The west wind keeps on blowing as if it will never stop. The mangrove trees on the east coast of Sumatera seem to enjoy the hot wind of the Malacca straights. I feel as if I’m looking at freedom. Looking at the “end of the world” as far as the eye can see, thinking of beautiful steps in the future. Day dreaming on Pulau Jaring Halus (“Fine Net Island”) in Secanggang Regency, Langkat District, North Sumatera Propince, is the most beautiful occupation any thinker or poet could have.
On first sight, there seems to be nothing of interest on this 80 hectare island. Even the name, Jaring Halus, is not well-known. Maybe only fishermen know this place.
My research on turtles for the Wildlife Conservation Society-Indonesia Program brought me to Jaring Halus Island. This small island is most easily accessed from Stabat. From Batang Buluh Dock, I take the regular boat which sails along the river every two hours. The rivers running off the main river are a view for themselves. The Protected Mangrove Swamp in southwest Langkat is well looked after and provides a bonus view for passers by. On top of this 28 HP boat, I see that this boat service connects sea and land.
About 20 minutes into the ride, a number of villages on a small island surrounded by mangroves. The houses are on stilts, about 1 metre above the water. This is an example of wetland housing. This type of village is very rare in Sumatera.
Here I meet hundreds of Upins and Ipins (characters of small Malay boys from a Malaysian cartoon). Being an ethnic Batak Mandailing, I can hardly understand what they’re saying. I even begin to think that maybe this island might be a part of Malaysia which broke off and was washed across the sea in a freak act of nature. Or maybe due to natural isolation, the inhabitants have developed their own dialect. Despite being Malay in origin, one can hear that their dialect is different to that of their ancestor’s in Kedah, Malaysia. Indeed, language always changes, influenced by new ideas and the challenges of its surroundings.
The challenges of nature have forced the inhabitants of the village of Jaring Halus to create their own economy. Copying city life, this village of 3,090 inhabitants provides all the needs of its society from daily necessities to entertainment. Apart from the main source of income, the fishing industry, some have opened restaurants, hairdressers, billiard, play station, small shops, mobile phone shops and cafes. Shops spring up everywhere although they do shut for midday (dzuhur) prayers. Life is most vibrant at night time.
Fresh water is a dilemma despite living on the water. The water is obtained from private and government springs. The water here is reddish and contains salt. PLN (the national electricity company) provides electricity despite it being expensive to provide.
Sport is another story. They have prepared the flattest area here as a football field. However this football field is at the mercy of the tide. In the end the football field is the first football field “on water”.
Table tennis is another popular sport in this crowded village. The table tennis tables open at lunchtime and shut at 5 in the morning. There 8 tables here which make for a lively nightlife. This sport has become a way of passing the time until it the tide calls the fisherman back to sea.
Cerbung, the Fortune of an Entire Village
The fishermen of Jaring Halus face an uncertain fortune at sea. Fortunately, they have cerbung, the most common kind of fish in the area. Tens of boats sail daily with a minimum of 3 sailors and 1 captain. The ships bring up to 1 ton of cerbung a day.
The fish are then processed by the girls and women of the village. They buy the fish from the grocer for Rp 2,000 a kg on credit. One such home industry can process from 10 to 100 kgs of fish a day, depending on the size of the family. So here the saying: “Many children, more fortune” certainly applies.
After being cleaned, the fish are dried. Then they are sold back to the grocer minus the original payment of Rp 2,000. The price is around Rp 25,000 per kg. In Medan, these fish are sold in supermarkets for about Rp 40,000 to Rp 50,000 per packet. Some are exported.
Cerbung are a saviour for an entire village especially in times of famine, as they are a stable commodity.
Mid-January 2010. Jaring Halus is full of excitement. The wheel of life seems to be rolling faster. They seem to be preparing something. The word “migrate” is on the lips of the inhabitants leading up to the 24th of January, which is when the sea ceremony will be held. Migrate has a special meaning in this village--it means leaving the village to avoid taboos.
Migration is an activity that is very close to the sea ceremony, the date of which is decided by mutual agreement three months before the D-Day. The sea ceremony or blessing is a ceremony held every three years by the people of Jaring Halus. During the ceremony, tahlil (repeated recitation of the confession of faith), tahtim and prayers are read.
The sea ceremony is performed in other coastal regions of east Sumatera such as in Labu Beach, Belawan and Tanjungbalai. This activity is lead by a sea shaman (known as pawang laut or atok laut), someone who has been seen as a villager who possesses supernatural powers. The pawang laut is not chosen democratically, it is decided by inheritance. When a pawang dies, his family will choose a predecessor. The new pawang may not refuse, as this would result in being cursed. In Jaring Halus, the ritual has been performed since 1917, when Pawang Abu Bakar crossed to Sumatera searching for a new life. The ceremony became a tradition firmly linked to the descendants of the first pawang. Now
the grandson Pawang Zakaria leads traditional (adat) ceremonies such as the sea ceremony.
After the main ritual at the beach has been completed, nearly all the villagers, except for those who feel able to withstand the taboos, mainly the elderly, leave the village. The taboos include not being allowed to perform any activities, not being allowed to fish, not throwing water out of the sampan, not picking up anything that has fallen down, not leaving or entering the village, not filling water, not drinking salty water, not whistling, not digging up soil, not breaking eggs or making noise.
Early on Sunday, the 24th of October, the sea ceremony begins. The people gathered on Beting Beach. They cook rice, meat, vegetables and kill goats. When cooking, they may not taste the food. The food will be eaten by all those attending. People may not bring food from outside of the ceremony area otherwise the ceremony will fail.
According to Pawang Zakaria (77 years old), the ritual is a thanksgiving for all the gifts from the sea and asking the Ruler of the sea through prayer and meditation to protect the people from danger or disaster. The ritual also falls on the birthday of Jaring Halus, commemorating the first settlers here.
In the beginning, Jaring Halus was inhabited by a man from Kedah (Malaysia). The first sea ritual was held by Pawang Abu Bakar who received the orders to do so from the leaders in the village. At this time (1917), the village was inhabited by about 7 families--a total of 42 people from Kedah, Langkawi islands, Malaysia.
According to some inhabitants, the Sea Ceremony has been suggested to the government as a tourist attraction, but there hasn’t been any positive response, even though this ritual is very rare, and only held every three years.
“Mengambai” (waving) is the most important part of the ceremony. The pawang waves a white cloth towards the sea as a symbol of the continuing blessing from God. The head of a goat, chicken, and other ingredients are served on a board and left in the middle of the sea. The participants of the blessing sit facing kiblat (direction of Mecca), and passionately read prayers and tahtim.
And now it is time for the beginning of the taboo period, which will start after dusk. It will last for one day and two nights. In order to let the children play free, the parents of the “Upins and Ipins” will leave the village for this period. A great migration takes place. Far bigger than Lebaran. So all the family is spread out.
I join the great migration. Feels like leaving my own village. I haven’t just been observing the “Upins and Ipins” of the village, but played with them too. “Betui, Betui, Betui?” they say- replacing the l with an i…
Akhmad Junaedi Siregar, member of Mapala Biopalas and Student of the
How to get to Jaring Halus Island
Department of Biology, FMIPA, University of North Sumatera
Ater Budiman Sinaga, Member of Staff ANSOS UNIMED/North Sumateran
Medan to Stabat (1,5 hours): take one of the many Medan-Aceh busses. Ask the driver to stop at ‘Simpang Kaget’, or in front of ‘Minimarket Senyum’ in Stabat. As soon as you get off the bus, you will be surrounded by becak drivers who will offer you their services. Take the local bus to Secanggang dock (pangkalan perahu Secanggang). From here, you take the boat to the last stop which is Pulau Jaring Halus (Jaring Halus Island). This journey passes a beautiful panorama of mangrove swamps.