AsiaViews, Edition: 32/VII/November2010
In the Regency of Bulukumba-a district in South Sulawesi province-live the Panrita Lopi or punggawa, otherwise known as the traditional pinisi boat builders. Bulukumba, in fact, has produced many punggawa who are now based throughout the archipelago. A Pinisi Festival was recently held at Bukukumba on October 22 to 25. Sadly, it was an event that seemed only to borrow the word pinisi. The real pinisi experts remained in their villages, unaware of this event taking place. To these guardians of an age-old tradition, everyday life is filled doing what they do best-building the most noble boats in Indonesia. A Tempo English Edition special report from Bulukumba.
A BRIGHT sky with a cool breeze and a slightly fishy odor welcomed us in the coastal zone of Bonto Bahari district, Bulukumba regency, on Sunday two weeks ago. The noisy sound of chainsaws and woodworking machines overwhelmed the dashing waves. Dozens of boat frames could be found beside the houses of most residents. Several boats even soared higher than the buildings in sizes four times as large or more.
A number of men were busily handling timbers. Unlike the people in other coastal areas, generally they are not working as fishermen.
Around 200 kilometers from Makassar, this location is known as a boat building zone. Various kinds of the maritime vehicle are created here, from miniature boats to vessels hundreds of tons in capacity. Bulukumba regency is indeed recognized as the "motherland" of boat builders. In the local language they are called panrita lopi or punggawa. Hundreds of punggawa have been born here and spread over the country.
"Most of my community members are boat builders by profession," said Andi Mattalatta, 55, head of Bonto Bahari district. The district with the pinisi boat logo has a population of about 25,000. Bonto Bahari is composed of four villages and four subdistricts. Four of the eight areas are famous for their boat building centers. They are Ara village, Tana Beru, Bira and Tana Lemo.
Four people from the centers have emerged as successful businessmen. They are Damang, 65, from Tana Beru, Abdullah Hasan, 49, from Tana Lemo, Baso Sanusi from Bira and Ahmad Nur from Sappolohe village, both aged around 50.
Their business turnovers reach billions of rupiah, with domestic and overseas orders for boats. The four were originally ordinary boat builders. Damang started the business in 1972 and Abdullah joined the venture in 1992.
The source of the boat builders is actually Ara village. Located at the foot of a barren limestone hill facing Bone Bay, the village has packed settlements on contoured land. Hardly any boats can be found there. But a lot of punggawa have originated in this place and spread out of Sulawesi. Every man of Ara descent seems born to be a skilled boat maker.
Legend has it that the boat building skill of Ara people first developed when the vessel boarded by Sawerigading broke into pieces at the tip of Bira Strait. At the time Sawerigading was sailing from the land of Luwu to return to China, where his father-in-law ruled. Fragments of the boat were gathered by the Ara community, inspiring boat making. This capability was then handed down through generations up to the present by natural means, without education, modern science and technology.
Abdul Hakim Daeng Paca, 72, an Ara community figure, described the historical and cultural proximity of Ara ethnics to Makassar ethnics since the 17th century. But owing to environmental and geographic fectors, they have finally been more influenced by Bugis culture.
The type of boats they first built was called Perahu Padewakang, used by the Makassar ethnic group. Later Ara people built another kind of boats with almost the same shape, named Perahu Pinisi. Around the 1870s, the original prototype of pinisi was created, with two masts and seven sails.
The wood for pinisi is not just any wood. According to Hakim, large vessels require wood from at least 50-year-old trees. Smaller boats are enough to get it from 25-year-old ones. Ironwood, bitti, punaga, and kandole are some of the species of wood for pinisi.
Today the age of boat builders is relatively younger to achieve. Arman, 35, an Ara community member, for instance, has held the punggawa title for 16 years. Though not finishing primary school, his boat building skill is never to be doubted. He is among the reliable personnel of Abdullah. Arman claimed he could no longer recall the number of boats he had made.
He has traveled to various regions like Sinjai, Bone, Balikpapan, Samarinda, as far as Malaysia to build boats. When visited, Arman said he had just been asked to return from Balikpapan to head a 350-ton pinisi project ordered by Jakarta.
Arman began his career as a cook for punggawa. It was when he had just dropped out as a fourth grader. A year later he was promoted as a wood driller, lasting for five years. His boat making skill kept improving until he was finally entrusted with the job as a punggawa at 19.
Like father, like son, is the right proverb for Arman. His Ara blood flows from his father, Daeng Baji, 75. To date, Daeng Baji has still continued to undertake boat projects in Sinjai. "But I don't want to follow and learn from dad. He's stern," said Arman frankly.
These boat builders are capable of converting timbers into magnificent means of transport only by utilizing simple tools such as axes, saws, bingkung, chisels, drills, wooden hammers, baar, pit saws, singkolo, planes, daggers, clamps and wooden sledge hammers. Now they are even equipped with more modern devices like chainsaws, electric drills and wooden sole machines.
At present 637 families inhabit Ara village. "Some 80 percent of boat makers are skilled in sailing boats," said Mulyadi Salam, 45, head of Ara village. Entering the west monsoon or the months from November to March, Ara is generally more crowded. Seafarers choose to take a rest in the village due to strong wind conditions, preventing them from sailing. They are waiting for the east season from April to October.
The income of boat builders is relatively equal to construction workers' pay: around Rp50,000 daily for beginners. They are subordinate to punggawa. As their skill is enhanced, their earnings will increase.
Punggawa's income is not fixed as they follow the contract system. For example, for Abdullah, a pinisi boat with a capacity of 350 tons, built from April to December by 12 workers, costs about Rp200 million. "It depends on consensus, if agreed, we go ahead," said Abdullah.
The welfare of boat makers is relatively higher than the other coastal people. In Ara the houses of villagers are very fit for living -made of wood and bricks. But the limited land often makes the settlements jam-packed together.
Generally punggawa belong to the middle income group. They have used good quality furniture like sofas worth about Rp5 million per set, TV and parabolic antennas. Most boat builders' families also have motorcycles and cellphones as townspeople normally do.
Fast and elegant
PINISI boats are Indonesia's largest sailboats since Java's junks in the 17th century. So far, Pinisi boats have always been linked with the Bugis people, while the boats in fact are the outcome of a long evolution in Indonesia's shipping world. Some Pinisi boats have imitated Europe's schooners in mid-19th century.
From 1930 to 1970, hundreds of Pinisi boats of various classes had a major role in the Indonesian economy for bridging islands in the country. According to Abdul Hakim Daeng Paca, after the 1970s, the number of classic Pinisi boats was declining. In the 1980s, about 75 percent of Pinisi boats already used engines.
Nonetheless, in the 1990s he claimed he could still find Pinisi without engines in Ara and Batu Licin, Kalimantan. Today Pinisi boats come in sizes of 120-200 tons on average. On top decks, small cabins are built as Indonesian traditional boats used to have.
Pinisi boats should indeed be taken into account in the world shipping system. Though relying only on sails, they were the fastest boats in their times. To quote Abdul Hakim, "pinisi means fast and elegant."
Ara village head Mulyadi Salam recalled his experience. In 1983, he joined a voyage from Ara to Sumbawa aboard an engineless Pinisi boat. Said Mulyadi, "We arrived only in three days and nights."
Tempo No. 11/XI/10-16 November 2010 photo: Fahmi Ali