Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Earthquake damage in Padang, West Sumatra (Photo by Gaura Mancacaritadipura)

Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Wake of Natural Disaster in Indonesia

The location of Indonesia is at the junction of the Australian, Eurasian, and Pacific tectonic plates. and Positioned on the ‘ring of fire’ with many active volcanoes as well as its high annual rainfall, Indonesia susceptible to natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, flooding, landslides, and mudslides.

In the event of natural disasters, naturally the first preoccupations are the saving of life and property, and post disaster reconstruction. Less publicized however, is the damage caused by natural disasters to both tangible and intangible cultural heritage. I would like to therefore present examples of how cultural heritage has been safeguarded in the wake of such natural disasters. Relevance of local genius in anticipating and responding to natural disasters is also of great interest.

The Aceh Tsunami of 26 December 2004, claimed as many as 226,000 lives, left 500,000 homeless and caused inestimable damage to property. The disaster resulted in the loss of much of Aceh’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage. The office for the Safeguarding of History and Traditional Values (BPSNT) in Banda Aceh, for example, was devastated and lost most of its inventory records of the cultural heritage of Aceh as well as several its staff members who lost their lives. Thousands of expert practitioners of the Aceh culture perished.

In response, the government of Aceh Province has, among other things, constructed a park with traditional houses from each of the districts of Aceh to display and promote culture and hold regular and annual cultural festivals to stimulate living cultural heritage. To commemorate the events of the tsunami, museums have been constructed at the site. BPSNT has begun to re-inventory the intangible cultural heritage of Aceh and the UNESCO Jakarta office has collaborated with Indonesian authorities to effectively use the performing arts center of Aceh for post-trauma rehabilitation of the people of Aceh, especially children, who had lost family in the disaster. The saman dance of Aceh has been nominated for inscription on the UNESCO List of ICH in Need of Urgent Safeguarding for 2011.

The earthquake of 22 May 2006 in Yogyakarta cost thousands of lives and considerable damage to property. The 8th Century Prambanan Temple, a World Heritage site, was severely damaged and needs extensive repair. Imogiri in the Bantul District, Yogyakarta, was an area which suffered extensive damage in addition to many expert craftspersons of hand-drawn batik losing their lives, while others lost their homes and livelihoods. An Indonesian NGO, Sekar Jagad, and other parties came in and helped the surviving craftspeople to provide temporary shelter, workplaces, and materials to begin, once again their traditional batik craft. Sekar Jagad set up a Batik Museum in Imogiri which is an inspiration to residents and visitors.

The city of Padang, capital of west Sumatra Province, suffered extensive damages and loss of life in the earthquake of 2 October 2009. Officials (researchers) from the Centre for Research and Development of Culture of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism were on hand to investigate the damages done to cultural heritage and to see what measures could be taken to safeguard this heritage after such a tragedy. Local and overseas organizations (including from Korea) were busy in the relief operations as well.

Research conducted in the above-mentioned cities of Yogyakarta and Padang indicated relevance of local wisdom for anticipating and responding to natural disasters. Traditional buildings constructed with wooden frames and joints were shown in both places to have withstood the earthquakes far better than rigid buildings made of modern materials such as concrete blocks. In addition to modern seismic methods of detection, traditional wisdom has shown relevant in giving predictions and warnings of upcoming disasters. Local beliefs have helped people come to terms with what happened and to resume their lives after the unfortunate disasters. The Heritage Society in collaboration with UNESCO Jakarta published a guidebook on how to repair and reconstruct traditional buildings damaged in the Yogyakarta earthquake.

The devastating eruption of the Merapi volcano which began on 28 October 2010 has displaced practitioners of intangible cultural heritage of the area surrounding the mountain. One great maestro of the knowledge of nature and traditions who resided in the surrounding area of the volcano, lost his life at 5am that morning while bowing in prayer to Mbah Marijan, the elderly and much respected ‘gatekeeper’ of the volcano. One of the duties of Mbah Marijan’s is to make thrice annual traditional offerings to the Merapi volcano (labuh) on behalf of Sri Sultan Hamenkubuwono X. In addition to rehabilitating those displaced by this disaster, the government of Yogyakarta in collaboration with the central government, are also taking measures to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage of the surrounding area, which has been displaced and disrupted by the disaster.

In conclusion, actions to safeguard tangible and intangible cultural heritage might include:

  • Taking note of local genius which might help to anticipate natural disasters, minimize the damage they cause, and to rehabilitate in the aftermath.
  • Identifying practitioners of intangible cultural heritage displaced by disasters, and assisting them to get back on their feet and continue to make a livelihood by practicing their particular handicrafts or performing arts, and transmitting their heritage to the younger generations.
  • Repair and safeguarding of museums, libraries, galleries, traditional schools and other repositories of cultural heritage which might have been damaged.
  • Involvement in arts and cultural activities can be used to ease post-disaster trauma, particularly for those who have lost family members.

Given the geophysical situation of Indonesia mentioned above, and the fact that natural disasters are difficult to predict, safeguarding cultural heritage in the wake of natural disasters is a necessary ongoing task to practice well into the future.