Flores Island in East Nusa Tenggara Province is a combination of sea and forested mountains with meandering highways cutting the island from west to east, and is home to a friendly people still firmly connected to their ancestral roots.
Flores Island consists of eight regencies with at least six local languages; from west to East are Ngadha, Nage, Keo, Ende, Lio and Palu’e. The majority of Flores people are descended from Roman Catholic Christians resulting from Portuguese colonisation, and Flores people have Melayu, Melanesian and Portuguese blood.
Flores people are usually divided into eight tribes: Manggarai, Riung, Ngada, Nage-Keo, Ende, Lio, Sikka, and Larantuka, which can further be divided into many sub-groups with distinct features and dialects.
Known for its traditional art weaving and dancing, Flores is also famous for its traditonal houses. Wae Rebo in Manggarai Regency might be more famous, but the wooden houses in Ngada Regency are just as attractive. The Bena, Tololela, Luba, Nage, Gurusina and Belaraghi housing compounds are all in Ngada Regency.
Bena, named after the area’s first settler, is a megalithic compound in Tiwuriwu Village, Aimere District, Ngada Regency, 19 km south of Bajawa City, the capital of Ngada Regency. Bajawa is reachable from Ende or Manggarai by car or public bus. The roads are smooth with spectacular scenery featuring rolling hills packed with candlenut trees. Bena houses resemble boats, because the friendly locals believe that this is the vehicle used by the spirits to travel to their homes.
Bena has a population of roughly 750 and its inhabitants are mostly farmers, weavers and cattle breeders, with some government employees, school children, and college students. Farmers cultivate nuts, coffee and tubers and raise cattle. Some members have travelled and worked outside Bena, but they maintain their traditions.
Women help with farming but they also weave shawls and sarongs in traditonal motifs representing buffalo, horse, chicken feet, machetes, and a long curved line called ghiu, which symbolises human life. Tourists can obtain these woven fabrics for Rp300,000 for a medium shawl.
Flanked by Luba and the Batakengo hills, Bena lies 700 meters above sea level, on the foot of Inerie Mountain (2,245 meters). Inerie means mother, and Rie means beautiful/graceful. The people believe that the God Zeta lives at the mountain top. The existence of Bena at the mountain slope is characteristic of an ancient mountain-worshipping people who believe that the God in the mountain will protect the village and the people. Ngada Regency website indicates that Bena compound might be more than 1,200 years old.
The Bena compound is 375 meters long and 80 meters wide. Two rows of wooden houses with straw roofs called nua, line the left and right side. Flat tall stones, called terse stand upright in the middle of the open yard. A stone altar called a watu lewa is placed in a special formation. Here they perform ceremonies. There are 45 houses in which nine clans live. These clans are called Dizi Kae, Dizi Azi, Wahtu, Deru Lalulewa, Deru Solamae, Ngada, Khopa, Ago and Bena, the oldest.
Villagers embrace Catholicism and ancestor worship at the same time. They display a Virgin Mary statue at the end of the compound and from there Mount Inerie, the lush green hills and the neighboring Jerebu’u and Sarabawa villages are visible.
In the yard, they erect ngadhu, a cone-like structure made of one single pole topped by palm fibers, simbolising male ancestors. The log to build the ngadhu pole must be strong enough to support the weight of the sacrificial animals that are tied to it. The construction of the ngadhu is done in a ceremony which involves the use of blood from pigs and chickens.
The bhaga is a miniature house symbolising female ancestors. Both ngadhu and bhaga represent the connection between the old and new generations. There are nine pairs of bhaga and ngadhu in Bena to represent the nine clans.
The annual three-day reba ceremony gives thanks to the ancestors for a good harvest by making offerings of pork and buffalo meat. Later, the buffalo horns and the pig jaw-bones are displayed in front of the houses in rows. The local elders say the age of the houses can be calculated by counting the number of rows.
A couple of appreciative young French tourists smile and nod, saying, “This place is actually frozen in time.”
Another traditional housing compound is Tololela, located in Manubhara Village, Jerebuu District, Ngada Regency. The trek from Bena to Tololela takes 45 minutes. The Tololela compound features two rows of authentic wooden houses topped by straw roofs, every bit as authentic as those found in Bena.
There are seven clans in Tololela and, as in Bena, there is a pair of ngadhu and bhaga to represent each clan. The clans here are called Siga Dala, Siga Daku, Siga Lalu Bila, Metu, Be’a, Raba, Siga Pedhu Raga.
The grave of one of the elders is built from modern blue ceramic tiles which somewhat taints the antiquity of the compound. As in Bena, people display buffalo horns and pig’s jaw bones on their porches following the annual ceremonies.
Mattresses and breakfast are provided for overnight stays. Guests can learn to weave and can help with cooking using traditional stone wood-burning stoves. They can also learn to play the bombardom, local traditional musical instrument made from one small hollow piece of bamboo inserted into a larger one. It is played by blowing into the smaller piece bamboo and at the same time moving the larger one up and down. The bombardom’s music tells the story of the history of Tololela, Ngadhu and Bhaga.
The Tololela ceremony called ka sa’o marks the completion of work on a new or renovated house. Bufaloes and pigs are slaughtered, the ja’i dance is performed, and all clan members go home to a feast called meghe which includes the meat from the slaughtered animals.
As modernisation inevitably invades even the most remote areas of Indonesia, we should admire and respect those who choose to maintain and cherish their traditional ways of life.