it. People wave and smile as I go past, riding pillion on a motorbike. Palm fronds hang from the eaves and wood carvings of animals grace the posts. The A-shaped frames have thatched roofs, the wood logs holding it down form a row of crosses along the ridge. I remember seeing the same somewhere else, in some other country, but could not remember where.

I did not need to look for a guide; in small communities such as this, word seems to travel without any discernable conduit and soon enough, I was chatting with some of the locals. Everyone seems to be related, at least distantly and finding a guide was far simpler than I had thought. Negotiation over a glass of tea, a wander around the village, getting the necessary permit and a stop at the village shop for food and we were set. The entertainment of the evening was watching the rescue of a truck mired in mud. It was too late to start off today and I was given a room to sleep in. A mat woven from bamboo laid out over the wood floor was my bed. No light in the room meant I was spared the visual assault of the brilliant pink mosquito net. Chinks of light filtering in through the woven bamboo walls were too faint to see the sources of nocturnal scamperings; I counted it as yet another blessing.

Somewhere in the jungle
August 13, 2017

The morning dawned bright and it promised to be blisteringly hot. We walked down to the Reiket river, to the longboat. Powered by a lawnmower engine, we puttered up the river. Once there were crocodiles in the river and monkeys in the trees, but they have been hunted to extinction and children gleefully swim and paddle in the waters near the banks. The tall grass and bushes hide any dwellings from sight and soon we turn into a smaller river, the Osap. A couple of hours on the river and we pull up to the bank. A few people are busy laying down some logs, forming steps on the muddy banks and we stop for a chat before heading into the forest. The rubber boots I bought in Padang were the smallest I could find but were still two sizes too big. To keep them from slipping off, I had tied rope around my ankles. My avante garde style garnered me a thumbs-up sign from one of the women as she tugged experimentally at the boots. A comment made by someone else had them all cackling; no doubt at the entertaining prospect of the inadvertent donation of my boots in the first mud bog.

I had heard and read about the mud bogs that we have to wade through, but realized very quickly that I had severely under-estimated the amount and depth of the bogs. Struggling to balance on slippery logs over the mud, I asked if there were more patches like this.

“This is dry” he tells me, adding helpfully that the entire path was like this, only worse. The people living in the forest use these paths routinely and have put down some branches and logs to walk across. A few logs are wide enough to walk on without falling off, but most are between five to eight centimeters in diameter. Some are just palm fronds, floating on the surface. Some float under the surface, impossible to see under layers of squelching, sucking, oozing mud. Unerringly the locals walk, their bare feet with splayed toes getting grips on the narrow, slippery surface effortlessly. I step gingerly, trying to keep my balance and more than once my foot slides off and sinks calf-deep. Loud sucking noises accompany retrieving the fallen foot, as I balance precariously, trying not to fall headlong. Liberally infused with the smell of assorted excrement, the prospect of being bathed in mud is not exactly at the top of my list of priorities. I plod on again, with the added delight of oozing mud inside the boot. Sarul, my guide belatedly realizes a stick would help and voila! I can inch along at a slightly faster pace. A couple of hours later we cross a small stream and I see a palm thatch peek over the trees. We are at the house, or Uma as it is called, where we are to stay in tonight. The owner is Baja Toycot, a shaman, but Sarul does not know if he is at home. Lack of any sort of communication means we simply have to wait and see.

There is a tree trunk with notches masquerading as steps, leading up to a small platform. This leads to a wide open-sided room that is the living room, bedroom as well as kitchen. On one side is a hearth with a rack hung above it for firewood. Some stones are set in it, to hold pots, black from extensive use. Just beyond the thatch off to one side is a trio of buckets. They collect rainwater, for cooking and drinking. Water for washing is brought in from the river in buckets. From a couple of hooks, hang ladles, mostly handmade from coconut shells and sticks but there are also a couple of plastic ones. Hanging from the beams are crude wooden images of snakes, birds and a monkey. They are to appease the spirits of the animals, Sarul tells me. The chicken feathers that dangle off a rope are to appease the spirit of the chickens that have been killed. There are a few pig skulls hanging as well. A ritual precedes the killing of any animal, asking their forgiveness and afterwards, the skulls adorn the house to appease the spirit. At the end of the open room is a door leading to a small enclosed room. There is a hearth there too with multiple racks, holding more kindling. Against the wall are quivers of arrows and a spear. Apart from the metal tip of the spear, all are made from wood, leather and other materials found in the forest. In one corner of the open room is the mosquito net, presumably the bed of the owner. But of the owner himself, there is nary a sign. Some chickens strut and peck in the mud with chicks trailing. The smell of rain-soaked soil mingles with pig excrement. But there are no signs of the pigs either.

Across from the house, is another house belonging to one of Toycot’s sons, Pina. While waiting for Baja Toycot to return, we visited him. We found Pina squatting on the floor, smoking a cigarette, idly swinging a pair of hammocks. It is nap time for his sons, aged three, and a year and a half. But at the sound of our voices, they perk up and are soon out of the hammocks, playing. His wife is likely not going to be happy but she is out in the jungle, collecting bamboo.

A lot of cooking is done in bamboo tubes, over the fire, including the all-important sago. Extracted from the spongy center of a sago palm, this is the starchy staple of everyone here. Humans. pigs and chickens, they all eat sago. The pigs eat chunks of it straight out of the split log and chicken peck there too, keeping a wary eye on the pigs. But for human consumption, it is first ground into powder. The powder is then stuffed inside the bamboo tubes or wrapped inside sago leaves then and roasted in the fire. The moisture from the bamboo combines to give it a soft doughy texture and it is pulled from the split bamboo and eaten. Other than the subtle flavor of bamboo, it is completely tasteless. Much like the tsampa of Tibetans, it is tasteless enough not to encourage overeating. Occasionally the taste of sago is enlivened with the dubious delights of sago worms, still wriggling.

Baja Toycot had been out visiting another household and returned soon. Most families have one male member who is taught the rites and rituals of a shaman or shikerei as they are called. But if none are deemed suitable, a generation may pass before there is a shikerei in the family. Those without a shikerei, have no recourse but to request one from another family for rituals.

As he comes up the path, all I can do is stare. Perhaps in his mid-sixties, he is lean, dressed in a loin cloth made of tree bark, with necklaces draped around his neck, an earring in one ear and forearms festooned with bracelets. A beaded headdress, one that is only worn by shikerei, sits on his head, a hibiscus flower tucked under the rim. And he is covered with tattoos. Across the chest, down the back, on the shoulders, on the hands and down his thighs.

With a wide smile and a handshake, he greeted us and bade us welcome. And busily set about lighting the fire, splitting kindling with a machete. Bananas were set to boil and soon he was grating coconut, using as the grater, the spiny outer bark of a sago palm. We sat down to a meal of boiled banana coated in fresh coconut and sipped the tea we had brought. He is never still, chattering and exchanging news and gossip as he works. He sees to the chickens, feeding them and putting the hens with chicks into a basket for the night. A hollowed-out piece of wood hanging from the rafter is struck with a rod, the sound meant for the pigs to come home to feed. Over the next couple of days, I heard the same sound echo through the forest, rung from other Umas. It is a wonder to me, how the pigs know which call to obey.

Life each day rarely varies. There are chores to be done, animals to feed, edible flowers and fruits to be got from the forest. Sometimes the bland sago is enlivened with frogs caught from the bogs and fish from the river. But it is all accomplished at an unhurried pace, with chatter and laughter laced through the day. Sometimes people pass by, on their way to or from their own Uma. And they stop by for a while. News and gossip is exchanged over tea or coffee, liberally laced with sugar. They roll wads of tobacco in dried banana leaves, the stubby cigarettes dangling from their lips as they talk. It is astonishing how much everyone smokes – their own rolled ones or the packs that we had brought with us. They are born storytellers. As we sit on the benches, they spin out the tales, wreathed in tendrils of smoke. The tales are told slowly, with pauses pregnant with anticipation as the audience listens intently.

Dinner was the rice we had brought and pork that had been dried and stored. The chirping of the cicadas slowly increases in volume as the last rays of the sun give way to the dark. The chickens not put into cages, flutter up into the branches of a tree and amid a few squabbles, settle down to roost. The fire in the hearth has died down and only a few embers give out a red glow. We sit over cups of tea, and I hear tales from the forest.

The trees, animals and humans all have spirits Baja Toycot says, and the work of a shikerei is to communicate with them. Shikerei are needed for rituals, and rituals there are aplenty. Before building a house, to cure an illness, for weddings and funerals, before killing an animal for food, all need rituals with prayers performed by a shikerei. Sometimes it takes more than one, he tells us, depending on the seriousness of the situation. I learned of the meaning of the tattoos, of going hunting for monkeys with a bow and arrows. And of hunting wild boars with a spear. Under the mosquito net in the same open room, I feel asleep to dream of boars and monkeys and of poison-tipped arrows.

Where Women Lead

Pagaruyung village, West Sumatra
August 8, 2017

On a hill called Gombok, in West Sumatra, were found some statues and several large stones with inscriptions carved on them. Dating from 1347, they can hardly be called ancient, yet these are the first written records in this area. Written in Pali script, they speak of Adityawarma, the founder of the kingdom who ruled in these parts until his death in 1375. In the usual manner of such edicts, the inscriptions praise the greatness and wisdom of the king, especially as a master of the Tantric Buddhism. On a stone dated 1356, the author, a certain Mpungku Dharmma Dwaja, calls the king, a god of snakes and priests who became the arm of the world. Another stone is written in commemoration of a temple and yet another speaks of the meaning of human life. Adityawarman was the grandson of Tribhuwanaraja, the king of the Melayu kingdom and a royal of Java’s Majahapit lineage. He conquered the east coast of Sumatra and founded a royal dynasty in Pagaruyung, near modern-day Batu Sankar in 1347.

Today the stones lie in an open-sided shed, by the side of the road, some four kilometers from the town of Batu Sankar, largely forgotten and overlooked by tourists and locals alike. There are sketchy explanations in Bahasa Indonesia and none in English. Yet it is this dynasty that gave rise to the Pagaruyung kingdom, and are the forerunners of the Minankabau lineage, much vaunted in these parts. Strangely, no records exist between 1375 and 1513 and little is known about this kingdom.

Although the Pagaruyung kingdom was disbanded in 1833, and the royal palace destroyed several times, it has been re-built each time. The most recent incarnation is from 2007, built in the traditional style with several innovations. Three storeys high, this too is boat-shaped like the Batak houses. But the saddle-shaped roof is even more pronounced, with multiple thatched roofs forming layers. Seen from the front, the roofs soar up and away like the outspread wings of birds, tilted at the tips. The ends of the roofs rise sharply into tips, mimicking buffalo horns. At right angles to the roof layers is the entrance, with its soaring roof as well.

Instead of only the eaves being decorated, here, the decoration creeps up on all three sides of the building in the form of wooden panels. But true to Islamic tenets, there are no masks or imagery. Instead, these wooden panels are beautifully carved and painted, covering all except the rear wall. Flowers, vines and geometric designs fill every inch of space in a dazzling pattern, strong greens mixing with pink and brown and yellow. The polished wood interior is largely bare but the segregated areas for men and women show adherence to Islamic laws. A rice barn once a standard feature of every house graces one part of the yard. A large life-sized buffalo statue next to it plays happy mount for a gaggle of children.

There are several traditional houses in the area, some renovated and in pristine condition, while some are slowly giving way to the elements. There are some families that still live in the old traditional houses but most now occupy modern buildings. The wealthier families maintain the traditional buildings and use them for ceremonial purposes these days, while everyday life goes on in newer building set around the courtyard. Walking down the road, a greeting led to a smile and a smile to an invitation to stop and chat. It was usually the women who invited me in, happy to share their culture and history. Unsurprising really, given this society’s matrilineal heritage.

The Minangkabau, descendants of the Pagaruyung kingdom are best known today for their matrilineal society. They are deemed the largest matriarchal society in the world today and are understandably proud of their heritage. Not so long ago, most families still lived in houses ruled by the matriarch and populated by only those related to the women. Husbands moved into their wives’ houses after marriage and were treated as honored guests. Property and wealth were inherited by the women and remained in their possession. It was the women who made all the decisions, in home and out of home, including farming and business. The spread of Islam, with its tenets that favor men, raised more than a few debates and indeed rebellions in the past. Today, the Minangkabau continue to do a tightrope balancing act between tradition and religion. Modern life with its nuclear families further erode the old system and some of the older people shake their heads as they sigh. A facet of bridging the laws of tradition and religion, has given rise to a peculiar compromise. “High inheritance” refers to wealth and property that are still handed down through the mother while “low inheritance” refers to the wealth inherited from the father, largely from his professional salary. There are other such compromises but the culture still retains enough of its tradition to remain unique in the world.