The Bati Kelusi of Seram Island

Stéphane Barelli

The Maluku Islands are an archipelago of eastern Indonesia, forming a territory of 74,500 km² for about 2.1 million residents. Their name comes from Jazirat al Mulik, “Island of the Kings”, given them by Arab traders. The vast majority of the islanders have embraced either Islam, which arrived from Java in the fifteenth century, or Protestantism, introduced by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. A wave of immigration began in the 1970s from the southern island of Sulawesi and the neighbouring Buton Island. The Muslims, active and enterprising, soon came to dominate commerce and altered the religious balance. According to official statistics, Muslims already represented 49.9 percent of the population of the Maluku archipelago in 1971; that figure rose to 55 percent by 1980 and to 56.8 percent by 2000. That demographic imbalance was exacerbated by a government policy that gave preference to Muslims. The fighting between Christians and Muslims that followed the adoption of these legal measures led to the death of dozens of people and a mass displacement of populations. In the Maluku, the Christians moved to the south and the Muslims to the north.

A fragile coexistence reigns on Seram Island, putting the Alfur, a population that preserves its traditional beliefs, in an awkward position between the two warring factions. Within that context, conversions, combined with the extirpation of idolatry, are leading increasingly to a loss of the cultural heritage.

In current publications, “Alfur” has become a generic term for a population of autochthonous people, most of them living in the forest zones on the large islands such as Seram. This people defines itself as Christian, Muslim or Hindu. However it retains its traditions, preserves its social organization and its customary diet and manner of dress. They practice disparate rites that combine elements pieced together from several religions. Ancestral traditions, the cult of the dead, Friday prayer, and the laying on of hands intermingle, all elements of a singular spirituality.


Adam Kelkusa, son of the Bati Kelusi village chief. Photography by the author.

The Bati Kelusi live in Kiandarat district, in south-eastern Seram Island, in a village in the middle of the jungle. They still embrace their traditional religion, which is based on the conviction that their ancestors monitor daily life. If the customary recommendations they transmit are not properly respected, the living will be punished with a lack of prosperity, illness and even death. The people fear the spirits that populate the region’s mountains and forests. In protecting these natural sanctuaries, they seek to preserve the environmental balance.


Dahlan Siasaun, the Bati Kelusi village Imam. Photography by the author.

The urgency of the fieldwork to be done is intrinsically linked to the climate of religious tensions raging there. The diminishing number of Bati islanders who practice their traditional way of life presages an irremediable loss of an oral culture. It is therefore essential and urgent that they become the focus of fieldwork, especially since Ruth Barnes and Roy Ellen, who did a phenomenal job compiling ethnographic data regarding customs in particular, did not extend their study to the Bati, who, in fact, have yet to be the object of any research or publication.

Umar Boufakar, the Artaféla village chief and Abu Bakar Kelkusa, the Bati Kelusi village chief. Photography by the author.

References

ELLEN, Roy. 2012. Nuaulu religious practices: the frequency and reproduction of rituals in a Moluccan society. Leiden: KITLV.
BARNES, Ruth and Mary H. Kahlenberg, eds. 2010. Five Centuries of Indonesian Textiles. The Mary Hunt Kahlenberg Collection. Munich, New York: Prestel.
BRANDL-STRAKA Ursula, Reinhard Maurer, Thontji Tuarissa. 2012. Maluku Sharing Cultural Memory. Vienne: Museum für Völkerkunde.