THE FARMERS scream and shout in jubilation following the beat of a modern version of a Sasak song, while a singer belts out the lyrics. A crowd has gathered, all eyes fixed on the rice field before them, as water buffaloes sporting colorfully decorated, oversized cow bells around their necks stand in a row.
It is a time for celebration, a time when old friends gather. A centuries-old festival named Malean Sampi is about to start; the buffaloes will race each other, and an oath to the divine shall be fulfilled.
First recorded in the 18th century, Malean Sampi is a local version of buffalo racing for the Sasak people of the Narmada area in West Lombok, and is held to mark the start of the planting season or the end of the harvest season.
Malean Sampi is also staged to fulfill a nazar, a promise made to God in exchange for the fulfillment of a wish, be it a bountiful harvest, the birth of a child, marriage or even school graduation. It involves racing buffaloes through a muddy track, circling a rice field for a number of laps, instead of a straight line as in the more famous Madura Island version, Karapan Sapi.
Malean Sampi is more about control instead of speed, locals say, more about giving thanks for a bountiful harvest than competition.
“The sound of the cow bells tied to the buffaloes’ necks is magical,” says Abdurrahman, a local who claims to have been to every single Malean Sampi event in Narmada. “The bells are like the sound of spirits ensuring the grounds remain fertile. They are like prayers to God.”
Malean Sampi usually attracts dozens of participants, each with two buffaloes decorated in
colorful flags, balls of thread and oversized bells that are wider than the buffaloes themselves.
However, with the 2014 legislative election less than three months away, and despite organizers’ attempt to keep the traditional buffalo race free of politics, many of the flags are those of political parties, while the riders wear T-shirts that also bear party logos.
Traditionally, the race is also a time for old friends to meet and youngsters to court prospective partners from neighboring villages.
The field is marked out with poles, while giant janur, decorative poles made from yellow coconut leaves, mark the start and finish lines.
The crowd packs the edge of the muddy rice field as the first pair of buffaloes enters the makeshift racing track. As the riders – usually the owners of the buffaloes – ready their whips, the buffaloes stare at the track before them as if they understand what they have to do.
The race begins. As the participants frantically race toward the finish line, the music grows louder and the crowd cheers in exuberance. The rider, wearing a traditional headband called a sapuk, yells at his buffaloes as the hollow wooden bells rattle, making deep clacking sounds.
Local historian Agus Faturrahman says Malean Sampi evolved from a tradition known as Krotok Belek (large cowbells) where, at the beginning of the planting season, farmers decorated the buffaloes that they used to plow their field for good luck and to ensure a bountiful harvest.
With rice fields in Lombok owned by communities or groups of people, the ritual was a cause for celebration, Agus says. But eventually farmers were also keen to show off their plowing skills and their buffaloes’ strength. Thus, a race was born.
Agus says that unlike the buffalo race in Madura, the main reward is bragging rights rather than actual prize money, and the race is more ceremonial than competitive in nature.
Abdurrahman says that winning Malean Sampi will make his buffaloes more desirable because it proves they have stamina, speed and obedience.
“My buffaloes can fetch tens of millions [of rupiah] after winning Malean Sampi,” he says.
Abdurrahman says he once sold a winning buffalo for Rp 40 million ($3,370). A regular buffalo fetches between Rp 8 million and Rp 12 million in Lombok.
And because the emphasis is more on stamina instead of speed for the buyers, purchasing a winning buffalo has a clear benefit on the fields for plowing.
Malean Sampi is an important Lombok tradition that is in need of preservation as the island is slowly turning from agriculture to tourism, and its rice fields replaced with hotels and restaurants.
“To preserve the tradition, communities in areas of West Lombok like Narmada and Lingsar hold [the race] regularly. This is an important agrarian heritage,” Agus says.
Some participants dance to the tune of Ale Ale, a traditional form of music unique to Lombok, while some feast on the many treats and snacks prepared specifically for special occasions such as this.
The farmers profess that although the island has a barrage of modern entertainment, they prefer going to traditional events like Malean Sampi where they can meet old friends and pit the strengths of their buffaloes against each other in a display that unites the community. – The Jakarta Globe