Agama, Adat and Conversion in Nusa Tenggara

Mar 31st, 2008, in Society, by

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

he said.

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.

27 Comments on “Agama, Adat and Conversion in Nusa Tenggara”

  1. kris says:

    Hi, thanks for this. I’m gonna go to NTT for half a year this year, I’d be glad if you had more background reading to recommend…

  2. The same syncretic faith exists in East Timor, where almost everybody is Catholic but keeps on believing the ancestors’ spirits and sacred mountains and performing the ancient animist rituals. People will call it lisan or usos e costumes, which are the Tetum and Portuguese expressions for adat. I’ve heard of ceremonies attended by a Catholic priest where he will leave near the end, before the animist part of it starts, so as not to endorse this practice with his attendance, even if he is completely aware of what happens after his departure. The Church in East Timor has the same kind of pragmatic approach that you describe; they just label what’s left of traditional belief systems as lisan, and take care of the Christian part of the spiritual needs of their flock. The Chinese (Hakka) East Timorese have also converted to Catholicism, but keep on going to the Chinese Temple to pray and burn joss paper (ghost or hell money 金紙) for the ancestors and the traditional Chinese gods.

  3. Murphy says:

    You don’t need to go to exotic places to see that many Indonesians never really leave their animist roots. Even big city dwellers still believe in animal sacrifices, spirits living in inanimate things, shamans, amulets, priesthood, the underworlds, and of course grotesque creatures roaming in the night. Some of them are naked animist, some covers their practice with religious justification but, if you look carefully, still animist-at-heart.

    Those are what the locals believe before the Middle East imports came. These set of beliefs are still alive despite the official “Muslims” or “Christians” on their KTP. Ignore them at your own risk.

  4. timdog says:

    Kris – There is not a great deal of accessible written material on Nusa Tenggara. Kal Muller’s guidebook mentioned above is an excellent introduction and goes into far more detail than any other tourist guide I’ve ever read. However, it was written a long time ago and does continue some outdated ideas: that Wetu Telu is a distinct, separate religion, and that half of the population of Sumba are Agama Marapu.

    Nusa Tenggara has long remained on the far peripheries of the grander narrative of Indonesian history: only theoretically under Majapahit suzerainty; a Portuguese, and later Dutch, backwater; even the Independence struggle had little impact (though Sukarno was exiled to Ende at one point). Given this the area gets little mention in most history books, though “Indonesia – Peoples and Histories” by Jean Gelman Taylor makes a reasonable attempt to draw it into the wider picture. The history of Lombok – and to a lesser extent Sumbawa – tends to appear as a footnote in histories of Bali.

    Other than that you enter the territory of academia and anthropology. Sumba has been thoroughly crawled over by anthropologists. The above mentioned book “Between the Folds” is the most anecdotal and readable anthropological work I’ve seen. An internet search will throw up various papers and articles.

    An interesting piece on an outbreak of violence in Sumba is available on the excellent Inside Indonesia website:

    I myself would be very interested to know of any other reading material on the area, particularly anything in English on the Dutch campaigns to take control of Sumba in the early 20th Century.

    João Paulo Esperança – I had heard of the same religious dualism in Timor, and had read of the Catholic church’s pragmatic approach to it. There is a certain amount of traditional belief in West Timor too, though it certainly seems more thoroughly Christianised than other parts of the region (the exception being the “independent” village of Boti, near Soe).

    Murphy – agree with you entirely, but there is a subtle distinction in what I am talking about. Where pre-conversion beliefs and practices remain in more “mainstream” Indonesian culture they are often thoroughly incorporated into the foreign religion. The most obvious example is Balinese Hinduism, a great bubbling stew of syncretism that really bears very little resemblance to classical Indian Hinduism. The same applies to a lesser extent to Islam here. The business of praying at the graves of your parents before the start of Ramadan is not part of wider Islamic practice, and has clear ancestor-worship roots; however, it is thoroughly incorporated into mainstream, orthodox Islamic practice.

    Also, there is something to bear in mind about popular “folk beliefs” in mainstream culture. In Western tradition there are longstanding pre-Christian elements within Christian culture – notably the fertility symbols associated with Easter and the dates of the major Christian festivals. But there is also reconstituted “alternative” belief and practice: astrology, crystals etc…

    Although there is certainly a continuity which does not exist it the West, I might argue that the popular obsession with dukuns, black magic, potency remedies, ghosts etc found in “modern” Indonesian culture is the parallel equivalent of astrology etc in the West. In Bali a rise of such “pop religion” has been reported in recent years.

    What I’m discussing in Nusa Tenggara is the apparent dual practice of distinct and differentiated belief systems…

    Sorry to twitter on like this, but these are subjects I find endlessly fascinating…. 😉

  5. Lairedion says:


    Thanks for your article. Indeed there’s little news on the more remote parts of this vast nation, also here on IM. Like Indonesia itself it’s pretty much Jakarta and Java focused with some parts of Sumatera, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Bali or the usual crap about Islam vs. Christianity or East vs. West and I’m no exception to that.

    I visited Flores 10 years ago. It is a beautiful island with dramatic landscapes and stunning nature. The locals are very friendly and their Catholicism was not alien to me as I’m of a Catholic background myself. The blending of Catholicism with local traditions reminded me somewhat with the practices of various indigenous Latin American peoples. Sumba remains a mystery as it’s such an odd island. I missed Sumbawa in your article but the few things I know that it contains Indonesia’s own Pompeii on the slopes of Mt. Tambora and it’s pretty straight forward Islamic I guess but correct me if I’m wrong? Maybe there are not that many pre-Islamic traditions anymore.

    The most remote part I visited in Indonesia is Siberut, Kepulauan Mentawai and the influence of modern “religions” and culture are not a success. The locals have been lured, under the promise of health care, education and civilization, to move from their traditional long houses to modern but poorly built homes without proper sanitation. This forced the Mentawai to use their rivers as toilets and as a result hepatitis and cholera are now widespread. They totally rely on a couple of churches and Christian charity foundations as the promised doctors and teachers already left the islands.

    Having said this this comparison is not entirely fair as Mentawai is not modern compared to Flores. But I do hope local traditions continues to prevail or co-exist with modern religions and cultures. That’s what makes this nation so attractive.

    Sorry to twitter on like this, but these are subjects I find endlessly fascinating”¦.

    Agree… Thanks again.

  6. timdog says:

    Lairedion – I’ve passed back and forth through Sumbawa a number of times, and have always meant to go back specifically to have a rifle through the culture there. As it is, there’s always some more immediately tantalising destination further east, and my only two Sumbawa-specific forrays into Nusa Tenggara were to go surfing at Hu’u, and to see the gold and copper mining development at Maluk – a dark and slightly disturbing place, but free of indiginous traditional culture.

    At first glance Sumbawa does seem rather culturally “flat” compared to either Lombok or Flores, and people on both neighbouring islands are prone to joke about the uncultured, stupid nature of Sumbawa people.

    But there are said to be some traditional villages with pre-Islamic traditions, and on one of my stopovers on the island I saw buffalo racing about an hour inland from Sumbawa Besar. Each village had its own team (same style as Madura bull racing, but with buffalo in a flooded rice field), and after a while I noticed several old men fiddling around the buffalo with potions and lotions. I was told that these men were “sanro”, which was translated as “dukun” and that they were doing magic to make the buffalo strong. Each village had a sanro, and i was told that their other functions included being involved in weddings, so they probably have some pre-Islamic priest function…

    But as I said, Sumbawa is generally less culturally rich and complex than neighbouring islands, and more Islamic (though in a rather lethargic, provincial way). I have a personal theory about the reasons for this – as you know, the 1815 erruption of Tambora was absolutely devastating, and all but wiped out the entire population of Eastern Sumbawa. The island took many, many years to recover physically, and I would suggest that the depopulation meant that it never really recovered culturally – hence the noticable difference from Lombok and Flores…

    I haven’t yet been to Mentawai. Sad to hear that the move to “modern” religion there has been less successful in terms of cultural preservation than in Lombok or Flores, or than it hopefully will prove to be in Sumba. But I think you hit the nail on the head when you pointed out that Flores is – for all its remoteness – a much less “primative” place. More developed societies seem to have much more resilience when it comes to going through the potential cultural catastrophe of religious conversion…

    Twittering on again 😉

  7. dewaratugedeanom says:

    Thanks for this very interesting opinion piece. It highlights Indonesia’s diversity which should be preserved at all cost, whatever the machinations of certain ideologies to create a uniform mindset and lifestyle.

  8. kris says:

    timdog, thanks. I will order Kal Muller’s book. We will actually be doing some linguistic fieldwork there, so if I come by anything I will let you know. At the U Berkeley library I once copied some chapters of a nice volume on the archaeological history of NTT, I think it was mostly on Flores…

  9. kris says:

    Actually, I had another question: I read that before the Indonesian invasion, East Timor was only 20% Catholic, with the rest of the country being animist, but after Indonesia took over, in accordance with Pancasila East Timorese had to pick an officially recognized religion and thus opted for Catholicism. True or not?

  10. timdog says:

    kris, I haven’t been to East Timor, and don’t know my East Timorese history too well, but that does sound highly likely to me. The “obligation” to convert in Lombok in the 1960s was all about becoming a true Pancasila Indonesian (interestingly, some of them chose to become Buddhists, but that’s another story). I’m sure there would have been all the more pressure for Timorese of “dubious patriotism” to become fully incorporated into the Indonesian state… perhaps João can confirm.

    You don’t remember the title of that book on archeological history do you?

  11. John Orford says:

    great article!

  12. The number of Catholics, according to the last Portuguese Census in the 70s, was more around the 30%, if I remember correctly. The communist phobia was bad enough in Indonesia but they made it worse in East Timor, I think. Fretilin had Marxist roots and independence activists were regarded as communists by the Indonesian authorities even after Xanana Gusmão had reorganized the resistance movement, taking it away from partisan party politics and making it a wider movement that was even supported by important sectors of the East Timorese Catholic Church.
    People converted not only because it was the healthier thing to do (if you weren’t a member of one of the official religions then you were an atheist, if you were an atheist then you were a communist, if you were a communist you might as well be dead), but also because the Catholic church there was mainly led by East Timorese and was seen by the people as the only institution which was not controlled by Jakarta. One more factor helped the conversions: in the first years of occupation the Indonesian were pressuring the Church to change liturgy from Portuguese to Indonesian, but the local priests were able to manage to have the Vatican giving full official recognition to Tetum liturgy from 1981 on. The East Timorese bishops were not members of the Indonesian Episcopal Conference but were given the title of Apostolic Administrators and answered directly to the Vatican.
    The Church also managed facilities like schools, orphanages and medical clinics, and these were often sought after by people who were afraid of the Indonesians. There were many stories about youngsters who vanished or were killed in state run medical facilities.
    All this helps to understand the conservative nature of the East Timorese Church. The model for its ways had been the Portuguese Catholic Church from about 40 years ago and the ties with this Portuguese matrix were cut abruptly by the Indonesian invasion. The changes that took place among Portuguese Catholics couldn’t influence East Timor that was closed to the outside world, and any innovation that came from the Indonesian Church was often seen with suspicion.
    Anyway, the Catholic priests had been around for centuries and were a major influence in shaping modern East Timorese culture. If people in the villages and mountains were to convert to any religion, that would be the one that was known to them. In Ponta Leste (the Eastern end of the island) there were a few conversions to Islamism but only a few.

  13. And of course every East Timorese student had to know his or her Pancasila and all public employees had to go through P4″¦
    And the anti-communism=anti-atheism discourse is still everywhere to be seen and heard in East Timor today”¦

  14. timdog says:

    Jọo Paulo Esperan̤a Рthanks so much for that! An excellent East Timor history lesson!

  15. filipio says:

    There are some fairly important points to keep in mind here when considering the dynamic interrelation between ‘agama’ and ‘adat’ among Indonesian Muslims.

    Firstly, ongoing discussions about what constitutes ‘proper’ islamic practice are generic among all Muslim populations. To put this a different way, such discussions are not unique to NTT (though the specific contours may be); all muslims, everywhere, are concerned with what counts as correct Islamic practice, and this concern is spoken about in many different ways.

    The key problem with notions of ‘syncretism’ is that it involves an unstated assumption that there is a form of non-syncretic islam that we can measure specific forms of Muslim practice against in order to declare these more or less ‘syncretic’.

    But which idea of islam is this? What constitutes the standard?

    Many Indonesian Muslims, from jakarta as much as NTT, deny the elevation of Middle eastern expressions of islam as constituting a standard against which the legitimacy of their religious practices should or can be measured — and in any case, which Middle Eastern community of Muslims should they choose to measure their degree of orthodoxy against? And why?

    In this sense, the notion of ‘syncretic’ religion is an empty concept, and a misleading one. All religions, everywhere are always already syncretic, in the sense that ideas of orthodoxy are always at play, drawing on specifics of history, geography, culture and power.

    And this is the key point: claims and counterclaims (judgements and descriptions) re: religious orthodoxy are always implicated in operations of power. This is true of Muslims as much as Christians (or Hindus, etc).

    I might add that within these dynamics of power, the term ‘syncretic’ can be pejorative and is rarely if ever nuetral. To be deemed ‘syncretic’ is to be ‘less than correct’. Few adherents of any religion would welcome such a description of their activities.

    Finally, and with my earlier remarks in mind, it is quite important not to buy into too easy or straightforward a distinction between ‘adat’ and ‘agama’. Such a distinction aligns very neatly into (and is partly a product of) historical western intellectual traditions which readily distinguishes ‘religion’ as a discrete category of human experience, which in non-western contexts, becomes cluttered or contaminated with ‘culture’.

    Indeed, ideas of syncretistic natives have long played a key role in the discourse of missionaries and the necessity for ongoing efforts among the benighted primitives. Conversely, for orang bule jaded with secularism but nontheless hostile to organised religion, who often hanker after the ‘spiritual’, there may be something immensely appealing in ideas of the ‘resistance’ of local traditions to world religions. This often taps into the old ‘thin veneer’ representation of Indonesian Muslims that suggests scratch the surface and all this seething pre-Islamic ‘culture’ is bubbling away. Again, very appealing to westerners who may be antipathetic to islam in particular, as much as to religion in general.

    It is impossible to assume a priori what the concepts of ‘agama’ and ‘adat’ refer to, where this distinction is strongly drawn in local languages in Indonesia — and there are certainly places where it is not. Activities described as ‘adat’ are very often islamic. Just as there are Indonesian Muslims who engage in activities that they regard as religious, but which would be unlikely to be recognised as Islamic by Muslims outside their community.

    Specific cases need to be explored, and there will always be multiple voices active in each case, with shifting and competing visions of the ‘orthodox’ all of which need to be examined in specific contexts.

  16. timdog says:

    filipio – I have never entirely bought into the well known “thin, flaking glaze” description of Indonesian Islam (interestingly, if I’m not mistaken, that attractive phrase was used originally to talk about the process of “Indianisation” and of Hindu and Buddhist culture in Southeast Asia – I can’t remember by who). As you say, it implies an utterly non-Islamic set of systems and functions bubbling away beneath said patina, and thus implies an inherent separation of the Islamic veneer and all that “other stuff”. As you point out, all religion is “syncretic” – whether we like the word or not, even at its point of genesis (Sikhism, as an example plucked from the ether, was intended as an exercise in sycretism).

    As for the term “syncretic”… Whatever its connotations – negative to the upright “orthodox”, or quaintly endearing to the condescending pseudo-anthropologist – it is hard to find a suitable alternative adjective to describe a belief system that incorporates the shahada and the principle Islamic festivals, the affectation of Balinese Hindu dress for the priest functionaries, the recitation of Kawi mantras, and the veneration of ancestors and “folk demons”. Regard it simply as lazy shorthand if you will.

    I am also, when talking about the separation of agama and adat, referring principally to a very specific, and I believe unusual and possibly unique, example, namely Islam Wetu Telu as practiced by the people of Bayan on Lombok.

    Until comparatively recently Wetu Telu was regarded as “religion” by its own followers, and of course, at that time the dividing line between agama and adat would have been impossible to define – and to attempt to do so would be, as you argue, to miss the point.
    In fact, the idea of Wetu Telu as an “agama” is very much current among the rest of the population of Lombok outside the Bayan area (“the people in Bayan are agama Wetu Telu; they’re not Muslims, they don’t fast etc.”).

    However, there is in the Bayan area an absolute distinction between agama and adat. This distinction is not mine; it is the distinction of the people of that area.

    When I first went to Bayan I expected to find people who had officially converted to “orthodox” Islam Waktu Lima, but who still incorporated into their Islamic practice numerous Wetu Telu elements (I was also hoping, condescending pseudo-anthropologist that I am, to hunt down a few photogenic old men still clinging stubbornly to their “Agama Islam Wetu Telu” in the remotest villages). I was expecting to find a people gradually moving along a sliding scale from “syncretism” to “orthodoxy”. When talking about this specific case I don’t think it is helpful to delve into semantics: by “syncretism” I mean Wetu Telu; by orthodoxy, purely for the sake of this argument, and plucked once again from the ether, I mean Wahabbism.
    This is not what exists in Bayan.
    Again, I stress, in the Bayan peoples’ own terms, “[orthodox] Islam Waktu Lima” is agama, different and separate from Wetu Telu, which is adat. On this point the only inconsistency I encountered in conversation was as to whether there was “no connection” between agama and adat in this case, or whether they were “separate but connected”. Generally in conversation “adat” was prefaced with “just”: “oh that’s just adat”. This might be disingenuous window dressing on the part of the people there, intended for critically judgmental outsiders, as indeed may be the designation of Wetu Telu as “just adat” in the first place. But there is clearly a distinction. “Orthodox” Islam is practiced, in the form of rather lethargic prescribed prayer, fasting and observance of festivals. Something else altogether is practiced in the form of Wetu Telu.

    Once again, this distinction and separation may well be disingenuous and quite frankly non-existent, but it is their distinction, not mine, and it was quite obviously a deliberately chosen means by which to preserve the former “religious” practice of Wetu Telu in the face of outside compunction to follow an “orthodox” religion.

    I was merely holding it up as a possible inspiration for other “converted” or “converting” people, as a suggested alternative to simply stepping onto the “sliding scale” I mentioned earlier…

    I stress again, Islam Wetu Telu in Bayan is a very specific case; otherwise I generally agree with you.

    Interestingly, there did exist in northern Lombok small communities of people who practiced a religion known as Boda. This was essentially the same as Wetu Telu, but without the Islamic elements. Some of these people converted to Buddhism at the same time the Wetu Telu people joined Waktu Lima. I chanced upon the small Buddhist community at Otak Lendang, west of Bayan. They had a new Buddhist prayer hall paid for, they said, by people from Jakarta and “the King of Thailand”.
    It has been suggested that the original conversion to Buddhism was purely down to the confusing similarity between the sound of “Agama Boda” and “Agama Budha”. There was a very noticable difference between the people of Otak Lendang and those of Bayan when they talked about adat. Of course they had adat, they said: adat Budha. They also said that the people of Lombok had always been Agama Budha (this possible confusion between Buddhism and the apparantly unrelated Boda occurs elsewhere; a Bayan man told me that before Islam all Lombok had been Buddhist).
    Crucially, in Otak Lendang they were not at any pains to differentiate between agama and adat, and were rather confused when I asked about the difference. This was in very marked contrast from the people in Bayan…

    Twittering on quite spectacularly now! 😉

  17. Lairedion says:


    A little late but “molto obrigado” for describing the East Timor situation.

  18. kris says:

    @timdog, I was finally able to dig out the reference for the book:

    Granucci, Anthony F. 2006. The Art of the Lesser Sundas.

    Thanks also, João for the clarification re East Timor. Actually, was the situation in Flores similar to that, i.e. is Pancasila also responsible for the high percentage of Catholics there?

  19. timdog says:

    Thanks kris.
    With regards Flores, no, nothing to do with pancasila ideology. The island was more or less entirely Christianised long before independence. It was first converted by the Portuguese when they were the main colonial player in this part of the archipelago – they first arrived on the island in the late 16th Century. The Portuguese heyday had long passed by the time the Dutch empire reached its zenith, although Portugal clung to some of its possesions in the eastern part of the region until well into the 19th Century. The Dutch finally took possesion of Flores in the mid 19th century – which is when their missionaries discovered the island of “baptised heathens”. The place would certainly have been a hotbed of “syncretism” at that stage, but most people were nominal Catholics, and Christianity had been thoroughly established there for a couple of centuries. The Protestant Dutch did not seek to convert Flores’ Catholics, but allowed Catholic missionaries to “finish the job”. Interestingly the Dutch had pressed existing Christian communities in the other parts of their Indies realm to convert from Catholicism (mainly Chinese and Eurasian people), but did not seem overly concerned about Catholics in more “primative” places….

  20. I’ve never been to Flores so I can’t be of much help. I suspect it may depend on which region you’re talking about. In East Timor at the end of the Portuguese colonial period there was only about one third of the population that was Catholic but the numbers were rather different (higher) in places like Manatuto and the Oecussi-Ambeno enclave, which were areas where the missionaries had been active for a very long time. I know there is at least one Catholic confraria (confraternity) left in Flores (Confraria da Rainha do Rosário) inspired by the Portuguese confrarias, so its roots were ancient, before the end of Portuguese influence in those areas. Also in Dili there used to be two companies of soldiers from Flores who spoke a Portuguese based Creole language so I guess they would be Catholic too. They were called Companhia de Moradores de Sikka (from the place where they came from) and Companhia de Moradores de Bidau (Bidau is an area in Dili). What I mean is that some parts of the population have been Catholic for a long time, but probably that was not the situation in every place in the island”¦ Maybe Pancasila helped the spread of Catholicism there, I don’t know. Some of our colleagues up there have around in NTT for a while, maybe they can offer you an answer”¦
    I hope I can go there sometime when I go back to East Timor.

  21. kris says:

    Thanks, timdog, it’s really a nice book and worth its price, if you have an interest in archaeology…

    That’s interesting re Flores. Has there been any research done comparing Flores and East Timor in that regard? Would be curious to know why the two places differed so much in this respect…

  22. I just saw timdog’s answer when I reloaded and what he says about Flores is probably also valid for the Atambua region, in Indonesian NTT but near the border with East Timor. They’re Catholic there too.

  23. kris says:

    Thanks João, that’s very interesting, do you know when that creole was around? (internet search is inconclusive)
    Right now, there is discussion whether Kupang Malay and Larantuka Malay are creoles (this article argues Kunpang Malay is, but this view is not accepted by all).

  24. If Kupang Malay is a creole then it is a Malay based creole. The one I was talking about is a Portuguese based creole. It was very similar to Malacca Portuguese based creole, called Papia Kristang (“Talk Christian“) there. The best text about it was written by Alan Baxter, based in recordings made by the Portuguese geographical mission in the 50s. I didn’t find anyone who’s fluent in it now in East Timor, even if some people will be able to say one or two sentences in the so-called “Bidau Portuguese“.
    Baxter’s text is mentioned here.
    More info here.

  25. kris says:

    Thanks for the reference. I am aware that Kupang Malay is Malay-based, as is Baba Malay. I was just curious about the Portuguese-based ones, because I thought they had become extinct, if they ever existed.

  26. Well, it depends on which country you’re talking about. In Cape Verde everybody speaks a Portuguese based creole as mother tongue, in Guinea Bissau most people also speak a Portuguese based creole, some as mother tongue some as second language. Portuguese based creoles in Asia are fading away now. Some are already extinct, like the one spoken by the Tugu mardjikers who created keroncong (the oldest keroncong songs were sung in a Portuguese based creole), and the one spoken in East Timor. Some are almost extinct like the Macao creole (only a few old folks speak it nowadays). In Malacca there is still a Catholic community that speaks their Portuguese Creole, even if some members are going through a language shift process (I heard they don’t think much of Malay but the new generations are using English more and more) – they call it Papia Kristang (Speak Christian), a minority language in a Muslim country.

    In this book you can find a very good article about the history of keroncong and its Portuguese roots by Tilman Seebass: “Presence and absence of Portuguese musical elements in Indonesia: An essay on the mechanisms of music acculturation“.
    You can also look for more information on Indonesian Portuguese based creoles in this book.
    There is a recent Indonesian translation: “Pengaruh Portugis di Indonesia“, Pustaka Sinar Harapan, 2000

  27. kris says:

    Oh, I meant I thought that Portuguese-based creoles within Indonesia were extinct, if they ever existed. I wasn’t talking about other countries… It is interesting to learn that Portuguese still was able to hold on for a while in Flores (and Malacca) (a creole in E Timor is not really that surprising, though of course time from 1975-2002 was more than enough to make it extinct)
    In linguistics, a language is considered endangered, if no more than 20-30% of the young generation aquire it, so your cases of almost extinct ones would be considered highly endangered I guess. Thanks for the additional references, I will be sure to check them out…

Comment on “Agama, Adat and Conversion in Nusa Tenggara”.

RSS feed

Copyright Indonesia Matters 2006-2023
Privacy Policy | Terms of Use | Contact