Sasak… The Unique Culture of Lombok


The local people of Lombok, known as “Sasak”, are believed to be descendents of a Malay race inhabiting Lombok for at least 2,000 years. The original pioneers probably travelled from the Malaysian peninsula and settled on the coastal areas of Lombok as long as 4,000 years ago.

During the past six hundred years, the island of Lombok was a feudal state, with many small ruling kingdoms; some of which followed animistic beliefs, while others combined animism with Hinduism or Buddhism. At one stage the main religion on Lombok was Buddhism. Over the centuries, Java influenced Lombok to varying degrees and ruled over Lombok in the 14th century, incorporating it into the Majapahit Empire. Several small kingdoms on Lombok were ruled by Javanese nobles who had been exiled to Lombok, and today’s Sasak aristocracy still claims Javanese ancestry.

The Javanese introduced both Hinduism and Islam to Lombok, but their religious and political influence waned by the 17th century. Islam gradually spread through eastern and central Lombok, while Balinese, and Hindu, influence began dominating western Lombok.

The Balinese entered Lombok from Karangasem during the 17th century, ruling the island for 150 years. Balinese influence always centred in the west, where today Balinese still constitute more than 10 percent of the population. They cleared forests and engineered irrigation systems and terraces, creating extensive wet-rice agriculture under the Balinese system of subak.

The last Balinese King, Anak Agung Ngurah Gede Karangasem, managed to gain extensive influence over western Lombok during the mid-1800s. Overseeing the development of the arts, he was responsible for the construction of an impressive number of temples on Lombok, many of which are still standing today. He also restricted the land rights of the Sasak aristocracy on Lombok, introduced an inflexible taxation system, and demanded forced labour of Sasak peasantry. Revolts erupted several times in the 19th century, with Islam the rallying cry among the Sasak.

In the early 1890s, Sasak leaders approached the Dutch for help in overthrowing Balinese rule. The Dutch, mistakenly believing Lombok was rich in tin, assisted the Sasak. War broke out in 1894. The Balinese were eventually defeated, and a number of temples and palaces on Lombok were destroyed. Many of the final confrontations ended in puputan, the mass suicides of palace nobles, their families and followers.

The Sasak leaders believed they would have the right to rule with the defeat of the Balinese but instead, the Dutch took over the island, banishing the King and his remaining family, and offering only minor government positions to Sasak and Balinese leaders.

Colonialisation intensified land use and taxation until the Japanese took control of the island in 1942. When the Japanese left in 1945, the Dutch returned briefly but were repelled by nationalist guerrillas.

Today, Lombok retains many traits and customs similar to those of Java and Bali, and the Sasak language has many words from Javanese and Balinese. However, the Sasak culture remains unique from that of Java and Bali, with many of the old traditions still practiced today and a blending of religions, predominantly Muslim, interwoven with animist beliefs.
There are two main groups among the Sasak: Wektu Lima and Wektu Telu. The Wektu Lima are orthodox Sunni Muslims, while the Wektu Telu are nominal Muslims, who combine some Islamic observances with a mosaic of ancestor worship, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Wektu Lima (meaning “five times”) indicates that its followers pray five times daily and fulfil the five tenets of Islam. The adherents of Wektu Telu (meaning “three times”) pray at three periods and acknowledge three types of ceremonies: human rites (birth, marriage, death), Islamic ceremonies, and seasonal rites associated with agriculture and farming.

The Wektu Lima have adopted the emerging Islamic identity of Muslims throughout Indonesia, while the Wektu Telu are generally uninterested in the world at large, focusing instead on their strong ties to ancestral lands. Many fought beside the Balinese against the Dutch in 1894 to retain their way of life.

Both Wektu Lima and Wektu Telu observe Islamic religious practices, including fasting during the month of Ramadan. Other religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, coexist peacefully alongside the local Muslim population and there are a variety of temples, mosques, and churches to visit on the island, as well as ancient sites held sacred by the Sasak people, predating any of these religions.

The Lombok calendar is a blending of all the religions represented on the island, with festivals celebrating Lebaran attended by as many people as the Ogoh Ogoh parade before Nyepi. Cultural events unique to the Sasak, such as the Gendang Beleq (the big drums) and the Bau Nyale Festivals are traditional celebrations attended by all. With a rich melting pot of religions and cultures, at almost any time of the year there are festivals taking place around Lombok and visitors are always welcome to attend.

Copyright © 2008 Siti Zainab
Email: lombok@baliadvertiser.biz

You can read all past articles of Letter From Lombok at www.BaliAdvertiser.biz