Mon, 10 Jan 2000

Carbide cannons put the bang in Idul Fitri

By Edi Petebang and Erma S. Ranik

PONTIANAK, West Kalimantan (JP): Loud explosions rattled hamlets along Kapuas and Landak rivers during the month of Ramadhan. The deafening noise peaked on the eve of Idul Fitri.

Was another communal war raging there? No, the exploding sounds came from traditional meriam karbit (carbide cannons). It is a wooden cannon filled with carbide and it produces a loud bang when fire is tossed into a small hole at the lower end.

Carbide cannon is popular among the Malay in Pontianak and has become a huge attraction for visitors during Ramadhan.

Folk tales have it that the tradition began during the reign of Syarif Abdurrahman who founded Pontianak in 1771. The sultan fired a real iron cannon called Si Timboel when he inaugurated Pontianak.

The loud bangs were intended to scare off evil spirits from the forests around Pontianak so that they would not disturb the people. The kingdom fired Si Timboel to tell Muslims to break the fast at sunset and have their meal at dawn. The cannon lies idle now but the ritual evolved into tradition.

People along Kapuas and Landak rivers have continued the tradition, building cannons from wood to lift up their spirits in the Ramadhan month.

"I have played with meriam karbit since I was a child. We usually compete with people in Saigon village across the river," said Abdullah, 45, a resident of Mendaway hamlet along Kapuas river.

A wooden carbide cannon costs about Rp 500,000 to build, which is obviously too costly for the average resident. Therefore people usually collaborate to share the financial burden. Money is collected on a voluntary basis from residents, both Muslim and non-Muslim.

"Yes it is expensive but we all agree that the tradition should be preserved," said Achmad, a wooden cannonmaker in Kapuas.

The materials needed to make a cannon consist of a log, rattan, nails and carbide.

The log, with a diameter of about 50 centimeters, is split into two with a saw. Each half is grooved and a small hole is bored near the lower end, through which a burning stick is entered to light the carbide and produce the bang. Then both halves are put back together and tied with rattan string so that they do not fall apart.

Cannons can also be made of iron, but wooden logs are commonly used because wooden cannons produce the loudest bang.

The economic crisis apparently has not affected the carbide cannon business. Countless cannons can be found in hamlets along the Kapuas. Last Idul Fitri eve was enlivened with big bangs of about 500 cannons in the area.

Some people fired old cannons they used in past Idul Fitri.

According to a regulation issued by the local government, the firing of carbide cannons is permitted two days prior to and three days after Idul Fitri. But the restriction has gone unheeded.

Not all people love the deafening sound of carbide cannons.

"In fact I hate it but it's OK because the festivity takes place only once a year," said Ameng, a local Chinese who lives in Kapuas.

In 1995, Pontianak Police chief Lt. Col. J. Soewarto banned the cannons on the grounds that they disturb the peace and violate the 1951 Emergency Law. Twelve cannons were destroyed in a police operation.

The harsh action angered Malays in Pontianak, who condemned it as "arrogant".

"The use of the Emergency Law is inappropriate because it is outdated," said Rousdy, a Malay community leader.

Then Malay community leaders established a forum which aimed at preserving the long-held tradition.

Now the provincial government sponsors carbide cannon competitions every year to attract tourists.