Bau Nyale… Lombok’s Unique Festival

One of Lombok’s most important and popular festivals is Bau Nyale, meaning “to catch the sea worms” in local Sasak language. It is a cultural tradition, deeply rooted in local legend and drama, and unique to the island of Lombok.

The sea worms are a rare variety of Palolo worm (Eunice viridis) found in tropical waters in certain parts of the world and in Lombok, Sumba and Savu in Indonesia. Once a year, when seasonal, marine and lunar conditions combine, the Nyale come to certain beaches around Lombok to spawn and, for a few days, the seas are filled with wriggling sea worms in a variety of colours, ranging from simple brown or pale cream to red and green.

Bau Nyale, or the Nyale Festival, takes place every year in the tenth month of the Sasak calendar at a time close to the full moon, and was celebrated this year on 14 and 15 February on the south coast beaches of Lombok. The most popular site for celebrating Bau Nyale is at beautiful Seger Beach near Kuta; an area called Putri Nyale (Princess Nyale) by the people of Lombok.

The lead-up to the festivities started several days before the “core event” on 14 February, with peresean performances held in Kuta every afternoon from 11 February. Peresean is a local form of traditional fighting, using long rattan sticks, in which competitors try to strike each other while protecting their own bodies with shields made from toughened cow hide. It’s a fast and furious fight, always cheered on by an enthusiastic crowd.

The main Bau Nyale celebrations occurred on Saturday, beginning in the late afternoon on the beautiful beachfront in Kuta on Lombok’s south coast. Large groups of both local people and tourists gathered on the beachfront to be entertained by traditional music and dance performances hosted by the local southern communities. Stalls selling ice creams, drinks, balloons and other favours helped create a carnival atmosphere and provided some relief from the hot afternoon sun.

All day, a steady stream of traffic flowed into the streets of this normally quiet resort town – cars, motorbikes and trucks full of excited people from all over the island, as well as many visitors from outside Lombok, arriving to witness this unique and mysterious event. As evening approached, a long train of traffic made its way to Seger Beach, around 5kms to the east of Kuta, and the site of the main Bau Nyale celebrations. Scheduled to begin at 9pm, the traffic was already banked up for several kilometres by 8pm. This is not an event for the impatient. As crowds of over 6 000 people amassed on the small road leading to the beach, typical waits for entrance stretched to two hours. This didn’t, however, deter the crowds and the overall festive atmosphere.

On the land surrounding the beach, stalls and warungs selling a huge range of drinks and foods to serve the crowds were assembled, and stages had been set up to feature the different performances being held on the beach, with traditional singing and the popular Dangdut music featured in one, while the main stage featured the core performances that are an essential part of the Bau Nyale festival. The crowds lined the grass in front and to the sides of the stage, and up the sides of the small hill overlooking the main arena. Even the intermittent rain showers that came and went through the night did nothing to deter the constant stream of people who continued to arrive, right into the early hours of the next morning.

The festival starts with “pantun”, a form of traditional poetry, where young people tease and flirt with each other, competing to form verses in a ritualised style. Each verse consists of two couplets: the first couplet suggests the second, by sound or other similarity. It is often sung in contests where a boy addresses a quatrain to a girl, who must answer with a quatrain of her own. The results are often tongue-in-cheek or highly suggestive; for local people, engaging in pantun is a form of permitted flirting, often leading to courtships in the more traditional villages of Lombok.

The highlight of the festival is the drama which 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.

For days the princes competed for the princess, leading to tensions and threats of war between the rival kingdoms. Finally the princess’ 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 the suitors, she loved her parents, her kingdom and the people of her kingdom too much to cause a war. Saying that, rather than choose one, she would give herself to everyone, she threw herself into the sea from the promontory overlooking Seger Beach, declaring that she would return each year as a sign that she would never leave her people.

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 parable of sacrifice for the sake of the greater good, and is re-enacted each year as a reminder to the community.

The Putri Mandalika drama, starting at around midnight, was a spell-binding and well-acted spectacle, and kept the thousands in the audience enthralled for almost two hours. The theatrical drama featured beautiful and colourful traditional Sasak costumes, traditional music, drumming and gamelan, and conjured up a fascinating image of life during the times when Lombok was ruled by kingdoms and Sasak royalty.

At the end of the drama, the gong and gamelan entertainers set up on the stage to entertain the remaining crowds, while thousands of people started making their way down to the beachfront to the east of the bay. Excited crowds splashed into the water carrying small nets, buckets and torches, hoping to be the first to catch a Nyale worm. No one really knows for sure when the Nyale will appear, so breaths are held and anticipation is high prior to the first sighting. Raising their torches high and wading perilously deep into the waves, eager people scanned the ocean, with the first catches starting around 2.30am. By 5am the tide had abated and the beachfront was an awesome sight, swarming with thousands of wet, happy people scooping up the worms with nets, buckets, shirts and anything else they could use to catch them!

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.

Considered a rare delicacy, the people collect the worms to eat them for a special annual feast. Nyale are eaten sometimes raw when they are caught, or steamed, fried, or 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!

Copyright © 2009 Siti Zainab

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