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Buffalo races, sjamans and magic

Running through the wet ricefields the buffalo's are heading for their targets: a brightly colored cloth at a poile. The visitors yell. Despite the efforts of the jockey, which balances on a fragile wooden sledge, one of the buffalo carts changes course 15 meters before the finish.
The other couple of buffalo's slows down and nears, carefully guided by the jockey, the finish until a torturing two meters. Then, one of the animals refused to walk on anymore. The other one tries, but is soon halted by the other one. The jockey does it's utmost best to move the animals, but without results. He hits them without answer on the big backs. In the highest frustration he raises his hands, which causes him to fall off his sledge into the wet ricefield. He uses language at his animals. The visitors yell and laugh. He ends the battle and releases the now obedient animals in the field. What is going on with buffalo's who loose track? It looks like they have been cursed....

Power of magic

A hajii - a muslem which has made the philgrimage to Mecca - in the village of Tepal on Sumbawa tells a strange anekdote about soldiers which fought for the independence of Indonesia. A village in the neighborhood was known for it's powerfull sanro. These sjamans could make the men 'bulletproof' by rubbing their heads with a magic oil. Before he released his 'patients', the sanro his them in the neck with a sharp knife and the treatment starts all over again, just as long until there is no bleeding anymore. Before leaving for a battle in the nationalist army the young men went to the sanro in big groups to get magical protection. After the treatment they prayed to Allah and went to battle. Whether they were really protected against bullets is not sure, but the story illustrates an important phenomenon about the population of Sumbawa: among a strong believe in islam is an at least as strong believe in old magic.
Many of the old habits are still practiced, however they aren't practices in a ritual context anymore. Water buffalo's are still being driven through ricefields, and young men still participate in the berempuh, a ritual boxing game, used to satisfy certain guests when they saw blood. This events are no longer taking place as a part of a traditional planting- or harvesting-cycle, but they are still surrounded by an atmosphere of magic and the work of the bad sanro.

The buffalo race

The waterbuffalo race has a practical origin. Before the new rice is planted, a sawah has to be plowed; the mudd has to be mixed with the other soil. The most simple way to do this is to use the water buffalo, the 'working horse' of Asia. On Sumbawa, this job has become a sport, and an opportunity for the sjaman as well.
Pak Mustakim, the head of the local bureau of culture, stood up and walked away. "the magical powers of the sanro which was hired by the owner of the ricefield was stronger than the sanro which controlled the water buffalos. That caused non of them to reach the puin kayo, the finishing powl."

Picture: Buffalo race

I told him that I thought everyone on Sumbawa was supporting islam, which has no place for 'black magic'."Ooh well.. that, that's the theory", Pak Mustakim told," in real life the farmers still practice many of their traditions and believes, though they are good muslems. They learn their prayers in Arabic and hold services in the mosque. But for many things they trust on their sanro. And even the sanro, manipulator of the magical powers, is seen as a good muslem."
There was a lot of magic in the air that afternoon. Every time again the waterbuffalos rejected their orders to work. But a few lucky ones managed to reach the finish. They had to hold a new race again, which was timed with a stopwatch.
The fastest couple of buffalos and their jockey won a price of about US$ 250.-, which is as much as 6 monthly incomes in Indonesia ( 1990 ). Above all the investment doubled in price as well, because the winning animals were now worth about US$ 800 each. Everyone agreed that the sanro of the winning team had to be honored most, because he had rubbed the animals with magic oil the evening before and he had sung powerfull manthra's for them as well.

Ritual boxing match

The traditional boxing games are usually performed during the harvest of the rice. During the fights the men hit eachother with full enthausiasm, which largely compensates the lack of techniques and style. Their efforts are rewarded with an admiring view of the young ladies.
There are no fixed rules in these contests, in which blood is common, and there are also no 'rounds' like they are usual in the boxing world. The men form two groups, each at one side of the arena. Once in the right mood one of them pulls off a shirt of someone else, takes a bundle of rice in his hands, and starts dancing around the opponent. Normally he will have met his enemy in a few seconds, which makes his show as well. Then two 'free-lance' referees appear in the arena, which remove watches and rings and to make sure the boxers don't have stones in their hands.
Now, the real boxing can begin. The men hit eachother barely, since they just hit around somewhere. Every once in a while someone makes a direct hit. After this prelude, the real body-to-body fight starts, in which the opponents hit eachother as much as possible while not taking care of the incoming hits. Eventually this battle is ended by the referees, which get hit as well. The lack of a jury causes both fighters to think that they have won the game.

Picture: Ritual fight

During one of the games, Pak Mustakim pointed at a firm boy - more firm than the others - who's movements looked much more coordinated that those of others. "He has been practicing a lot, like a real boxer". Once in the ring he got hit immediately by his untrained opponent and within a very short time he went down. Again it was the power of the magic which was overruling, despite all training and coorination.
Next a small, meager boy entered the ring. "Watch him," Pak Mustakim said," no one dares to fight him becayse they know he has a very powerfull hit, which has been developped by a smart sanro". And indeed, non of the opponents dared to fight him.

Tepal: remote mountain village

The first residents of Sumbawa settled along the coast, but later waves of migrants forced the traditional inhabitants to enter the less fertile and less accessible hinterlands. The coast was the place which the new philosophies entered, and it took a long time before they reached the inlands.
To see the traditional life on Sumbawa, my guide and I walked to a village named Tepal, and it took some six heavy hours. It certainly was far from the paved roads. I have read that this was the center of the old culture. And because I knew the name of the first population to live on Sumbawa was 'Tau Tepal', my expectations were very high. That went away soon when I arrived in the village. The people told us that we were one of the first westerners to visit the village, but outside the lack of tv-antennas, there was nothing about the village or it's population which pointed at big differences between the villages and people along the coast.
The thousand villagers live in houses on pawls and roofs of palm canes. Tepal is built several hundred meter from a river, and it's location on top of a hill was probably because of it's strategical position. Most residents wore sarongs from a shop, and some men were trousers. There is an elementary school and a mosque, which are both visited regularly.
The initial dissappointment was somewhat weakened by the news that a traditional wedding was to take place the next day. Our interest became even bigger when we got slightly irritated when we were told that the sanro which planned the wedding had moved it a few days because he knew that foreigners were visiting; the wedding would take place two days before our arrival in the first place.

Traditional wedding

The whole night before the wedding there is singing and playing instruments, in the house of the groom as well as in the house of the bride. On the big day itself the women decorated themselves with all of their heirlooms, brocat and exclusife antique jewelries as well as traditional headdresses.
The eventual wedding started with a procession from the house of the groom to that of the bride. The parade was lead by the elderly of the village and several important people, with beautifully dressed girls directly behind them. The groom, on a small horse surrounded by his friends, ended the procession. During the entire ceremony the groom held a handkerchief in front of his mouth. I asked Pak Mustakim whether he could find out why. After a short talk with the elderly he knew: " It seems that the other young men could be in love with the bride. They should be yealous at this time. On their own or with the help of a sanro they could curse the groom when he is outside, the most vulnerable. Everyone knows that magical spells enter through the mouth the most easy. That's why he has to cover his mouth during the entire ceremony".
In the house of the bride the bride washed the feet of the groom, a deed which symbolizes royalty. After that both took place under a brightly colored sunscreen. Both got a bowl of sticky rice, covered with a layer of palmsugar. They both took several smal bites; but they were clearly thinking of other things. This symbolic deed of eating together was the last phase of the traditional maritial ceremony.
In contrary to some other parts of the Lesser Sunda Islands, the wedding in Tepal only had a symbolic bridal treasure. Elsewhere the bridal treasure can contain hurds of water buffalos, antique elephants teeth or prehistoric bronze drums.
The symbolic gift to the family of the bride consisted mainly of current Indonesian coins. However it also contained a special one: a big silver coin of five francs, dating from 1883 with the inscription "Louis Philippe I-Roi des Francais".

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