Meet the Shamans Who Safeguard What's Left of Forests in Bangka Island

Diana Mariska
Janum bin Lamat, village shaman of Jerieng tribe in Pelangas village, Bangka. (Photo: Taufik Wijaya & Nopri Ismi)
Janum bin Lamat, village shaman of Jerieng tribe in Pelangas village, Bangka. (Photo: Taufik Wijaya & Nopri Ismi) - The 1.1-million-hectare Bangka island is a denudating land and is dominated by granite hills. Hundreds of years of tin extraction process and monoculture plantations (e.g. oil palm) have left the island with only hills as forests—which have long become sacred areas for indigenous peoples in the island.

"The destruction of the hill will not only destroy our physical lives, but also our spirituality," Janum bin Lamat (58) said in mid-September 2022. He is the leader of Jerieng tribespeople in Pelangas village, Simpang Teritip subdistrict, West Bangka regency, Bangka Belitung Islands province.

Janum bin Lamat is the seventh descendant of the "batin gunung" (mountain spirit), a leader figure in the customary system of Jerieng tribe. A batin acts like a village shaman, with ability to heal as well as to connect and keep the balance between humans, nature, and other creatures.

"The task of a village shaman is difficult since their responsibility is not merely to take care of humans, but also other living things—both animals and plants," Janum explained.

Jerieng tribe is an old Malay sub-tribe, which is spread across 13 villages in Simpang Teritip subdistrict, West Bangka regency—within a 62,000-hectare area. The 3,000-meter high Penyabung hill in Pelangas village is the highest point and sacred area for the people of Jerieng.

"Every year, in the month of Muharram, we perform ‘taber gunung’ ritual on Penyabung. This hill is considered sacred and should not be disturbed," Janum said.

Head of Pelangas Village Tourism Awareness Group, Masliadi (38), revealed that currently, the 97-hectare Penyabung hill is relatively well-maintained.

“Even before it became a community plantation forest [HTR] area in 2017, the community had been guarding Penyabung hill because it was the location for ritual [held by members of the community]," he said.

According to Janum, the essence of the ritual is to show gratitude for the natural resources as well as a platform to pray and ask the higher being to keep away diseases and disasters.

"After the ritual, people will be prohibited from carrying out activities in their farms and slaughtering animals. This is also a form of respect to other living beings.”

The ritual also becomes an opportunity for all shamans in Bangka and Belitung islands to gather and meet.

“Currently, there are about 46 shamans in Bangka island. During each ritual, all of them will be present both visibly and invisibly," Janum said.

However, between 1991 and 1997, the ritual was temporarily put to a stop due to the absence of a generation of village shamans who were capable of leading the ritual.

"It also stopped to coincide with the beginning of oil palm plantations [1991-1997], which eroded forestlands around Penyabung hill."

Around 2016, the ritual was restarted by the Jerieng Malay Traditional Institute (LAM). However, some of the aspects weren’t in accordance with the Jerieng custom.

“Many parts of the ritual were changed, such as the location: it was moved from the hill to the traditional house. Therefore, it wasn’t recognized by village shamans,” Janum recalled.

In August 2022, in a dream, Janum was trusted by the ancestors of Jerieng tribe to continue the taber gunung ritual, based on a set of predetermined order.

“After almost 25 years without the ritual, many calamities happened to Jerieng tribespeople, such as pest attacking rice plant, durian trees that failed to bear fruit, decreasing honey yield, and it peaked when mass possession occurred during a West Bangka regencial government’s event in Berang village some time ago.”

"The nonexistence of ritual on the hills on Bangka island is proof that our people have forgotten their ancestral culture," he continued.

"Furthermore, the loss of rituals means that our relationship with nature and fellow human beings has faded, and it also became an evidence that [the people of Bangka] weren’t being grateful of the natural resources."

A meeting point

In the south of Bangka island, about 60 kilometers from the city of Pangkalpinang, people can find Bukit Nenek (Nenek hill), located in Simpang Rimba subdistrict, South Bangka regency.

For hundreds of years, the hill was a location for a ritual done by Malay people in Gudang village and nearby areas. Similar to that of the Jerieng tribe, the ritual on Bukit Nenek was carried out in the month of Muharram, and it’s called "Ketupat Gong".

“The meaning is essentially the same: showing gratitude towards natural resources and praying for protection against catastrophes, disasters, and diseases,” Makmun (52), a village shaman in Gudang village, explained from his house at the foot of Bukit Nenek.

Bukit Nenek is a scared area and location for ritual. It’s 380-meter high and is part of Mount Permisan Natural Tourism Park (TWA), which covers an area of 3,149.69 hectares. Next to Bukit Nenek, there is Batu Kepale, Nangka, Putus, Meninjon Muda, Meninjon Tue, Mengkubung, Jering, and Cek Antak hills.

According to Makmun, the recent ritual differs from the one held in the past. Back then, the ritual was divided into two stages: the first one would be carried out on Batu Kepale hill, and it would be resumed on the top of Bukit Nenek.

"However, since many people complained about having to climb two hills at once, we decided to head straight to the top of Nenek hill," he explained.

Meanwhile, the 300-meter-high Batu Kepale hill is considered the place of "conference" or meeting for "guards" from a number of mountains on Bangka island, such as Mount Mangkol (Central Bangka regency), Mount Maras (Bangka regency), Mount Pelawan (Bangka regency), as well as Mount Menumbing and Mount Penyabung (West Bangka regency).

The meeting will be held around a granite cave on the top of Batu Kepale hill. Rock drawings, believed to have to have been painted by ancient Austronesian people, can also be found at that very location.

“During the meeting, guards would be given task of guarding each area as well as providing information on the condition of their respective hills.”

After the meeting, the ritual would then continue on Bukit Nenek.

"On Nenek hill, people hold prayers and eat together, to show their gratitude for the natural resources they manage to get," Makmun said.

Because the ritual is still regularly held to this day, forest on Bukit Nenek is preserved. “In fact, before the establishment of Mount Permisan TWA conservation area in 2016, the hilly areas here had never been disturbed. People continue to follow customs and rituals," Makmun explained.

Community around Bukit Nenek area must follow a ritual in which they donate a bunch of diamond-shaped rice cake called ketupat and bring them to the top of Bukit Nenek.

"If someone doesn't donate, village shamans will never force them to. However, they will be warned not to blame shamans for any calamities that befall them, such as crop failure, disease, or other disaster," Makmun explained.

People in Simpang Rimba subdistrict believe there is a “kampung gaib” (supernatural village), which is a village that is not visible to human eyes. Therefore, shamans order the people of Gudang village to live in harmony alongside people from the invisible village.

“Up until now, the residents still strictly follow the advice of village shamans since there have been several tragedies happened to violators, including getting sick or even disappearing at Nenek hill for being disrespectful,” Pendi (40), staff at the Gudang village government, revealed.

Closed rituals

It has been recorded that there are about 32 hills on Bangka island, with the highest being Mount Maras (705 m). Since 2016, the landscape of Mount Maras has been designated as the only national park on Bangka, with an area extending to 16,806.91 hectares.

For the indigenous peoples from the north to the south of Bangka island, Mount Maras has long been believed as the strongest spiritual point.

"We believe that if Mount Maras is damaged, there will be major flood that will submerge the entire mainland of Bangka island, even up to half of Sumatra," said Umran (74), descendant of the seventh Maras tribe in Berbura village, Riau Silip subdistrict, Bangka regency.

To this day, Umran and Damion (51), along with seven village shaman, continue to perform ritual at the top of Mount Maras. The nine individuals hail from a number of hamlets around Mount Maras.

Ritual performed by village shamans in Bangka island. (Photo: Taufik Wijaya & Nopri Ismi)
Ritual performed by village shamans in Bangka island. (Photo: Taufik Wijaya & Nopri Ismi)


“Currently, we are doing the ritual closed. Time of the ritual is also uncertain—there can be two to three rituals in a month. It’s usually performed when the elder shamans get a vision or when it’s the 13th day of the month on the Islamic calendar," Damion explained.

During the 2000s, there was ritual on Mount Maras carried out openly: the “Tolak Bala” (ward off misfortune) ritual, and the process was similar those held on Penyabung and Nenek hills.

"The intention is to show gratitude and to pray for protection against illness or disaster," Damion said.

However, since a lot of people from outside Bangka Island came and settled around Mount Maras, “The ritual was never carried out again, because there has been disagreement among many people," he continued.

As for the Mapur tribespeople in the northern part of Bangka island, Mount Maras is also used as a direction for graves of their ancestors.

Additionally, Mount Maras is also seen as a “grandfather” to all hills in Bangka: it’s a place to come to when one needs help during difficult times.

“The shamans usually share their problems or ask for help if there are villagers in distress or if there’s someone who wants to destroy their hill. It's our job as shamans to help each other," Damion emphasized.

Generally, forest on Mount Maras is still preserved. However, in recent years, there have been frequent landslides because large tree have been missing at several locations.

"At night, we often hear falling rocks, and the rumbling sounds can be heard in the residential areas," Damion, whose house is at the foot of Mount Maras, recalled.

Meanwhile, the end of the foot of Mount Maras (Kelabat Bay), which is dominated by mangrove ecosystem, have been mined by migrants.

“Honestly, it's sad to see Mount Maras these days—the conditions are very different. Forests have been encroached on and mined, and many people don’t respect the message from ancestors," said Damion.

"If this [forest destruction] continues to happen, it’s not impossible that in the near future, there will be a disease that attacks humans and is worse than Covid-19."

A missing ritual

If some shamans continue to perform closed ritual at Mount Maras, a different condition exists on Mangkol hill where people no longer do such ritual.

Mangkol hill is located in Central Bangka regency, and almost all villages in the regency are connected to the landscape of the hill. Among them are Terak, Teru, Dul, Air Mesu, Cambai, and Puput villages.

“All of the villagers used to have ‘kelekak’ around Mangkol hill,” said Mang Kalu (40), descendant of the seventh village shamans in Teru village.

Kelekak is a forest or land area which is planted with specific trees from the region (such as durian, binjai, and mangosteen]. The owner can be an individual or a group of people, and it serves as ancestral heritage for the next generation.

"The kelekak here is probably hundreds of years old, as you can see from the size of a durian tree here which is larger than an embrace four adults combined," Mang Kalu said.

The oldest kelekak on Mangkol hill is named “Aik Bik” because it’s located near the main spring of the hill, which flows to the city of Pangkalpinang (capital of Bangka Belitung Islands) and empties into the Baturusa River on the east coast of Bangka Island.

“Our ancestors who lived around this kelekak were named Akek Burok and Nek Rempak. It was them who started ritual on Mangkol hill, such as welcoming the harvest season of durian," Mang Kalu explained.

“In the past, the first durian that fell from the tree was called sentajau durian. This durian would then be placed in a granite rock called "batu kelambu."

Only when the second durian fruit fell that people could start picking them.

“People used to say that the meaning of this ritual is to share natural resources with other creatures, be they animals or supernatural beings. Those who violated the ritual would get sick or suffered crop failure," Mang Kalu continued.

However, since the 1970s, the ritual hasn’t been carried out.

"The reason behind this discontinuation is because there has been no generation of village shamans who have the capability to continue performing the ritual," he said.

Mangkol hill is actually only 395-meter high, and there are a number of hills nearby, including such as Pau, Tangga, Batu Kelambu, and Batu Tanyat hills. "In total, there are around 11 hills," Mang Kalu confirmed.

Since 2016, Mangkol hill has been designated as forest park [Tahura], with a total area of around 6,000 hectares.

However, it’s not free from threats like mining and illegal logging. A lot of plantations and mining run by residents have penetrated the hill slopes.

"There are even residents who mine tin around the springs, and as a result, the water flow turns muddy during rainy season," Riski (23), head of Bujang Squad (youth community that looks after the landscape of Mangkol hill), reported.

And in July 2022, the directorate general of law enforcement (Gakkum) at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK), arrested a suspect over the encroachment of Mangkol hill forest park.

"The result of the investigation by Gakkum KLHK showed that illegal land clearing in forest area had been carried out by Mr. V alias A at Mangkol hill forest park area," KLHK reported on its official website.

Mang Kalu expressed his hopes that traditional rituals and rules on Mangkol hill can be revived. "In the past, there were many restrictions prior to entering Mangkol hill forest, such as prohibition on acting indecently and on clearing land without the permission of village shamans."

Since the ritual stopped, many people have destroyed the forest area even though it has been designated as a conservation area.

"The absence of village shamans also resulted in a lack of public awareness in protecting Mangkol hill forest," he said.

Disconnected 'riding' forest

Based on a SLHD (regional environmental status) document of Bangka Belitung Islands in 2014, forest area within the province reached 657,380 hectares. Meanwhile, a 2021 IKPLHD document showed that forest area in 2015 was at 235,585.8 hectares—meaning that it was reduced by 421,794.2 hectares in only a year.

The area continues to shrink, until only 197,255.2 hectares are left. This also means that in six years (2014–2020), Bangka Belitung Islands lost 460,000 hectares of forest

The area continues to decrease, until the remaining 197,255.2 hectares. This means that in less than six years [2014-2020], the Bangka Belitung Islands lost 460,000 hectares of forest.

“In general, it’s safe to say that primary forests within Bangka island only remain around hills, aside from the coastal areas where mangrove forest ecosystems dominate,” M. Dedi Susanto, head of Bangka Region XVI Conservation Resort at South Sumatra Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA), revealed.

And that is why many conservation areas in Bangka island are located on hilly areas, including Mount Maras (national park), Mount Mangkol (forest park), Mount Permisan [tourism park), and Mount Menumbing (forest park).

“Meanwhile, many protected forest areas located along the coast of Bangka island, which are dominated by mangrove forest ecosystems," Dedi explained.

Based on information from several shamans in Bangka island, the forest areas outside the hilly areas, which continue to be significantly eroded, are called the “riding forests”.

Janum said that in the past, all areas or villages in Bangka island were connected to a forest area called "riding", which was stretched from the north to the south of Bangka. It had an elongated shape and was about 100 meters wide.

“It was agreed by all village shamans in Bangka that people were only allowed to take resources [and not allowed to turn the area into farms], but they were still obliged to ask for permissions from local shamans. This forest was specifically for other creatures [animals, plants and supernatural beings],” Janum explained.

Village shaman in Bukit Nenek, Makmun, added that the riding forest also functioned as a "connecting route" for other creatures to go to the hills and villages located in Bangka island.

"The riding forest also served as a way for us [humans, animals, supernatural beings] to attend every ritual performed on hills that were considered sacred," he continued.

Currently, the riding forest has been cut off, along with deforestation on Bangka island which only left forests on the hills and coasts (mangrove).

Furthermore, Janum explained that the riding forest was a symbol of bond between communities or tribes living in Bangka Island. And if it is lost or cut off, then the relationship between regions and communities on will also be broken off.

"Therefore, it's only natural that there are currently a lot of conflicts between communities fighting over natural resources because the riding forest and rituals are gradually disappearing. This is proof that we are not grateful for the nature," he concluded.


[The Indonesian version of this article is available on with headline Kisah Para Dukun yang Menjaga Hutan Tersisa di Pulau Bangka]

Tag # bangka belitung islands # bangka island # village shamans # indonesia shaman # indonesia environmental # indonesia environment

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