This romantic image is actually a disaster area: Kampung Apung Teko, one of Jakarta’s many villages, has become more and more flooded until it gained a new reputation as Jakarta’s only floating village. A more than questionable feat. Until the 1990s, the three-hectare village was a community adjacent to rice fields. Now it is accessible only through foot bridges. The population was down to 200 households around 2010.
This is the traditional festive head gear worn by Bajau women. The Bajau, a formerly nomadic people now mostly home to Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, live by and from the sea and have recently gained recognition for a genetic trait that allows them to dive deeper and for longer time stretches than any other ethnic group. They are often referred to as Sea People and this traditional head gear seems to symbolize this. I could not find any interpretation of the shape, but they appear to me like ships or tail fins of sea mammals or mermaids – or all three.
The Orang Laut, who mainly settle in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, the Moken in Thailand, and the Sama-Bajau who mainly live in East-Malaysia and the Philippines are ethnic groups that have a seaborne or amphibian lifestyle and culture.
The Malayan name Orang Laut literally translates as Sea People. The Moken are also called chao nam in Thai, meaning “people of the water”. Both the Moken and the Bajau are nomadic societies, moving between islands along various coasts, some families even spending long periods of the year living on their boats. The largest group, the Bajau, are said to exist for over 1.000 years. I did not know that there were nomadic sea faring societies like that at all. Apparently several Bajau myths exist that explain how and why they first adopted their nomadic lifestyle.
This picture of a “typical” settlement of Bajau in the Philippines I find particularly striking for the isolation of the individual buildings and the lack of any visible land close by:
Traditionally these societies lived from fishing but there are anthropological indications that at least the Bajau were once an agricultural society. Their traditional lifestyles center around fishing and harvesting sea plants and the often nomadic lifestyle make them very vulnerable to environmental damage, economic and political exploitation and oppression. Many of them have meanwhile settled on land and further off the sea coast for better employment opportunities.
Two other links are noteworthy here:
In the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, the Moken people who lived around the Surin Islands of Thailand were able to predict the events quite accurately which allowed them to warn and protect the island population. However in other places, Moken suffered severe devastation to housing and fishing boats by the tsunami. (see related scientific report on indigenous knowledge and disaster here.)
These ethnic groups are probably the inspiration to many myths about sea people in the region. As biological studies have recently revealed, the Moken and Bajau show genetic traits that allow better under water vision and a significantly greater ability to dive and hold their breath. These sea people are probably the closest humanity gets to mythical figures like “aqua men”, “frog men” or “mermaids”. (See for example the Filippino movie “Beyond Atlantis” from 1973.)
The flood protection system that was installed in 2021 to protect Venice from rising sea level effects is named MOSE (for Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico). The name was chosen to allude to the story of Moses dividing the Red Sea to save the judaic tribe in the Jewish and Christian Old Testament. The plans for MOSE were already introduced in the 1980s but it’s completion took amlmost 40 years.
In the same manner the sea wall that is currently in planning for Jakarta is named – and shaped – after an ancient myth: The giant bird Garuda.
Both projects show, that the municipalities believed in the role of cultural history in the political communication of climata adaptation measures.
In the 46 sqkm city of Pekalongan, there are dozens of neighbourhoods under threat of becoming one with the sea, with saltwater encroaching inland for up to 1.5km. At the heart of the problem is Pekalongan’s overreliance on groundwater, which is not only extracted for domestic use but also to irrigate fish farms and rice fields.
The over-extraction of groundwater has caused the city to sink at a rate of between 10cm to 15cm per year. In some areas, the land subsidence has been as severe as 26cm per year.
Meanwhile, climate change has brought more extreme rainfall, stronger winds, higher waves and rising sea levels. Scientists have warned that if nothing is done to stop the widespread land subsidence and encroachment of the sea, the entire city could be underwater by 2036.
Thanks to IVAA for the lead!
“At the beginning of time, the surface of the Earth was primeval ocean where this great serpent swam or lay. The daughter of the highest deity (who dwelt in the heavens and had birds as servants) came down from the upper realm and spread a handful of earth to form the world. The serpent, however, disliked the weight upon his head, and, turning over, caused this newly made world to be engulfed by the sea.”
A folktale from Indonesia.
from: Dixon, R. B. Oceanic Mythology, Cooper Square Publishers, New York. (1916)
While Jakarta has serious evacuation plans, there are apparently also plans to build a new and unique sea wall. Quote from an article from 2016:
“The National Capital Integrated Coastal Development consortium will build a new set of barrier islands and a sea wall that will guard the city from waves and storm surges. The extensive project will take the shape of the Garuda, a mythical bird and symbol of Indonesia. While construction is already under way (the first pile was planted in October 2014), KuiperCompagnons, the Dutch firm behind much of the design, estimates that the project will take 30 to 40 years to complete.”
And this is Garuda:
Quote from wikipedia:
“Garuda is described as the king of the birds and a kite-like figure. He is shown either in a zoomorphic form (a giant bird with partially open wings) or an anthropomorphic form (a man with wings and some ornithic features). Garuda is generally portrayed as a protector with the power to swiftly travel anywhere, ever vigilant and an enemy of every serpent. Garuda is a part of state insignia of India, Indonesia and Thailand. The Indonesian official coat of arms is centered on the Garuda and the national emblem of Indonesia is called Garuda Pancasila.”
Thanks to Johanna Fischer for the lead!
Manimekhala is a budddhist goddess regarded in Southeast Asia as guardian of the Seas.
Pak Permadi, an Indonesian expert for paranormal
events from Java made the following statement at a seminar at Jogjakarta University in 1995: »If people are not happy with their treatment by those in power but cannot defend themselves, their anger, which expresses itself as energy, is taken up by nature. If nature is angry, disasters such as a volcanic eruption occur because nature is not afraid of human rulers.«
In this oppinion, an animated nature or deity does not cause disasters directly and intentionally to comment, punish or influence human vices, but rather nature is the transmitor of a human justice. Interestingly enough, this view resonates with current climate change discourse, wherein it is human behaviour that has cuased nature to react in disastrous ways.
See: Hans-Rudolf Meier, The Cultural Heritage of the Natural Disaster: Learning Processes and Projections from the Deluge to the »Live« Disaster on TV (2007) and Judith Schlehe, Cultural Politics of Natural Disasters in Indonesia (2008)
The legends around the mermaid goddess Kidul – also Ratu Kidul – are mostly linked to the 16th century Javanese Mataram Sultanate. However, anthropological studies suggest that the myth of the Queen of Java’s Southern Seas probably originated from older prehistoric animistic beliefs in the pre-Hindu-Buddhist female deity of the southern ocean. The fierce waves of the Indian Ocean on southern Java’s coasts, its storms and sometimes tsunamis, probably had raised in the locals awe and fear of natural power, and locals attributed it to the spiritual realm of deities and demons that inhabit the southern seas ruled by their queen, a female deity, later identified as “Queen Kidul”. (from wikipedia)