Cultures & Traditions

Lampung boat symbolism

In Indonesia, traditional boat symbolism was predominantly found in areas where Hindu-Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity had not made their appearance or had arrived relatively late, as was the case in the Moluccas. On many of the smaller islands of Maluku Tenggara, such as Kai, Tanimbar, and Babar, this symbol­ism has been well documented, and it consistently appears to have functioned in two ways. Most conspicuous is the ship’s function as a model of society. Houses and villages were often portrayed as boats, with their inhabitants the symbolic crewmen. A more “hidden” form of nautical symbolism underlay this, however, focusing on the creation of society; this symbolism rep­resented the marriage of the first ancestors. In rituals, this wedding was expressed by means of the metaphorical “boat of matrimony” setting sail. In this metaphor, the woman was regarded as a boat, lying on the beach, waiting for a man who wanted to go sailing. Only when the man—the helmsman or captain—boarded the boat could it set sail, that is, could society come into being. All subse­quent marriages were regarded as a reenactment of this primordial marriage and made use of similar symbolism.

The image of the boat of matrimony was conveyed in many ways in material culture. For example, the association between a woman and a boat was marvel­ously conveyed in ancestor statues. Marriage itself was similarly represented in sculptural metaphor: in the shape of a boat with a helmsman in it. As a result of Christian influences, these forms of art have disappeared over the course of the previous century.

Likewise, such symbolism is superbly evident in the decora­tions of ships. Splendidly adorned prows and/or sterns often show aggressive animal figures such as snakes, roosters, and hunting dogs. These creatures were more than mere deco­ration; they were part of a physical construction in which the bond between man and woman—or, in other words, the founding of the family—was portrayed. Although there were considerable regional variations, one part of the boat construction was marked as a femi­nine “hull” or “keel,” whereas other parts—usually the prow and/or stern—were marked as a masculine “captain” or “helmsman.” The union of these parts brought the family together in the same way that a real boat can sail because of an assembly of components.

At the same time, these references showed the traditional divi­sion of tasks in society. The female parts of the boat were associated with a vagina or uterus and suggested that giving birth to and car­ing for children were typically feminine preserves, while the male prow and/or stern showed that protecting the family and its reputa­tion, especially by way of warfare, was viewed as a male’s domain. By attaching symbols to these male parts—usually the animal figures mentioned above—the groom was portrayed as a great headhunter, famed for his capacity to kill.

Ongoing studies suggest that this form of boat symbolism was not restricted to eastern Indonesia but in fact was much more wide­spread and most likely included the islands in the western regions as well. Research concerning Bali, Madura, and Java is compel­ling in this respect. Here, too, as in Maluku Tenggara, a marriage between male and female components is enacted in traditional boat-building rituals. At the same time, there is significant evi­dence regarding the age of the symbolism: it is an ancient, prehistoric tradition which must have been present on the islands before they obtained their current Hindu (Bali) and Islamic (Madura and Java) characters.

Everything seems to indicate that South Sumatra must have been within the range of this type of boat symbolism. The boat was a significant model of society among the peoples of Lampung and served as a structuring principle for houses and ceremonial pro­cessions. This was not an isolated phenomenon but was instead linked to a broader type of nautical imagery in which the boat of matrimony also played a role.

Although they have been only briefly studied, nineteenth-century love songs from Lampung also clearly imply that the nautical Southeast Moluccan metaphor was present in South Sumatra. According to linguists, sentences such as “the vessel will not sail, unless you will be captain” signified an implicit mar­riage proposal. This naturally inspires curiosity about traditional Lampung boatbuilding, but unfortunately concrete facts—to our knowledge—have not been recorded anywhere. Similarly, boat models in museums do not provide much information in this regard. This dearth is probably explained by the fact that Lampung society lacked a genuine maritime character. Contrary to what some sources would have us believe, shipping was of minor impor­tance to its traditional culture. The inhabitants of Lampung were farmers whose focus was on the cultivation of pepper. They were scarcely involved in the overseas trade of this product. Those boats that they did possess were meant to be used primarily on rivers, to transport the pepper harvests to the coast. Still, the association of nautical symbolism with romantic love was deep-rooted in Lampung culture.

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), 85-91.