Tue, 26 Aug 2003

Reviving glorious Buginese past

Andi Hajramurni, The Jakarta Post, Makassar, South Sulawesi

Nurhayati Rahman is dedicated to La Galigo, driven by an unquenchable curiosity she never tires of studying what is believed to be the world's longest manuscript. It is the ancestral legacy of the Buginese in South Sulawesi but is little known to the present generation.

La Galigo, or sureq Galigo as the Buginese community calls it, is the epic tale of the lives and heroism of the people of Bugis. It was originally written in old Buginese, etched into palm leaves.

In several parts of South Sulawesi, the stories of sureq Galigo are still told, particularly among people of Buginese ethnicity. But the storytellers are singers, called Pa' Galigo and hand written texts of Galigo are rare.

This was what prompted Nurhayati Rahman, a lecturer at the School of Letters, Hasanuddin University, Makassar, to study the ancient manuscripts seriously. When she was about to finish her post-graduate study at Padjadjaran University, Bandung, in 1987, she chose an episode from La Galigo as the basis for her final assignment.

"I got a scholarship for the study at Bandung's Padjadjaran University and my department was philology and the study of ancient manuscripts. Several literary experts at Hasanuddin University opposed my choice of the Galigo episode because of its degree of intricacy," said the mother of one child.

The opposition only sparked in her the desire to prove she was capable of the challenge. Nurhayati started to research and locate the ancient texts of La Galigo. She searched in those places mentioned in the narrative, such as Luwu, Wajo, Soppeng, Bone, Barru and Mandar.

"The more I dug, the more my curiosity was provoked. My admiration of the glory and uniqueness of La Galigo only increased," added Nurhayati, born in Bone on Dec. 29, 1957.

Apart from South Sulawesi, Nurhayati visited Malaysia; she also went to Holland and spent a year researching and translating the Galigo texts kept at the Leiden University library. She was also able to access National Archives documents in both Jakarta and Makassar.

The manuscripts housed at Leiden University belonged to Benjamin Fredrik Matthes, a Dutch citizen who in 1848 found La Galigo manuscripts in South Sulawesi. They were hand written by Culli Pujie, the wife of the King of Tanete, now Barru regency.

Comprising of 300,000 verses and written in a 2,859-page book, the works -- later transcribed in the Roman alphabet and translated into Indonesian -- become 12 volumes. But to date only two volumes have been published.

According to Nurhayati, Matthes' sureq Galigo texts only constitute a third of the entire La Galigo composition. Astonishingly, the existing manuscripts alone are twice as long as the Indian epic Mahabharata, prompting international researchers to call La Galigo one of the world's longest works.

To cultural scholars, literary researchers, and observers, sureq Galigo is a beautiful work bearing a significant message. But to the Buginese it the sacred message of their progenitors. It is seen as a holy book with miraculous power and the documentation of true events illustrating a moral attitude. Indeed, La Galigo is so revered that it is never opened on a whim. A ceremony, in which chicken blood is offered, is required to read the text.

Sureq Galigo tells the story of the birth of the land of Bugis. It is said that the universe is composed of three worlds, the gods occupying the upper and lower worlds. One day, the gods of the upper world (sky) and the lower world (sea) decided to send their children to the middle world.

The son of the sky god, Batara Guru was sent on a great streak of lightning. The daughter of the sea god, We Nyiliq Timoq, was sent on high and majestic waves. They were united and married, becoming the first rulers of the Kingdom of Luwu, some 300 kilometers from Makassar. Their offspring have since inhabited the Buginese land.

The origins ofLa Galigo lie in the birth of the couple's twin grandchildren, Sawerigading and We Tenriabeng. Sawerigading fell in love with his twin sister but it was impossible for them to be wed. Finally, Sawerigading left for China to marry his cousin, We Cudai, a Chinese princess resembling We Tenriabeng. Their child was named I La Galigo.

La Galigo also heralds the magnitude of the navigation and expedition skills of the Buginese. The wisdom of their leaders -- in the instigation of noble and democratic values -- is recorded so it may be manifested in daily life.

Sadly, La Galigo is now narrated within limited circles. Even Pa' Galigo, are scarce and it is feared that the epic will one day vanish. Such narrations were once rudimentary to wedding celebrations, harvest festivals and other ceremonies.

Nurhayati seeks the revival of the tradition and its value to the literary world. She held discussions with literary observers in South Sulawesi, in efforts to establish contemporary dialog on the epic's significance. An international seminar was also held on La Galigo in March last year in Barru regency. Consequently, Hasanuddin University set up a center for the study and documentation of Galigo texts.

Nurhayati heads the La Galigo Study Center, under the university's Humanities and Social Division. At present, a policy is being devised to make mandatory the study of La Galigo in the school of letters. It is anticipated that it will be an extra- curricular subject in other schools of the university.

The ambition of Nurhayati and her colleagues to popularize La Galigo -- in Indonesia and internationally -- was so strong that she expressed her wish to make a documentary about La Galigo to Rhoda Grauer from Change Performing Arts and Restu Kusumaningrum from the Bali Purnati Center for the Arts.

The idea to undertake a La Galigo project ensued, in which the epic would be presented through theater, music and dance in various American, European and Asian countries, with Robert Wilson as director. However, after the approval of this project, the researchers of La Galigo were cut out of the picture.

There was growing concern from Nurhayati and her colleagues that the performance of an interpretation of La Galigo -- scripted and dramatized in Bali -- would be shallow and lacking in the nuances that only the Buginese can fully grasp.

"We are pleased to see La Galigo performed in many countries, but we do worry about its accuracy. The true spirit of La Galigo won't show up because they do not understand the epic in its entirety," explained Nurhayati.

Halilintar, a researcher of La Galigo, voiced the same concerns. While regretting the failure of Change Performing Arts and Bali Purnati to involve researchers in their project, he also referred to a "violation of intellectual property rights".

"It's true that La Galigo has no documented authorship, it was born out of the Buginese community, but they sourced their ideas and scripts from researchers at the La Galigo Study Center. Yet we are not acknowledged at all,"he lamented.