When news of COVID-19 first came to Tumbang Habangoi—my hometown, a village in Central Borneo, Indonesia—we had never experienced anything like this before: a disease that could kill thousands, even millions, of people around the world. As villagers, we had no idea what kind of disease it was or how to stop it from coming to our village. We could not do our work as usual, we could not gather in crowds, we could not travel anywhere without fear. Our children’s schools even closed for months; they did not get to experience their graduations. Everything had suddenly changed, and we did not know how to fight this unseen enemy, which could come to our safe place anytime. Some of the villagers even considered running to the mountains and hiding in the caves, or somewhere in the forest, until this pandemic is totally over.
One night, the villagers of Tumbang Habangoi gathered in the village meeting hall to attend a ritual that had not been held for years. I currently live south of the village in Palangka Raya, the capital of Central Kalimantan Province, but my grandmother told me all about it. The ceremony is called Nulak Lating—which literally means to “float a boat,” or to wash away a raft in the river. Its goal was to wash away the spirit of disease from our village. This ritual has historically only been held in very critical situations, and our elders felt it was now appropriate.
As part of Nulak Lating, an elder told a story, or kolimoy, in Dohoi language. In the tale, a man who had died was brought back to life. Just as this man was made safe from harm, the elder prayed that our villagers would also be safe from any disease or peril.
A raft made from a tobuluh tree (Litsea angulata) [Ed.: a plant species belonging to the Lauraceae family and found throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, and New Guinea] that had never borne fruit was placed in the middle of the hall. On top of it, the villagers placed rice dough that had been shaped like human forms to represent our villagers. Every family made as many rice dough people as their family had members. On the raft alongside their dough figurines, they placed clothes (or thread from their clothes), together with beads and other offerings, such as cooked glutinous rice (sticky), cooked rice (the kind we eat every day), chicken offal, cigarettes, and a plate filled with uncooked grains of rice. Everyone added a bit of money as an offering for the storyteller, as well as a bracelet made of beads to protect the elder’s soul from the evil spirit or the disease itself.
At the end of the Nulak Lating, the villagers took the raft down to the river. Before they set it afloat, the storyteller took the plate filled with rice from the raft. The villagers uttered their prayer, hoping to cast away all disease, peril, and bad luck. They then spat onto the raft and pushed it into the middle of the river, where the flow carried it off to sea, alongside the spirit of disease.
Afterwards, when everyone went back to the hall, the storyteller looked upon the grains of rice on the plate and carefully checked to see if they had changed color or shape. If the grains were broken, or if there were some lines or white color on it, then the ritual would be considered a success and the disease would not harm the villagers.
When this pandemic is finally over, if there are no infected villagers, the community will all have a big celebration. They will prepare a feast with some delicious meat, and everyone will eat together once again.
Read more by this author. In “My Extinction Rebellion Through Education: A Young Dohoi Woman’s Message” (Langscape Magazine, 2020), Lina Karolin describes her journey of becoming a volunteer teacher in the Uut Danum Youth Community in Palangka Raya, where she now lives, works, and teaches. Lina dreams of someday building a library and training center in her village.
You might also enjoy “Ita | A Special Food for a Special Time in an Indonesian Community” by the same author (Medium, 2019).