Sasak Tradition Meets Modernity with a Show, Shopping and a little Culture Shock
Whack! The bamboo baton hits the pepadu's buffalo-hide shield hard, and we feel the blow reverberate in the air, almost as if we'd taken a hit ourselves. As the crowd inches closer to get a better view of the peresean fight, the flurry of blows between the dueling pepadu feels like the batons are whizzing only inches away from us.
Thwack! One of the pepadu reels back, thrown off balance by the opposing pepadu's blow. The pakembar, or referee, immediately calls an end to the fight, before blood can be drawn.
Generations ago, drawing blood was the whole point of a peresean duel. The Sasak communities of the Indonesian island of Lombok used to stage such fights just before they planted rice in their paddies, believing that the more bloodshed during a duel, the heavier the rain was going to be that planting season.
The tamer peresean we're witnessing right now occurs almost every day, whenever tourist buses disgorge their riders into the Sasak Sade Traditional Village in east Lombok.
A visit to Sasak Sade is a crash course in the Sasak culture native to the island, where villagers gleefully put their music, comedy, combat, and crafts up for show. Only a little of it is sanitized for an international audience; into every entertaining morning meeting the Sasak, a little culture shock must fall! For our visit to Sasak Sade in full motion, view this Youtube video.
Let Loose the Drums of War: Sasak Gendang Beleq
The Sasak living in Sade put on a rousing show for every tourist bus that comes by, starting with a rousing performance by a traditional musical troupe, led by a gendang beleq (big drum).
The gendang beleq leads the rhythm, while the accompanying gongs provide the melody. The resulting music is an energetic, repetitive racket, perhaps hearkening back to the gendang beleq's original purpose as a war instrument. Back in the day, generals would lead their troops with a gendang beleq, to rouse the fighting spirits of their men before battle.
Send in the Clown: Tari Amaq Tempengus Dance
The troupe provides the musical accompaniment to several acts put on by Sade's menfolk. After the peresean duel, a lighter act takes center stage: Tari Amaq Tempengus, a court jester's dance that used to be performed for tired soldiers returning from battle.
Amaq Tempengus' movements recall a stylized Sasak Charlie Chaplin's: flicking his sarong for comical effect, Amaq Tempengus prances around the small town square, his garish makeup accentuating his bucktoothed smile and flashing eyes. Gamely posing for the camera, Amaq Tempengus flits from one viewer to another, playing the fool and the clown, in turn, all to the beat of the gendang beleq troupe.
It's a convincing act – after the show is done, adoring fans surround Amaq Tempengus for selfies, but the man behind the makeup seems much shyer in real life, only agreeing with some reluctance.
Making the Cut: Tari Petuk Dance
Even Sasak kids get their time in the spotlight: the Tari Petuk dance, performed by two boys no older than ten years of age, takes over the town square, gyrating as the gendang beleq hits a crescendo.
The moustaches painted on the boys' faces feel almost like an inside joke, given the context of the dance: the tari petuk is traditionally performed as part of the Sasak circumcision ceremony, a rite of passage to manhood. Newly-circumcised boys watch the tari petuk to take the edge off the pain of having part of their penises trimmed off.
The Village People: Exploring the Rest of Sasak Sade
After the show, visitors are encouraged to walk in the Sasak Sade Village, accompanied by a local guide.
Sade contains 150 houses built in the traditional Sasak style, with wooden pillars, woven-bamboo walls and thatched roofs crafted from alang-alang grass. About 700 Sasak live in Sade, all of them working together to keep the cultural flame alive.
The old ways live on in Sade, such as the use of coconut-oil lamps; the lumbung (rice granaries) that tower over the houses; and the persistence of weaving as a life skill for Sasak women.
The Sasak in Lombok number about four million, making up over eighty percent of the people living on the island. Thanks to villages like Sade, the Sasak way of life continues to thrive, despite colonization by the Balinese and the Dutch, and the onslaught of modernity that's made short work of other traditional communities throughout Indonesia.
Strange Sasak Traditions on Display
Fifteen generations of Sasak have lived in Sade for centuries; old habits die hard. Take the custom of swabbing Sasak floors with buffalo poop, as we found this Sasak housewife doing. Sasak houses have clay floors, which are ostensibly replenished by regular swabbings with diluted cow dung.
The older generation believes that this custom wards off mosquitoes and evil influences. The newer generation was not available for comment, and at least one of my fellow visitors – spotting this amiable matron covering her own floor with handfuls of earthy-smelling greenish feces – ran from the scene gagging.
Sasak Women Doing the Weaving
Sasak society has a strict division of labor between sexes. The men concern themselves with activities outside the home, while Sasak women fuss about with the kitchen, children, and the weaving loom. In Sade village, this manifests in the men taking on all the performance work, with the women weaving traditional cloth and selling them to visitors.
Traditional looms demonstrate the weaving process for visitors. Sasak weaving is a time-intensive process, from dyeing the cotton with natural colors (betel nut and ginger make orange; indigo makes blue) to weaving the threads by hand. Sasak women spend two months making a single bolt of cloth, and about six weeks to make a lesser quality product.
Ikat and Songket Cloth Bargains on Every Corner
The footpaths beyond Sade's town square feel like a traditional market, with several homes having been converted into storefronts for Sasak fabrics like ikat (a colorful rainbow cloth using traditional patterns) and songket (cloth with gold and silver threads woven throughout). The ladies also sell products made from their cloth, including bags, hats, sashes and table runners.
This writer managed to get a broad two-meter bolt of ikat for about IDR 500,000 (about US$37) and a smaller bolt of songket for about IDR 300,000 (about US$22).
Such bargains may trigger impulse buying: my ikat now serves as a decorative wall hanging, but as of press time, the songket lies unused in my closet!
Transportation to Sasak Sade Village
To visit Sasak Sade Traditional Village, you can take a hired car from the Lombok capital of Mataram down to Pujut District, an hour and a half ride that takes you past Mataram's towering mosques and Lombok's scenic rice paddies. See the location of Sasak Sade Traditional Village (Google Maps).
You won't be able to enter without getting a paid guide, which will cost you about IDR 50,000 (about US$3.75). Solo tours to Sasak Sade Village are not encouraged; the show and tour attracts large groups of visitors, of which this guide was a part (thank you, Indonesia Tourism and #TripofWonders). We suggest you ask your hotel in Mataram to hook you up with a tour package visiting Sasak Sade, instead of arranging one on your own.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this article, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.