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Locks in Lombok

On Lombok’s Kuta beach, the locals celebrate an age-old legend by harvesting marine worms that are believed to be the magical manifestation of a princess’ locks.

Words & Photography: Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap 

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The practically deserted Tanjung A’an beach in Lombok.

     Scrambling up a rocky outcrop in the middle of Kuta Beach on Lombok, I admired the serene beauty of the island. Nearby, a lonesome fisherman on a small one-sided outrigger canoe cast a net over the turquoise waters that lapped the immaculate crescent of sand, hemmed in by verdurous hills.

     Languid beach-goers snoozed in the shade of pandanus palms, whilst lithe lady vendors promenaded with colourful ikat and songket sarongs piled high on their heads. Next to humble warung (stalls) of bamboo and thatch, little children selling seashell bracelets laughed and gambolled. “This is the nicest beach we’ve been to in Indonesia!” admitted Liz and Jodie, two blonde sunbathers I’d met on the shore. “We just arrived from Bali; it can get pretty crazy over there”.

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A local craftswoman spinning cotton on a traditional spindle at the Sasak Cultural Village in Sade, Lombok.

      Worlds away from its hedonistic and overcrowded Balinese namesake, Kuta Beach in southern Lombok harbours pristine coves, remote surf breaks, indigenous villages and local legends that come alive every year through a unique ritual harvest.

     Only the festive music of gamelan could’ve torn me away from the relaxing vista. Following the music to the main road, I found throngs of Sasak villagers on parade, carrying in regal sedan chairs the most beautiful lasses in town, towards Seger Beach, a rough-hewn cove right next to Kuta. Wearing Mona Lisa smiles, the young ladies were ornately dressed as princesses.

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Woven textile for sale at the Sasak Cultural Village


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The ornate door to the king’s bedroom at Narmada Park in Lombok, believed to have been built in 1727 by King of MataramLombok, Anak Agung Ngurah Karang As The Legend of Princess Mandalika

     Kendang drummers rhythmically swayed, as young men brandished long swords in a show of fearlessness. I arrived in Kuta just in time for the Bau Nyale – one of the biggest festivals in West Nusa Tenggara province, east of Bali – that celebrates the legend of Princess Mandalika with the annual harvest of marine worms along the southern beaches of the island.

     Legend has it that a long time ago, when many kingdoms ruled Lombok, there lived a beautiful princess named Mandalika, who was besieged by numerous suitors. To prevent the enamoured noblemen from waging war to win her hand in marriage, the princess scaled the cliff above Seger Beach and jumped to her death. 

     Her people frantically searched the tidal flats below, but found only colonies of nyale marine worms, which many believe to be the magical manifestation of the princess’ hair. Since then, every 20th day of the 10th month of the Sasak calendar – which falls between the Gregorian calendar months of February and March – the spirit of the princess revisits her people with the emergence of these sea creatures.

      The Bau Nyale festival is celebrated all along the southern coast of Lombok, but the main festivities centre on Seger Beach, where the legendary princess is believed to have perished.

 “The Sasak believe that nyale are harbingers of a bountiful rice harvest, and that gathering these worms will bring them prosperity. Daybreak signalled the end of the harvest with the crowd trooping back to the beach to rinse their catch.”

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Local fisherman on an outrigger boat at Kuta Beach


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A local maiden, dressed as the legendary Princess Mandalika, is paraded through Kuta Beach during the festival.


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A local with a large catch of nyale worms – Sasak people believe gathering the worms brings them good luck

Magical Harvest

Motorcycles and cars clogged the road to the beach, and laser lights pierced the night sky as traditional songs and dances were performed for the enjoyment of the villagers who were camped out on the sandy shore and nearby hills. One of the highlights included the traditional dance of courtship and love, the gandrung, which was originally a ritual for Dewi Sri, the ancient goddess of rice and fertility.

     By four in the morning, the sleepy villagers began to comb the tidal flats for the olive green and brown annelids, catching them with nets and storing them in metal pots and plastic jars. Tens of thousands of people, young and old, joined the hunt; some of them proudly showing me their slippery loot. The Sasak believe that nyale are harbingers of a bountiful rice harvest, and that gathering these worms will bring them prosperity. Daybreak signalled the end of the harvest with the crowd trooping back to the beach to rinse their catch.

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Entrance to the Sasak Cultural Village where the traditional arts and crafts of Lombok are put on display.

A Wormy Feast

 After the sea worm hunt, I met up with Iwan, my helpful driver who’d brought me to Kuta. He and his family join the festivities every year, and this year Iwan invited me to his home in Penujak village to see how nyale worms are customarily cooked and savoured. “I am very lucky this time,” he exclaimed, bragging about how many worms he had gathered.

     Later, we watched his father scoop handfuls of the worms into coconut leaf pouches to be placed in a pan over a firewood stove. “Very good protein,” Iwan remarked with an impish grin. This process removes excess water from the worms, preparing them to be cooked in a variety of ways.

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A kendang drum player at the parade during the Bau Nyale festival

“To prevent the enamoured noblemen from waging war to win her hand in marriage, the princess scaled the cliff above Seger Beach and jumped to her death. Her people frantically searched the tidal flats below, but found only colonies of nyale marinevworms, which many believe to be the magicalmanifestation of the princess’ hair.”

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The Pura Lingsar temple, built in 1714, is the holiest place in Lombok and welcomes both Hindu and the indigenous Wektu Telu people to worship.

     Iwan had me taste their special sambal, a fiery condiment made of Lombok chillies and, of course, the culinary pièce de résistance, nyale. Enjoyed with fried eggs and a hearty soup of soybean and kangkong (water spinach), the wormy delicacy turned out to be quite delicious! I thought the nyale looked so much more appetizing when cooked with spices and other ingredients. “Aside from being cooked in different styles, the worms are also spread over rice fields for a bountiful harvest,” explained Iwan as we finished our native lunch next to a stilted lumbung or rice barn.

Lombok’s Secret Coves

After my gastronomic foray, I returned to the coast to visit the beaches beyond Kuta and Seger. Besides these two popular choices, one can head to more isolated coves suitable for either swimming or surfing. Renting a bicycle the next day, I cycled east of Kuta to a gorgeous cape of fine white sand called Tanjung A’an, where cliffs cradle irresistibly calm waters. Another splendid cove for swimming is Mawun Beach, eight kilometres west of Kuta, with its azure waters. Surfers, on the other hand, might want to hit the majestic breaks at Gerupuk further east from Tanjung A’an.

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On neighbouring Gili Trawangan island, cidomo or horse carts are the only form of transportation as motorised vehicles have been banned on the island

     At the end of the day, I returned to Kuta Beach to find it in the reverie of a crimson sunset, emptied of the previous day’s fanfare. Several villagers waded into the receding tide collecting shellfish and octopus, as if to reprise their harvest of Mandalika’s writhing locks. 

     In the distance, the lamps of the night time gleaners looked like bright stars that had abandoned the heavens, affirming the unquestionable allure of this earthly paradise.

GETTING THERE: AirAsia flies from Kuala Lumpur to Lombok, Indonesia four times a week (daily flights will commence from 11 June). For flight details, go to www.airasia.com.

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Armed with nets and baskets, Sasak villagers collect the nyale worms at Seger Beach.

SASAK CULTURE

  • The indigenous people of Lombok Island are the Sasak. They are known for their rice farming, loom weaving and traditional dances, such as gandrung (courtship dance), kendang belek (drum dance) and batek baris (military dance). Although modern Sasaks are Muslim, they are culturally related to the Balinese in ethnicity and language. Islam was introduced to the island between the 16th and 17th centuries. While most have embraced the conventional form of the religion, some of them still practise Wektu Telu, a syncretic version with Hindu, Buddhist and animist influences.
     
  • An interesting stopover along the highway between Kuta Beach and Lombok International Airport is the traditional Sasak village in Sade, set amidst lush rice paddies. Visitors can explore an enclave of indigenous houses, centred on a lumbung or rice barn with a bonnet-shaped roof made of alang-alang (elephant grass). One can also shop for handcrafted ikat (tie-dye style) and songket (brocade) textiles on display.
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