The Future of Local Religions in Indonesia: A Reflection on Marapu in East Sumba

By: Jimmy Marcos Immanuel

Based on several researches and local government’s data, the population of Marapu followers in East Sumba has been decreasing in recent days. This decrease is caused by several factors, both external and internal. Living together with Marapu followers in Wunga village, East Sumba, for 2 months has helped me to feel and understand the factors and perspectives of the Marapu followers, and also predict the future of Marapu as a local religion in Indonesia.

Similar to other local religions in Indonesia, Marapu is only acknowledged as a belief system rather than a religion. The followers of this belief system almost have no representation in the government. To be a civil servant, people in East Sumba must have one of the national religions (Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hindu, Buddha, Konghucu). In the village where I lived, the members of the local government of the village are still tolerated to be local civil servants because of limited resources. More than 80 percent of the population of Wunga village follows the Marapu belief system.

Marapu is perceived by non-followers as an original local belief. Generally, people call the followers kafir people (infidels or people who do not believe in God), and even the followers accept this term. The meaning of kafir here is different, not negative, but the term is just seen as another term for non-national religions.

The followers believe that there is a highest divinity, that they now call Tuhan. Before they called this divinity Tuhan, they only mentioned the divine as “bakulu maulang mata, balaru kacilu“? (the big eyes, wide ears). The name of the divine cannot be mentioned or called directly, but only using parables, and they do not even know the real name. The term Tuhan is usually used by them to talk about this divinity when they meet outsiders.

Marapu followers believe that they cannot communicate with the highest divine directly. If they want to engage in communication, they have to do hamayangu (prayer/ritual) to their ancestors’ spirits (Marapu) by sacrificing certain animals (chickens/pigs/goats/buffalos) and led by wunang (prayer-men). It is believed that their messages to the divine will be conveyed by the Marapu, and then the Marapu will also communicate the divine’s messages or responses to the followers through the hearts of sacrificed animals.

Even though this local religion still exists, the number of followers has been decreasing because of several external factors. The decrease is caused in part by education in school. When the children of the followers go to elementary school, the teachers, who are mostly Christians, require them to choose one of the national religions to be learned in religious education class, and also for their religious identity in their school documents. Teachers usually direct them to choose Christianity. When the children want to continue their study in high school, almost all schools require them to be baptized or to be an adherent of a church. Nowadays, when followers want to get a national identity card, their religion is not put on the card, except if they want to fight and argue with the civil servants who handle card making, as experienced by one of the people in Wunga.

The followers of Marapu prefer to let their children have another religion as long as the children want it and are thus able to get a better education than what their parents had. The parents also allow the adoption of another religion in the hope that their children will have a better future, such as a good job, especially in the city, in order to help out with their families’ economic burdens in the village. Although the followers of Marapu face the challenge that the future of the Marapu as religion may diminish (in terms of population) and even vanish, the followers believe that this will never happen because the divine continues to work through people to keep the religion going.

Economic problems serve as an internal factor that contributes to the decrease in the population of Marapu adherents. Their prayer or ritual requires many animal sacrifices even in the middle of the economic crisis that they face. Intensity of the prayer depends on the problems that they have such as when neighbors request animals from them, and also adat (cultural practice) that should be done by them. Since Christianity does not require the sacrifices, some of the followers have chosen to convert to Christianity. In addition, Christianity is seen as more developed than their belief system and culture and represents modernity (which is viewed as superior). Nevertheless, many remain loyal to Marapu on account of the “cause and effect,” that makes them think about the possible consequences of leaving the religion. The social function of this religion also binds everyone in their circle to do their traditions together even though they have already converted to Christianity.

Another internal factor that contributes to the burdens of family life, is the problem of access to natural resources such as alang-alang (coarse grass) and bamboo, especially for their adat house. For them, the house has many functions in relation to their religion and traditions. Social, economic and political functions are also part of the house. Another natural problem that they have is the endless looting of animals, by thieves from other villages in cooperation with entrepreneurs from outside islands. This looting harms the people of the village.

The dilemma of the followers of Marapu indicates the precarious future of this local religion. The government’s lack of care to maintain the existence of Marapu also contributes to the decline in the belief system. So far there have not been any efforts from the local government to fight for Marapu and to include it as one of the religions in Indonesia, as done by the Kalimantan government and Dayak people in the case of Kaharingan (local religion in Kalimantan). (JMI)

This post is also available in: Indonesian


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