Cultures & Traditions

Hindu-Buddhism and Islam in Lampung Culture

Receptiveness to foreign influences is sometimes considered one of the characteristic traits of Indonesian cultures. The new was never shut out, but was instead invited in, causing old traditions to be transformed over and over again. Elements from Hindu-Buddhism and Islam became enmeshed over time with prehistoric traditions.

The peoples of Lampung began to assimilate Hindu-Buddhist traditions probably during the first centuries of the common era. It is certain that from the middle of the seventh century onward, South Sumatra (including Lampung) was a part of the Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya; the city currently known as Palembang was once one of Srivijaya’s principal court centers. As this realm weak­ened and finally disappeared altogether in the fourteenth century, Hindu-Buddhist influences gradually infiltrated the Lampung area from West Javan Bantam (nowadays known as Banten). Lampung pepper had great appeal to Bantam—which was a center of commerce—and thus Bantam steadily increased its interests in the area. In the mid-sixteenth century, Bantam was the source of a change that had enormous consequences. Around 1550, the local ruler converted to Islam (he would henceforth be known as the Sultan). From then on, the influence of the new religion slowly spread via the coastal regions across all of South Sumatra.

It is fascinating to observe the integration of Hindu-Buddhism and Islam into the Lampung culture of the nineteenth century. A striking phenomenon in this respect is the great difference between the inland marga and the coastal marga. For example, the influence of Islam—which by that time had been present in South Sumatra for a couple of centuries—had remained limited to the coastal Paminggir. The local adat of the Pubian, who inhabited more inland-lying regions, and the Abung, who lived in the moun­tains, remained virtually unchanged during that entire period.

It is very clear that the veneration of ancestors and earth spirits, both essential strands of the Austronesian inheritance, was still the central point of focus everywhere. Even though elements of Hindu- Buddhism and Islam had been incorporated into the religion, ancestors and spirits connected to the environment continued to control daily life. It appears that the religious integration was largely a matter of applying new names to old ideas. For example, Hindu-Buddhism was acknowledged in a seemingly minimal way by designating an indigenous creator god with a Sanskrit name. In the case of the earth spirits, Islam essentially manifested itself in a similar way.

Hindu-Buddhism found expression in local mythology. The only known creation myth deals with the origin of the island of Sumatra (it contains the remarkable detail of the Lampung area deriving from a ship) and culminates in the creation of the first ancestor, founding father Si Lampung. In this case, the entire story, fully in accordance with prehistoric traditions, glorifies the wor­ship of ancestors. The impact of Hindu-Buddhism is marginal and occurs mainly at the divine level. The creator of all earthly things was given a thin Hindu-Buddhist veneer and is referred to in the myth as dewa.

As stated above, Islam was incorporated into the veneration of earth spirits in a comparable way. In the Austronesian traditions, surroundings were often associated with spirits who asserted themselves as the true owners of the land and who acted as sources of fertility. In the Islamized coastal marga of Lampung, such ancient spirits were often referred to by the Arabic term jin. Offerings were made to them at sacred places in the environment—mountaintops in particular—in order to procure a good harvest, and to safeguard the continued existence of marga and suku. Thus, ancient mythol­ogy and religious beliefs endured with some minor refinements.

The integration of Islam into the social sphere is also reveal­ing. Nineteenth-century reports from Dutch civil servants suggest that the imported religion was often hardly taken seriously. This is illustrated by the performances of marriageable girls at the village community center, the sesat. There, the young girls would dance provocatively and with their hair loose, circumstances “that would spark disgust and controversy in a truly Muhammadan society.”

In a notable contrast, the essential Muslim practice of going on a pilgrimage to Mecca was extraordinarily popular. Provided that the necessary means were available, every adult male Muslim was expected to make such a journey (the Haj) at least once in his life­time, and Lampung men appeared very eager to do this. Upon closer examination, however, one sees that this motivation to travel was not entirely religious. Completing the Haj was in fact a way to climb the social ladder. The Haj was regarded as an activity that could increase social status, and consequently became a link in the so-called papadon complex, the system of ranks and titles that dom­inated traditional social life in Lampung in any number of ways.

Traditionally, the institution of the papadon was linked to the inheritable position of penyimbang marga. In the event of the suc­cession of an adat chief, each novice had to seat himself on a sort of throne, a seat of dignity that was called papadon , which in addition to a higher status granted many other privileges. The major fea­ture of the ascent to the throne was the enormous feast that had to be organized. In nearly all cases, this would practically ruin the new penyimbang marga, as he would have to expend most of his resources in butchering a substantial part of his livestock. This custom most likely originated in prehistoric times, when comparable “feasts of merit” were celebrated.

This ancient system was revitalized among the Lampung as a result of political policies enacted by the Sultans of Bantam. These Muslim rulers recognized the Lampung “predilection for splendor and social distinction” and introduced a number of universally purchasable ranks (pangkat) that included the festive and highly expensive papadon ascension. This caused the exclusive, aristocratic character of the papadon complex to disappear, allowing the com­mon man—if he grew sufficient amounts of pepper and then sold it to Bantam—to also rise on the status ladder. Even though the papadon adat (the inheritable papadon ascension) was held in higher regard, the papadon pangkat was tremendously popular and, more­over, allowed room for the introduction of “modern” activities like the Haj into the system.

These examples illustrate what 19th century Lampung syncretism looked like in practice. The traditional cultural pillars, including worship of ancestors and earth spirits as well as the struggle for status, had remained intact in spite of outside influ­ences that had been present for centuries. Precisely by being pliable and by incorporating alien traditions into those that were already present, the familiar Lampung adat could persist.

Adapted from

Nico de Jonge, "Lampung Ship Cloths: Ancient Symbolism and Cultural Adaptation in South Sumatran Art," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, Reimar Schefold, ed. in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 82-83.