Hidden Heritage: A Cultural Journey of Discovery
Ship Builders and Seafarers of South Sulawesi
Text Stephanie Brookes | Photos David Metcalf
Makassar, sulawesi is a melting pot of languages and ethnic groups, a hub of trade and a thriving port packed with colourful boats, a frenzy of fish selling and a throng of action. For hundreds of years, ethnic groups have passed through this port trading spice, sea slugs, pearls, sandalwood and oil from the nuts of the bado tree. small Indonesian shops conduct business next to Chinese shops and scattered in between you will find Christian places of worship.
Makassarese and Bugis speakers mix with Javanese, sundanese, Batak and Minangkabau and the action at the port showcases a mixture of the great seafaring peoples of Indonesia. the boat builders of today still craft heavy ships entirely from wood.
On display in the harbour, different styles of fishing and sailing boats sit tie up to the docks, defining Makassar as a charming, nautical city of colour. The broad sweeping esplanade (Pantai Losari) presents a multi-coloured display as many types of vessels nudge up to one another amongst a myriad of masts and rectangular sails and now and again you catch sight of a famous prahu pinisi. this beautifully crafted, graceful, ketch- rigged schooner is an iconic symbol of south sulawesi.
Designed to catch flying fish, the pantorani boat, with its two defined rectangular sails, can be found parked next to a single-masted cargo vessel called a balolang, which you may find squeezed in next to a lepa lepa, a traditional sail boat with spider-like extended outriggers.
Being a major fishing centre, a visit to the fish markets reveals the abundance of the sea; silvery scads, towers of shrimp, buckets of sea cucumbers, flying fish heaped in piles and plenty of shark.
Heading out of Makassar, the southern coast of the peninsular takes you on a journey into the smaller communities where traditional boat building can still be seen today. the road hugs the coast most of the way to sinjai and you can return via the scenic, hilly, inland route back to Makassar. If you head to tana Beru you will see a line of traditional boats at various stages of construction in the village. the most romantic of all are the pinisi which measure 30 metres or more.
The story of this beautiful sailboat is wrapped in history and tradition as a master boat builder must spend a long night in reflective contemplation before he designs his vessel. he is required to adhere to family traditions and calculate which classical construction pattern he will follow.
I was told by Pak Bahar, a Bugis boat builder of tana Beru, that he works in a group of around 30 men and they make each boat to order. to calculate how long the keel will be, by tradition, he must use the hand span of the future owner’s hand. As each hand span is measured, the fate of the boat will come through via this hand-by-hand calculation. What will this boat bring for the owner? the fate of the boat is ordained at this point. Will the boat bring joy, will the boat be stolen, will it sink at sea, will the boat bring luck? When the message comes through, the length is fixed and only then will construction begin.
Pak Bahar went on to tell me about the intriguing yin and yang aspect of building a boat. “We have many ceremonies,” he told me. “the laying of the keel is joined by telang which means vagina and lasso meaning penis. the actual marriage and unification when the pieces are joined is celebrated by a ceremony. sometimes there are many joining acknowledgements, not just one.”
He went on to explain how the keel pieces are left alone overnight symbolising the wedding night and consummation.
Sulawesi’s boat building heritage is etched in feasts, traditions and age-
old customs and by taking a slow trip along this beautiful southern sulawesi coastline you may chance upon a launch and witness celebrations, singing and dancing.
Stephanie Brookes is a travel writer and blogger with tales from Indonesia and beyond. Please visit her website www.travelwriter.ws
David Metcalf runs specialist photography and cultural tours in Kalimantan, Bali, Java, sri Lanka, India, Bhutan, Mongolia and UsA.
David also supports education and health programs in Kalimantan. For more information on these and ways to support please contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org