One of Lombok’s most famous festivals, Bau Nyale, occurs every year when the weather, marine and seasonal conditions combine with local legend, and thousands of people gather on the southern beaches to celebrate the event.
Bau Nyale, or the Nyale Festival, takes place every year in the tenth month of the Sasak calendar, and will be celebrated this year from 24 to 28 February on the south coast. Perhaps the most famous site for celebrating Bau Nyale is at beautiful Seger Beach in Kuta; an area called Putri Nyale (Princess Nyale) by the people of Lombok. Celebrations are also held at other beaches around Kuta, including Selong Belanak and Kaliantan Beach on the eastern side of Awang Bay.
The festival commemorates the legend of Putri (Princess) Mandalika, who was the princess of a large kingdom called “Yellow Flower”. According to local myth, this kingdom was famous throughout the land and Princess Mandalika was very beautiful, as well as being kind and well-loved by the people of her kingdom. When she was of suitable age to marry, princes and suitors travelled to the kingdom to ask for her hand. So many men wanted to marry her that it began to cause trouble between the different kingdoms and the Princess became unable to choose between them without her decision causing further strife.
Finally her father, King Kuripan, gathered all the rivals together and instructed Princess Mandalika to choose her husband before sunrise the next morning. Fearful of causing a war, instead of choosing one of them, Princess Mandalika declared that – even if she loved one of these princes – she loved her parents, her kingdom and the people of her kingdom even more. Local legend says that she then threw herself into the sea, saying, “Kuta”, or “Wait for me here”, in the local Sasak language.
Everyone searched the surrounding sea for the princess, but instead they found masses of colourful sea-worms, called Nyale. According to a local priest, or Dukun, the princess’s body had been transformed into these sea worms, and thus they became a traditional symbol for the Sasak people. Other legends say that the long strands of the Nyale worms are the princess’s hair, floating in the water where she drowned. Whether or not the stories are true, the legend continues to be celebrated and has become a local parable of sacrifice and selflessness for the sake of the greater good.
Bau Nyale, for the people of Lombok, means “to catch the worms”. Every year around February or March, when the moon, wind and tides come together to produce the right marine conditions, thousands of Nyale appear and spawn in the sea. Hundreds of local Sasak people come from all around the island to gather on the beaches, remember the legend of Princess Mandalika, and to collect the ugly sea worms.
This year’s festival is a four day event and includes the opening ceremony and a 10km run on Sunday, 24 February. Each day there are stick fighting (Peresean), cock fighting (Main Manuk) and other traditional activities from 3pm until late. During the festival, when night falls, fires are built on the beach and the young people sit around competing with each other in a form of traditional rhyming poetry called Pantun; teasing and flirting with each other. On Tuesday night, there’s a line-up of traditional dancing, drama, chanting and singing, to keep everyone entertained and awake in preparation for catching the Nyale. A re-enactment of the Princess Mandalika drama is scheduled for around midnight on Tuesday.
Early in the morning when the first Nyale appear, (this year predicted to be around 3am on Wednesday, 4 March –although no one really knows for sure!), people rush into the ocean to catch as many of the sea worms as possible. It’s an awesome sight when the first Nyale are caught, with hundreds of people standing up to their waists in the shallow water, flashlights shining, trying to catch Nyale with nets, buckets or whatever is available.
The highlight of the ceremony occurs when the local priest or Dukun wades into the sea to observe the spawning Nyale and predict the future rice harvest, based on the number of sea worms. A good catch is a sign that this year’s rice harvest will also be good. Nyale are traditionally associated with fertility, and as part of a ritualised ceremony, the sea worms are ground up and placed in irrigation channels around fields to help ensure a good harvest.
Once the future has been told by the Dukun, the people collect the worms to eat them for a special annual feast. Nyale are eaten raw, steamed or fried, or sometimes made into Pepes Nyale. In this popular local specialty, the Nyale are mixed with coconut and spices, then wrapped in a banana leaf and roasted over the fire. The sea worms are rich in protein and are also believed to have aphrodisiac properties, so the feasting takes place with much merriment and gusto!