“It’s a very tough life for us sulphur quarry workers,” Ali said, “I had to stop quarry work at Ijen crater when I was just 35 years old as my back was in bad shape and the pain in my legs was giving me too much trouble.” Ali is now a porter and has given up hauling 90 kgs of sulphur every day, preferring the easier task of 20 kg backpacks. He lives in a small village near Ijen crater, close to the small city of Banyuwangi, East Java.
Ali is from the Osing tribe. There are 400,000 Osing tribal people who live in the Banyuwangi Regency. The Osing have a colourful past and are descendants of the Hindu Blambangan Kingdom. These days however, most of the Osing have converted to Islam but still recognise some of their original heritage, and this is celebrated in traditional ceremonies.
The Osing are very superstitious and in the more traditional villages their belief systems still hold to pre-Islamic traditions, conducting rituals honouring the spirits, deities and black magic. Today, most Osing live a life based on a blend of the three belief systems; Islam, Hindu, and Buddhism. Their adat or traditional law also incorporates animism. They share strong ties with their Balinese neighbours as they were all part of the Blambangan Kingdom.
Known for their warrior spirit and strength, they resisted aggressive attacks from the Demak and Mataram long after the rest of Java succumbed to Islam. The kingdom was finally defeated in 1640, however, 370 years later they still hold onto their strong Hindu belief. The Osing language is a mix of Javanese and Balinese and is still widely spoken today.
I was very fortunate to be invited to an ancient Islamic rite of passage while visiting the Osing people. It was a circumcision ceremony, and my guide told me all Muslim males have to experience this rite and go through circumcision before the age of 11.
When I entered the village, there was a colourful festival already in full swing. There were a series of loud banging of drums combined with traditional Javanese music, boisterous singing and people dressed in creepy costumes who took great delight in scaring the life out of the kids as they chased them along the village roads, thinking they were monsters and evil spirits.
The pervading atmosphere at the ceremony was a happy and joyous affair for the whole community, albeit not for the celebrated boy. On this particular occasion, there was just one boy, six years old, who was to undergo the circumcision. He was treated like a prince and was paraded through the village on a golden chair, accompanied by two princesses (on motorbikes) who were assigned to protect him throughout his special day.
I was eagerly ushered along the procession line and was told I would be an honoured guest. I was spontaneously invited by the family to partake in a slametan, which is a feast of traditional Javanese village food consisting of cones of rice, meat from cows and pigs sacrificed for the occasion, and an assortment of delicious side dishes.
The slametan is taken very seriously, and it is believed this custom appeases the spirits, brings good fortune to the village and protects those that are circumcised, as well as a good excuse for a party! Normally, a village circumcision ritual involves many boys, however, if the family is wealthy and can afford the high cost, the complete ceremony will take place for just one boy, which was the case at this particular ceremony. Lucky for me I was visiting Banguwangi on a full moon, which Ali explained is when circumcision and many other auspicious ceremonies are scheduled.
The Banguwangi area and eastern tip of Java is a region of stunning natural beauty with lush terraced rice fields, towering volcanos, and beautiful beaches to the south. It is the least populated area in Java, an island packed with 145 million people, and it’s worth having a week or so to discover the five National Parks and reserves.
The rich volcanic soils and high rainfall produces a bounty of food, and some of the best coffee in Java is grown in this area. Around the town Kalibaru, there is a huge plantation area where hundreds of workers are involved in the production of rubber, cloves, tobacco, coconuts and sugar cane. Even the famous Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world, can be found around these parts.
It is not difficult to see why the Osing people are so happy living off the land of their ancestors, blending their traditions and mystical beliefs with modern influences. They live in harmony with their Madurese neighbours that have settled in the area as well. The Madurese are mostly involved in the fishing trade and their culture seems to mix in well with the Osing people.
The local government in Banyuwangi is very keen to attract tourists, and there is a calendar of events including regular dances, music performances and traditional cultural festivals. In order to attract more visitors, Blimbingsari Airport, near Banyuwangi, opened in December 2010.
The Osing people honour their ancient cultural ways, living in harmony with their environment. They have an open, generous, hospitable nature and genuinely welcome guests and travellers to experience their culture. It is a lesser-known place to visit in Java, and I would highly recommend it for a wonderful taste of Javanese magic.
David Metcalf runs photography and cultural tours in Bali, Asia, and the USA. David operates the Taksu Photo Gallery in Ubud, Bali. He supports education and health programs in Bali and Kalimantan.