Tue, 09 Nov 1999

Islanders harbor deep respect for Komodo dragon and nature

KOMODO ISLANDS, East Nusa Tenggara (JP): The Komodo dragon was first protected by order of the Sultan of Bima in 1915. But the monitor lizard's remarkable survival in a small patch of eastern Indonesia may owe more to its mystical folklore.

A habitual thief of poultry and goats, and occasionally a human, the massive lizard is hardly the ideal neighbor. But before its "discovery" by Europeans at the beginning of the century, and the rush of hunting and trapping that ensued, there was scant sign that the dragon was bothered by man.

Isaka Mansur, a woodcarver on the island of Komodo, explains why: "We learned to respect the dragon as our equal. To harm it is to offend nature, to harm ourselves. But treat it well and (we will) prosper."

Although raised in Flores, Isaka, who has lived in Komodo for 30 years, is married to a local woman and is deeply attuned to the traditions of his adopted island.

He says: "The dragon princess, Puteri Naga, married a man named Najo and gave birth to twins. One was a baby boy, the other an egg, which hatched a Komodo dragon.

"One was raised in the village, one in the forest; and neither knew anything of the other."

But years later, a man was hunting deer in the forest when a Komodo dragon tried to steal his kill. He stepped forward to kill the thief, but a beautiful woman appeared between them and told him to leave well alone, for the dragon was his sister.

Once a year, Isaka goes to meditate at the grave of Najo, a short climb from his village. There, he says, the Puteri Naga, the Dragon Princess, comes in visions to those who ask her advice. Sometimes she appears as a woman, sometimes as a snake; depending on whether she brings blessings or reproof.

To Isaka, and to generations before him, she has taught the need for balance and mutual respect for nature. And that is why to kill the dragon is a crime, he says.

Isaka carves wonderful dragons from knotty, thorn roots; their scaly hides taking shape under his crude files and blades. As he works, he focuses on a picture of the dragon, his equal.

He believes that the Puteri Naga has nurtured this talent, enabling him to make a livelihood from the steady stream of tourists who come in search of the dragon and often leave with one of his carvings.

Like most of the islanders, Isaka is a devout Muslim; but he has not a moment's difficulty in assimilating this less celebrated belief.

"Of course, Allah made the Puteri Naga, otherwise she could not exist!" he says.

Hilly Djohani-Lapian, the linguist who has collected Isaka's story and others from surrounding islands, thinks it likely that there is a comparable folklore for every isolated coastal village.

Thereby, she says, people possessed of only the simplest technology have positioned themselves in nature, and developed a means of flourishing there.

Isaka's is a lovely tale. It is also an impeccable mandate for conservation.(James Astill)