On a small island in Indonesia’s south, Samantha Kodila spends Easter celebrating Semana Santa, a religious festival that goes against cultural norms and, above all, offers hope.
A hymn resounds beneath a blanket of darkness. Far away, a deep, monotonous chant accompanies the gentle rumble of footfalls. A sea of candles burns like stars, and the night air, thick with humidity, is charged with an intensity that touches your soul. I feel as though I’m walking through the fabric of a living, breathing cosmos.
On either side of the street, eyes peer through bamboo fences while thousands of people make their way from the towering cathedral on a pilgrimage through the town. In among the masses a palanquin, draped in black velvet with gold trimming, is supported by lakademu (sinners) cloaked in robes of flowing white, their faces masked by pointed scarlet hoods. At its centre is an onyx coffin with the mortal remains of Jesus Christ. Further behind, the statue of Reinha Rosari – Mother Mary – follows, her face solemn. The silver adorning her garments catches in the candlelight as she accompanies her Son to His final resting place.
The hymn and chanting swell, rising as one, and I close my eyes as I feel its power urging me forward. I’ve never seen, nor been a part of, anything like it in my life.
In fact, few have. I’m witnessing the Good Friday procession of Semana Santa, a Catholic festival held in the small beachside port of Larantuka, on the island of Flores. This Holy Week is a unique event in modern-day Indonesia. Every Easter, pilgrims flock from across the country, and as far away as Timor and Portugal, to share their intentions for the year and participate in the holy processions. It is a moving event, but relatively unknown outside of Larantuka.
The history of Semana Santa is somewhat murky. Written records are few, and intimate knowledge of the sacred event is passed down from generation to generation among the clans of Larantuka. My guides, Hans and Raphael, despite being locals and participating in the festival each year, have had to dig to uncover the facts. Even so, I find the story changes slightly depending on who I talk to. When we piece the common components together, it weaves a fascinating tale.
Hundreds of years ago, before the arrival of Western invaders, the people of Larantuka were animists, worshipping stones, caves, animals and even words, believing they possessed a spiritual essence that allowed them to become alive. But one fateful day in 1510, locals stumbled upon a statue that had washed up on the beach. Mother Mary, draped in bold blue robes, lay peacefully on the shore, the words ‘Reinha Rosari’ inscribed in the sand beside her. When Portuguese traders landed in Larantuka shortly afterwards, they introduced Catholicism to the local people. This was followed by the first celebration of Semana Santa, thought to have been in 1599, before being held each year from 1736.
Since then Holy Week begins on Trewa Wednesday, with various periods of lamentation and mourning held until Easter Sunday. The Good Friday procession is a 2.3-kilometre procession that begins at Cathedral Reinha Rosari Larantuka and makes its way through the town, pausing at eight armidas (stopping places) for observance, which represent each phase of Jesus’ life.
Today, the Catholic faith is observed by just two per cent of Indonesia’s 250 million-strong population – nearly 90 per cent are practising Muslims. It’s little wonder this event has remained somewhat of a secret from greater Indonesia and the world.
During the evening of White Thursday, worshippers dressed in black await their turn to visit Tuan Ana, the chapel where the coffin of Jesus Christ is kept, and Tuan Ma, the chapel of Mother Mary. For the first time in a year, the coffin and the statue of Mother Mary are washed and dressed by the elected clan and revealed in their respective houses of worship. The excitement is palpable and queues to enter each sanctum spill down the front steps and into the street.
“When people kiss the coffin or the robe of Madonna [Mother Mary], they mention their special intention,” explains Hans as we stand outside, observing the crowds. “They express their gratitude and ask for the blessing of God for the coming year.”
Inside, barefoot pilgrims kneel, each praying and offering their promises to the deities for the year to come. At Tuan Ma, I get a glimpse of Mother Mary through an open stained-glass window. Her cobalt robes cascade in waves around her as people pray at her feet, but from where I stand I can’t see her face. Maybe there’s a higher reason that this is my view; I am a voyeur here, after all.
Good Friday, the most anticipated day of Semana Santa, brings sweltering heat and a sky of periwinkle blue – perfect conditions for a ceremonial day of sailing from Kota village to Kuce Beach. Outside Tuan Meninu Chapel, just off the shores of Adonara Lake, the lilting tones of a choir ring out from within to the beat of the lapping waves. Throngs of people line the pathway from the holy entrance to the water. Here, layers of colourful boats await to accompany the body of Jesus, which will be brought down from the chapel to a traditional black sampan (flat-bottomed wooden boat) for the three-kilometre procession across the lake.
“Does anyone actually know what’s inside?” I ask Raphael, a little timidly. A wry smile sneaks across his face.
“We don’t know what’s in the coffin; we must trust it exists,” he replies quietly. He leans in a little closer and, softer still, says, “It’s taboo to talk about.”
I’m terrible. I can’t help myself: “But what if there’s nothing inside?”
“It’s faith,” he shrugs. “In the Bible it says, ‘Blessed are those who have never seen, but believe.’”
The ceremony is long and hot. A bead of sweat trickles down the side of my face and I feel a deep admiration for the people who stand out here in the name of worship as I look to the water longingly. More boats of all shapes and sizes continue to appear, each one a pop of colour in a sea of blue and carting as many people as can be squeezed onto their decks.
Finally, the ceremony moves from the chapel to the water. A cross-bearer leads the way, followed by priests who flank either side of the coffin. The choir swells and, in the excitement, the crowd converges, and I realise I am in the thick of the action too late. Bodies press in on me from all sides as people try to catch a glimpse of His coffin being placed into the holy sampan.
One moment the coffin is there, the next it is safely sailing out across the water, the flotilla following close behind. People run to the water’s edge, chattering and cheering as they keep pace with the celebration taking place on the lake. In a race to see them arrive on the other side, we hop into a van and speed to Kuce Beach.
A crowd already lines the fringes of the lake when we arrive. Determined to get a good view, I scramble to the top of a concrete pillar offering a clear picture of the lake. Lush green mountains erupt from the water out on the horizon and creampuff clouds float along as though Heaven itself has come to witness its Son’s arrival. I feel the light, blissful caress of a breeze on my skin. Moments pass.
My position does not disappoint. In the distance, the sampan appears as a glimmering black and gold speck. A jumble of vessels follows, until the lake is flooded with boats, the holy entourage to bring Jesus home. I lower my camera a moment to simply enjoy it, reveling in the sight and cheers of people around me.
Once the coffin is brought to the shore, pilgrims jump into the water, bottles in hand, and make for the vessel. It is believed the water inside, having touched the coffin, is now blessed, and by drinking it they will imbibe its healing properties.
As I squeeze through the crush and walk back towards the centre of town in desperate need of shade, water and maybe a nap, there’s a sense of anticipation and excitement in the air. The Good Friday procession is tonight.
And it is truly breathtaking. Here, the night aglow with candlelight, I walk among more than 7000 pilgrims. Women cradle babes to their chests. Fathers walk beside sons, and mothers beside daughters. Small children hold candles in their hands, soft smiles playing upon their lips. A woman cries, a single tear slipping down her cheek. I glimpse Mother Mary once more – this time, I see her face, illuminated by candles and surrounded by adoring and devoted worshipers. Her expression is solemn yet, somehow, full of courage as she mourns her Son on this journey.
Suddenly the crowd comes to a stop, as do the hymns and the chanting. A woman dressed as Mother Mary stands at the front of an armida clutching a painting of Jesus Christ. Pilgrims look to her, still as stone, the silence absolute. Then her song soars into the night. It’s full of sorrow yet hauntingly beautiful. She sings in Latin and I can’t understand a word, but of all the emotions running rampant through me, I feel a deep sense of hope.
AirAsia flies to Denpasar from Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Goast, Darwin and Perth. From there Sriwijaya Air has onward flights to Larantuka. airasia.com.au sriwijayaair.co.id
It’s advisable to book your stay in advance, as accommodation in Larantuka is in short supply during the festival. Asa Hotel and Restaurant, a beachfront resort, has 25 self-contained bungalows and a unique ship room with private terrace right on the water. Located in the eastern part of Larantuka, it’s just a short ride from the Semana Santa festivities. Bungalows start from about US$28 a night. asahotel-larantuka.com
Semana Santa takes place over the Easter long weekend each year (usually March or April). For more information on the festival and travel in Indonesia, visit the country’s official website. indonesia.travel
The festival is conducted exclusively in Indonesian and Latin, so the best way to experience and understand its various processions is with a local guide like Hans and Raphael. florestourism.com