A debate on Lombok's 'living landscape'
Can these traditional beliefs survive modernity?
“In 1997, the island of Lombok was but a dot on the map for most people outside of Indonesia.
Even with tourism gaining steam in the neighboring island of Bali, a majority of foreign vacationers (mostly Australian) had never heard of Lombok.
Those who visited Lombok did so with an interest in either biology or anthropology. One such anthropologist, Kari Telle, a Norwegian researcher, found herself in the middle of a heated religious debate in a tiny agricultural village called Penanga, nearly 25 years prior to my visit.
On a late October night, rain came flooding from the skies. It was the beginning to an unforgiving rainy season. Local harvests were plentiful that year, but excess rain always brought unforeseen issues.
Huddled in the back of a beat-up pickup truck, Kari waited as the dirt path ended and her local Sasak friends began hopping down to the soggy grassland.
In the distance, across paddy fields and prairie, there was a cemetery. Surrounding its boundaries, hundreds of villagers circled a fallen tree, which previously stood 25-meters-tall. It was charred from trunk to tip and, in fact, still in flames. The tree had crushed several headstones, some of whose family members now watched on.
Village leaders urged everyone to stand back. They warned that bad energy was building inside the cemetery and the flame should be left alone to avoid conflict. After all, nature was at the heart of all local spirituality. Not only that, there was an utmost importance in communication with ancestral spirits after death.
“It was lightning,” Kari’s friend, Surya, told her. “It struck the tree during our mid-day prayer and has been burning all evening.”
Just the fact that this happened outside of a cemetery and during a holy part of the day was enough to spark commotion among the people of Penanga. There was an eerie feeling that ‘something’ was about to happen or that this event held deeper meaning. Within hours, worry spread all the way to neighboring towns of Bonjeruk and Ubang.
Water is regularly poured on the headstones of deceased relatives. This is to ‘cool off’ the headstones and, subsequently, relieve the burning torment they must suffer from the grave. In Sasak belief, extreme heat is associated with anger and conflict. However, as the village leaders warned, it would bring bad fortune to halt the fate nature had in store for them.
Certainly, according to these beliefs, a white-hot lightning strike and ensuing fire would conjure up all the cemetery’s bad spirits.
This later sparked debate on the ideology of the ‘living landscape’ in Lombok. For the coming days, weeks, months, locals argued over what this symbolic event could mean. Let me give you some context. . .
There was (and is) an on-going transition of spiritual understanding in Lombok.
Like I’ve mentioned, for hundreds of years, Sasak people have tied their religious ideology to ancestral spirits and nature. However, Lombok is a predominate island of Islam. It’s known as the “island of a thousand mosques”. In recent decades, Sasak Muslims — the majority ethnic group of Lombok — have been working to reform ideologies of the ‘invisible world’ (aka, spirits) into practice more vested in humans and God.
However, despite their efforts, many traditional Sasaks still believe in the natural environment — trees, rivers, mountains, wind, the ocean, and animals. They have faith these things will communicate with them when they reach a point of moral imbalance.
And, sometimes, these ‘invisible’ signs will reach a tipping point that becomes impossible to ignore — as in the case of the fallen cemetery tree.
Should they put so much faith in these invisible warnings? That was the debate among the villages 25 years ago.
By 2020, when I first arrived in Lombok, it was a different place.
Reformists and development, alike, had brought change to the landscape and ideologies. At that time, though, I was blissfully ignorant of the decades-long religious politics and circumstances of the island. Nor did I have an inkling of knowledge about Sasak’s ancestral roots. It was the middle of the global COVID-19 pandemic and I was hunkered down in paradise; that’s all that was on my mind.”
I’ve finished the first leg of the walk to Papua. Now, I’m taking a quick hiatus and I’ll soon start again from where I left off.
You can reach me by replying to this email. Words of encouragement warmly accepted.
The Papua Expedition supports the 771 million people in the world without sanitary water. Please consider giving — all it takes is $40 to bring clean water to an individual for life!
For more info, see here.