Timdog on world religions and local beliefs in Nusa Tenggara.
When I first read about Islam Wetu Telu I was fascinated, as I always am by religious minorities, particularly obscure, syncretic, and possibly endangered ones. From what I could make out Wetu Telu was the indigenous, syncretic belief system of Lombok, and it appeared to be very much akin to Kejawen (often given the somewhat unhelpful label "Javanese Mysticism"). That is, a blend of localised ancestor and spirit worship, a few Balinese Hindu elements, and the basic "very basic" tenets of Islam.
As presented in guidebooks and internet sources the religious situation in Lombok appeared straightforward: a century ago most of the native Sasak were followers of Islam Wetu Telu; over the course of the 20th Century almost all converted to orthodox Islam (known in Lombok as Islam Waktu Lima), and now only a handful of Wetu Telu people remain, clinging to their old traditions in a few remote mountain villages.
It took two visits to the Bayan area on the northern slopes of the Rinjani volcano, two periods of investigation and conversation, before I came to understand that the picture painted by the written sources had entirely missed what had actually happened within the religious practices of northern Lombok.
In 1965 almost the entire population of the Bayan area were self-declared Wetu Telu Muslims; in 1967 virtually all had converted to the orthodox Waktu Lima sect. The reasons for this sudden shift were simple and obvious: in the wake of the rise of the New Order and the anti-communist pogroms there was a deep distrust of anyone suspected of atheism, and a drive to draw all of Indonesia's "primitive" people into a wider, modern nationhood. The first step in this process was obviously for them to abandon their "primitive" belief systems for membership of an official, "modern" religion.
That the Wetu Telu people of northern Lombok did not suffer the bloody fate of some others considered "atheist" at that time may in part be due to the fact that there was a certain lack of certainty as to how they should be labelled: were they "belum beragama", that is, not belonging to any religion, or "belum disempurnakan", that is in this case, already Muslims, but of a debased and corrupted kind? This uncertainty perhaps bought breathing space, and the Wetu Telu people seemed pragmatically to give up without a struggle: the move to Islam Waktu Lima was complete.
The expectation would be that Wetu Telu practices and beliefs would linger long after this "conversion", but that by the dawn of the 21st Century they would have faded to nothing. But what I discovered in the Bayan area was remarkable. The Sasaks of the area appeared to have preserved Wetu Telu remarkably well, and they had done this by developing a distinct separation of their orthodox, Waktu Lima "religion", and their Wetu Telu "Adat". Adat is often translated as "custom" though this is woefully inadequate. It encompasses belief, custom, tradition and lifestyle.
In Bayan, Wetu Telu shrines, hereditary functions, and ceremonies are maintained as adat, regarded as something quite separate, and not at all contradictory to daily practice of orthodox Islam. The most dramatic manifestation of this is in the Islamic feast days. Id ul Fitri, Maulud, and Id ul-Adha are all celebrated twice: first in orthodox style at the modern mosque, then a day or two later in Wetu Telu manner at the old Wetu Telu mosque. The first celebration is for "agama", the second for "adat" - and it seems to work.
While exploring the area I visited a pondok pesantren (orthodox Islamic school) on the outskirts of Bayan. Its founder and head-teacher - who had studied in Iraq and Saudi Arabia - explained that from his perspective the Islam practiced on Lombok was often "incomplete" (belum disempurnakan), and that people were often largely ignorant of the basic tenets of their own faith. I assumed that by this he meant the Wetu Telu people of Bayan, but he assured me that he did not; he was talking about the wider Waktu Lima population, and included the Bayan people within that. But their Wetu Telu adat was not, for him, an issue:
That's just their adat
It seemed absolutely remarkable, that the people of Bayan had, surely consciously, made a pragmatic separation of agama and adat, and in doing so had successfully preserved some form of Islam Wetu Telu.
Onwards and eastwards. The Island of Flores was converted to Catholicism by the Portuguese in the 17th and 18th Centuries. But when eager Dutch missionaries arrived a century later they were horrified by what they described as an island of "baptised heathens" and set about implementing a more total conversion. But even now in certain areas ancestor worship lingers alongside, and apparently compatible with, formal Christianity. In villages of the Bajawa area clan shrines - ngadhu and bhaga - are preserved for the male and female ancestors, and people will happily tell you that the towering cone of Gunung Inerie and the nearby Gunung Manulalu - rising behind green ridges topped with Catholic crosses - are the homes of ancestors and other powerful spirits. But people will also, without a flicker of disingenuousness, proclaim that such things are "just adat", and that they are all practising Catholics.
Further east still, in Alor, the mixed Muslim and Christian population has no difficulty belonging to those faiths while also venerating the "grave" of the 20-metre-tall "first man in the world" who sprung from the soil of Alor, and in the case of some of the coastal Muslims, in maintaining a shrine to the naga (dragon) who they consider to be their own ancestor.
And so to the frontline. Sumba, an island apart, is one of the last places in Indonesia where a significant number of people still have not converted to an "official" religion, but have clung to their indigenous belief system, here known as Agama Marapu.
Agama Marapu is obviously enormously complex, but its very basic tenet is that God plays no active role in the management of the world, and is beyond the reach of mortals; therefore all active religious practice is intended as connection between the living and the spirits of the ancestors (Marapu).
It's not unusual to find 50% as the quoted percentage of Sumbanese who follow the Marapu religion. This is without doubt no longer accurate. While traditions remain strong most Sumbanese now estimate that percentages of totally non-Christianised people are in single figures.
Where "primitive" people and suku terasing remain in Indonesia the religion which they are generally pressured to join is Christianity. This is largely due to geography: such "primitives" and "isolated" people are mostly found within the eastern "Christian zone" of Indonesia. However, it is also in part due to the fact that the manifestations of Christianity that find missionary work necessary tend to find an attraction in carrying it out among "primitive" people (where Islam takes a missionary route it generally looks to whip its own pre-existing lax and lapsed followers into line - as in Lombok - or perhaps works among the people on the fringes of its own geographical range).
Although Christian missionary work is often packaged with valuable aid, education and development work, to a non-religious person with an interest in traditional cultures and belief systems, the idea of sweeping down over the dense green treetops in a light aircraft to bring the "word of god" and "save" the "savages" of Papua or wherever, does seem grotesquely arrogant and condescending - not to mention 150 years out of date - but I digress.
In Sumba the majority of people are now Christian - nominally at least. Pure Marapu religion endures in a few places, particularly the key ancestral villages of Wunga and Sodan, and around the West Sumba capital Waikabubak. But elsewhere it is all churches and crucifixes, even in places regarded as strongholds of Marapu culture. The Kodi area, for example, appears to be 100% Christian now.
Missionaries have worked in Sumba, but when a "primitive" area goes through a process of conversion to a "sophisticated" foreign religion there comes a point of "critical mass" when such a large percentage of the population have joined the new religion that a domino effect is triggered and the remaining "heathens" rapidly join too without any outside prompting. That point has clearly long since been passed in Sumba, and already the label "Marapu-animis" is a term of mockery for many on the island.
The reaction of the liberal with an interest in traditional beliefs and cultures is to rail against this, to beseech and urge the remaining Marapu people to cling to their religion and shun the advances of Christianity (or Islam, Buddhism, or whatever it may be). But to do this is to attempt to deny the inevitable, and is, in its way, as arrogant and condescending as the position of the missionary who believes that the Marapu man needs to be "saved".
Indonesia is as Indonesia is, and there are official religions. In an ideal world it would be possible officially to declare your religion as Kejawen or Atheist, or Wetu Telu or Marapu, though I suspect that even if that were possible those belonging to the first two would still be considered "deviant" and those belong to the latter pair would be "primitive".
It is inevitable that as "modern Indonesia" looms ever nearer across the Savu Sea, the Sumbanese, and others like them in other parts of the country, will see powerful attraction in membership of a "sophisticated", "modern" religion, if they are to make the most of their position in that "modern" nation. And when they see that the most successful people - both outsiders and locals - are all members of official faiths, then the attraction is stronger.
For the liberal preservationist to ask a Sumbanese to retain his Marapu religion is, unfortunately, given the nature of Indonesia, to ask him ever to remain disadvantaged, and perhaps mocked.
Surely it is better to point to the model offered by the people of Bayan. If Wetu Telu traditions can survive, almost half a century after the "point of conversion", there is no reason why, twenty, forty, fifty years from now when every Sumbanese is Christian, there should not still be the same taboo-governed architecture, the same funeral sacrifices and all the rest, safely re-designated not as religion, but as adat. To encourage this, rather that to discourage conversion, is the way to win the battle to preserve traditions, indigenous cultures, and age-old belief systems.
1. From Ancestor Worship to Monotheism - Politics of Religion in
Lombok; Sven Cederroth.
General further reading
Cederroth, Sven; From Ancestor Worship to Monotheism - Politics of Religion in Lombok. Available online at:
Forshee, Jill; Between the Folds - Stories of Cloth, Lives and Travels from Sumba.
Carrier, John and Kissoon, Tracy; Sumba - A Unique Culture.
Muller, Kal; East from Bali - From Lombok to Timor.