Bye-Bye Boat: Rituals on Savu

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Text by Khong Swee Lin. Photos by Carl-Bernd Kaehlig

A riot of mystical symbols and shapes dances across the weavings. Undulating lines, geometric motifs, animals, birds and blossoms loudly proclaim the unspoken within the confines of woven threads. To the melodic strains of a sasando, a musical instrument made from the leaf of a lontar palm, a party of villagers clad in these cloths (known as ikat) sing and dance on the white sand beach of Bodo.

Ritual and ceremony bind and define a society. Nowhere is this observation truer than on the tiny but fascinating island of Savu. Once upon a time it was one of the myriad water-based kingdoms scattered around the azure waters of Nusa Tenggara – the paradisiacal islands of southeast Indonesia. Yet its warriors were fearsome; its horses (once traded for sandalwood) are feisty; and its people are spirited. It was a hermit kingdom with its roots from the days of ancient Majapahit, lying in the Outer Arc of the “Lesser Sundas”, a chain of 566 islands or so dotted round an area of about 1,400 kilometres east to west.

The main islands of the Lesser Sundas  – all of them volcanic – are Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Komodo, Flores and the Alor group. Non-volcanic Savu, Roti, Timor and Sumba lie outwards. Diminutive compared to the Greater Sundas of Sumatra, Java and Borneo, the Lesser Sundas are as compelling as their more substantial cousins even though they are economically and geographically isolated, away from trade routes and practically devoid of spices. Yet, despite Savu’s isolation and its harsh and arid climate, its people are arguably one of the most sophisticated in the Lesser Sundas insofar as the craft of weaving and the arts of music and dance are concerned.

Legend has it that the Savunese descended from two sisters, the clan founders Majibado and Lobado. Thus, two matrilineal moieties, the Greater Blossom (hubi aei) and the Lesser Blossom (hubi iki), form the basis of Savunese society. Subdivisions are known as “seeds”, or wini.

Despite the complexities of clan structure, it is relatively easy for Savunese to identify one another’s clans. All it takes is to “read” other peoples’ ikat hip cloths or sarongs; motifs identifying the respective clans are woven into their garments, thus functioning as a sort of wearable identity card – somewhat akin to the chequered patterns on tartans delineating Scottish clans.

The mainstay of the island’s economy is the nutrient-rich, drought-resistant lontar palm, or Borassus sundaicus (palmyra). It is without doubt Savu’s tree of life. Its wood may be used for construction or for implements; its leaves as baskets, hats or as material for the resonance-box of the lute-like sasando; its fresh sap as a juice; its fermented sap palm wine as toddy, or tuak. The sap may be boiled down and reduced to cakes of palm sugar. The dregs are used as animal feed; the leaves as fertilizer. Nothing from the lontar palm is wasted.

The vastness of the triangular Savu Sea (oddly bringing to mind the infamous Bermuda Triangle) is broken by gently waving rows of these iconic lontar palms fringing the island’s hills and beaches. It was at such a spot at the port of Seba that Captain James Cook and his crew arrived in 1770 in urgent search of provisions for his vessel, HMS Endeavour. One of his passengers, botanist Joseph Banks, recorded that “…large groups of these trees [the fan palms] are to be seen in all parts of the island…” The Endeavour was eventually loaded with “divers Jarrs” (gallons) of palm syrup, sheep, chickens, coconuts, eggs and garlic. Thanks to little Savu, that unscheduled stop on an uncharted island, Captain Cook managed to find Australia!

The ritual and ceremony of jingi tui, Savu’s animistic religion, are part of the island’s fabric of life – despite inroads made by the introduction of Christianity. Each of the five domains have separate rituals, calendars and leaders although they fall under the umbrella of, and work with, the island’s lunar calendar. There is a season for every task or event, be it marriage, funerals, the making of dyes, procedures for planting or for the cultivation of the lontar palm, or the weaving of a child’s first ikat.

For strangers, perhaps one of the most intriguing rituals is the kowa hole, a ceremonial launching of a boat onto the waters off Savu. The lontar palm is crucial for the performance of this ritual: in the Savunese village of Menia, the leaves and stalks of a certain female lontar palm are selected to build the little craft. Thereafter, the tree will be displayed to signify the completion of the ritual and a “gate” between land and sea symbolically closed.

The villagers of Mesara carry offerings on poles, to be placed in the boat. These poles and pieces of driftwood will also be used in its construction. Its sail, composed of a lontar leaf, is covered with sacred cloth. A pair of priests will then draw seven lines on the beach, representing seven keels on either side of the boat from its stern (marked by a drum) to its bow. After the boat is launched from Bodo beach, the priests draw lines parallel to the sea to “close
the land” thus preventing the evil spirits of the sea entering the isle. The priests see the boat off. Laden with offerings, it sinks.

For the rest of this article (Asian Geographic No.78 Issue 1/2011 ) and other stories, check out our past issues here or download a digital copy here

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