Lombok: Religion in the public sphere

The island’s Muslims and Balinese Hindus have peacefully coexisted for generations due to their respect for each other’s religious traditions.

Lombok: Religion in the public sphere AFP PHOTO/ KEYZA WIDIATMIKA / NURPHOTO

The Indonesian government officially recognizes six religions: Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. This is represented in many ways including public holidays based on religious considerations. Public holidays based on various important religious ceremonies represent Indonesia’s religious diversity.

This religious heterogeneity is guaranteed by the freedom of religious expression stipulated in Article 29 of the 1945 Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia, which states: “The State guarantees all persons the freedom of worship, each according to his/her own religion or belief.”

This essay focuses on Balinese Hindu religious events, such as the ogoh-ogoh display and Nyepi, in both Bali and Lombok, which are thriving despite the country’s Muslim majority population. Every year adherents put on the ogoh-ogoh display and the next day observe Nyepi, or the Day of Silence, in which Balinese Hindu observe catur brata penyepian, marked by no lights (amati geni), no travelling (amati lelungan), no voices or entertainment (amati lelangunan), and no work (amati karya).

The Balinese migration to Lombok

Sasak Muslims are the indigenous people of Lombok and make up nearly 90 percent of the island’s population of 3.5 million. Balinese Hindus are the largest ethno-religious minority group, at around 7

percent, and the rest, around 3 percent, are migrants from Java and Sumbawa, and minorities such as Bugis, Chinese and Arabs.

A long history of migration has contributed significantly to cultural pluralism as well as acculturation in Lombok. Pluralism is reflected in the sustained diversity of the languages, religious and cultural rituals of each ethnic group. Intense inter- and cross-cultural contacts in pluralistic societies produce mixed cultural traits and similarities. The Balinese influence within Sasak culture, for example, is noticeable in the use of traditional clothing, traditional musical instruments (gamelan) and food and water management in rice cultivation (subak). The Sasak collective influence on the Balinese is reflected in their fluency in Sasak vernacular, but not vice versa. Balinese people speak Sasak when they interact with semeton Sasak. They speak Balinese with their families and when they meet Balinese colleagues. Semeton means brother or sister. Balinese consider the Sasak as close relatives. On the other hand, Sasak Muslims consider Balinese as “batur Bali.” Batur means friend. The terms semeton and batur represent that the two groups have a congenial relationship.

The Balinese have lived in Lombok for more than four centuries. Early migration was marked by the arrival of the Gelgel kingdom and its troops in 1616 and 1624, in an unsuccessful attempt to seize power from the original Lombok ruler, King Selaparang. When the Karangasem kingdom in Bali was ruled by Anak Agung Ngurah Karangasem, he defeated the native kingdom of Selaparang in 1675 and took control of West Lombok and parts of northern and central Lombok, which were held for more than two centuries.

In 1894, the Dutch ended Balinese rule in Lombok through a bloody battle, known as puputan, and became the new rulers on the island. After the defeat, most Balinese remained in Lombok, where they had lived for more than four generations. Some of them controlled fertile agricultural and plantation land that had been presented by the Balinese in West Lombok. During the Karangasem dynasty,

Cakranegara was built up and became the center of royal government and of Balinese Hindu settlements. The eruption of Mount Agung in Bali in 1963 was another reason for Balinese to migrate to Lombok. Some Balinese resettled in the village of Sedayu, in South Kediri, in the Kediri subdistrict of West Lombok.


Among the four religious events celebrated by Balinese Hindus, Nyepi is the biggest celebration, marking the Balinese New Year. During Nyepi, all public activities in Bali are stopped for 24 hours (starting from 6 am until the same time the following day). No one can travel or walk the streets, and no vehicles are allowed on the roads, except in medical or fire emergencies. The atmosphere is completely quiet: all office buildings, for both state and private companies, shop-houses and shopping centers are closed. Lampposts and traffic lights are turned off. Inside homes, everyone must turn off the lights, stay quiet and stay inside unless in an emergency. Pecalang (guardians of the religious day) do surveillance in every neighborhood to make sure that everybody stays at home, without lights and sound. There is no internet connection and even the airport and seaports are closed for the day.

Nyepi provides an opportunity for adherents to contemplate life, creating a spiritual atmosphere for self-reflection, to improve the quality of spiritual life and happiness through fasting and staying at home for a full day without lights, work, travel or entertainment.

Extended religious restrictions

In 2008, when Nyepi fell on the day Muslims conducted Friday prayers, Bali’s provincial government issued handbills establishing rules of conduct, preventing Muslims from using loudspeakers and riding vehicles to the mosque. They were not allowed to amplify the adzan (the call to prayer) and sermons for adherents outside the mosques. Since all vehicles were banned for the day, Muslims had to walk to the mosque.

For those living in a relatively homogeneous environment with Muslims as the majority, and mosques inside their residential complexes, they did not have problems performing Friday prayers together. Muslims who did not have mosques in their neighborhoods were able to travel outside their residential areas to find a mosque – on foot. Sometimes they needed to walk quite a distance to reach the nearest mosque. This showed that the restrictive religious observance of Nyepi extended to minority religions in Bali.

The extended religious rules and restrictions occurred when Nyepi coincided with Takbiran night. Takbir is glorifying Allah’s name by stating “Allahu akbar” (God is great). At night, prior to Idul Fitri, the end of the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims in Bali – especially those living in urban areas – held Takbir around the city by driving trucks carrying dozens of men. They used loudspeakers to echo the Takbir while passing through the city’s main streets. For those living in rural areas such as Pegayaman, Sukasada subdistrict, men walked around the village carrying torches and reciting Takbir. In 1991, however, Takbir was banned because it coincided with Nyepi. On the eve of Idul Fitri, Muslims were not allowed to hold Takbir in public spaces, since it would break the rules of Nyepi.

On the one hand, extended boundaries serve to reinforce the Balinese Hindu identity. On the other, it restricts Muslims’ freedom to practice their faith to the full extent. The tolerance they showed in carrying out all the rules in the Bali government’s handbill seems to be something forced upon them from the outside, rather than genuinely coming from Muslims themselves.

Similarly, Muslim religious restrictions are imposed on Balinese living in Muslim areas in Bali. The Sasak Muslim communities prohibit the Balinese in their neighborhoods from cooking pork, holding cockfights, making and selling tuak (a type of liquor made from the fermented sap of palm trees), and building cemeteries and temples in their residential areas.

In Lombok, it is the majority Sasak Muslims who establish regulations on Nyepi celebrations. For example, during the ogohogoh parade, a ritual part of Nyepi, Balinese Hindus are not permitted to play the gamelan at the same time as the Muslim call to prayers. When prayer time is over, the gamelan can be played again. The Balinese also are banned from selling non-halal dishes or raising pigs in any public spot in Lombok.


Islam is not the only representation of Lombok’s multicultural face. It is also represented by, among other things, the various cultural and religious expressions of the Balinese. The nuances of Bali inside the mosques of Lombok show the mutual tolerance and harmony among the religious groups. Although the Sasak are the dominant religious group in Lombok, they provide and share public space with Balinese Hindus, especially in the ogoh-ogoh ritual procession that is an integral part of Nyepi.

The ogoh-ogoh is a sacred expression of Balinese Hindus in the public sphere. This ritual procession has also become a spectacle that draws public attention across religions, among young and old, male and female. Ogohogoh is not merely a sacred activity within the public space, but also a tourist attraction.

Public spaces become religious spaces through sacred rituals. There is also the marketability of the public space, filling it with religious events that promote tourism, which in turns promotes regional income.

Erni Budiwanti is a senior researcher at the Center of Regional Resources, at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences in Jakarta

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