How Sea Worms Play Cupid at Lombok’s Bau Nayale Festival
Every year the Sasak people gather to catch sea worms in a tradition unique to Lombok. But tourism development projects encroach on the territory.
Lombok Island in Indonesia is a peaceful and relaxing place. Although it’s labeled “the island next to Bali“, it only sees a handful of tourists and a fraction of the development compared to its big sister. Lombok‘s south coast is particularly calm, with wide stretches of white sand beaches and clear blue water rolling beneath swaying palm trees. By all accounts, this is the dictionary definition of “tropical paradise.”
But the night of Bau Nyala, everything changes. In the darkness, early in the morning, thousands of people descend on Seger Beach and the surrounding coves. They come armed with torches, buckets and nets, eagerly awaiting a phenomenon rooted in ancient folklore. These are the Sasak people, the indigenous tribe of Lombok.
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I met Pak Adi the day before the main event. He owns a local warung (restaurant) on the sands of Seger Beach and his knowledge of Bau Nyale is second to none. Standing proudly on the empty stretch of sand, he told me about the party.
The local tale Sasak tells that once upon a time in the kingdom of Tonjang Beru, there lived a beautiful and kind princess named Mandalika. Suitors from all over the country were in love with her, traveling from far and wide to try her luck at marriage. The fierce competition caused tension and bitterness among the suitors, so the king asked them to fight – the winner could marry his daughter.
Princess Mandalika refused to see people fight for her. Desperate to find a solution, she invited all her suitors to Seger Beach just before dawn. She went up to Seger Hill and addressed everyone, saying that she would accept every marriage proposal from her suitors. On that dramatic note, she threw herself off the hill and into the crashing waves below. When people went looking for it, all they could find were sea worms. Her body was never found and it is believed that she reincarnated into these sea worms. Her suitors and everyone in the land each had their share of worms and peace was restored once again.
The princess appears once a year for her suitors to see, every 20th of the 10th month of the Sasak calendar, around February and March. On these dates, thousands of marine worms appear in the waters off the south coast of Lombok. Young and old frantically wade into the sea to collect worms, the sky filled with exhilarated cries and howls as the waves reveal their wriggling, multicolored treasure.
“To this day, this story has been passed down from generation to generation. I’ve been coming every year since, I can’t remember! Pak Adi burst out laughing. “I’ve been coming here for decades. My ancestors always came here.
These verses are delicious
Bau Nyale, or “catching sea worms”, is an important event for the Sasak. Worms are synonymous with prosperity and fertility, with farmers often using worms as fertilizer for their crops in hopes of a full harvest.
Eating the worms is also believed to bring good fortune. They can be eaten raw and yes, if you’re wondering, I tried one. The worms almost dissolve in your hand if you’re not careful and in the mouth they have a somewhat pasty texture. The initial taste is a bit bland, with an earthy and salty aftertaste.
As one girl said, busy concentrating, net in hand and head lowered, her eyes glued to the water: “I don’t really like them because the texture is a little slimy, but I still think that’s a delight because we only eat them once a year.
Worms are often preferred when cooked. “It’s especially tasty if you make it grandpa“, insisted Pak Adi. Do peps, the worms are mixed with grated coconut and spices, wrapped in a banana leaf and roasted over a fire. Alternatively, some cooks choose to preserve the worms with salt and shrimp paste to use as a pungent flavoring that can be enjoyed year-round. Seaworms can also be fried, added to soups, or eaten with local herbs.
A social event above all
Besides paying homage to an old tale, Bau Nyale is a highly anticipated social event. The festival is packed with shadow puppet shows, boat races and traditional poetry readings.
The most popular event is peresian, a Sasak martial art. Two men go to an arena to fight with sticks and shields. If it sounds violent, that’s because it is, to some degree. Whoever gets hit in the head first loses (with a rather nasty injury to show it). Traditionally, the head wound should bleed a little, but nowadays bandaged scarves help prevent injuries. peresian often takes place during ceremonies, including Indonesian Independence Day celebrations.
Meanwhile, young girls have their chance to play princess. A beauty pageant and street carnival are held where women dress up in traditional Lombok attire. There are different titles up for grabs, including the Princess Mandalika of Tourism and Princess Mandalika of Culture awards. Winning is a great honor and a source of pride – the chance to represent Lombok.
Some men even attend in hopes of catching their own princess. Indeed, the worms are engaged in a mating ritual of their own. Affected by the lunar cycle, they release their eggs or sperm on the surface of the water.
As younger generations hold hands and flirt among the crashing waves, distracted by potential suitors, worms swoop in to swim in the waiting nets of older couples who cling to each other with much more concentration and determination, scanning the waters for this precious delicacy. As the tide rises, children squeal with laughter and frolic in the rock pools. This is an event as much on the social aspect as on the verses.
“I come here every year. I used to come as a kid, and now I take my kids with me,” one man said as he hauled his net through the canals, his headlamp nearly blinding me. Beside him, his daughter was curiously picking up the large bucket full of writhing worms.
“What I like best about coming here is the social aspect. I like going out with my friends and meeting new people. I love the atmosphere and the crowd,” said another participant.
It’s hard not to get carried away by this electric and carnivalesque atmosphere.
The future of Bau Nyale
As with many natural sites, modern development is encroaching on the south coast of Lombok. The last few years have seen drastic changes in the area with the construction of the Pertamina Mandalika International Street Circuit. A venue for the Asia Talent Cup, Superbike World Championship and Grand Prix motorcycle racing, this development is part of the Indonesian government‘s plan to build new tourist hotspots outside of Bali – the President’s vision Joko Widodo of five “new Balis”.
It hasn’t been easy for Lombok and it’s hoped the new circuit will bring in some much needed tourist dollars, helping to boost a local economy that was derailed by the pandemic, in the wake of a major earthquake in 2018. track is just behind Seger Beach – a visually arresting picture of the new direction the island hopes to take, juxtaposed with an ancient cultural festival that dates back centuries.
For the track to be built, several Sasak communities had to be relocated, their villages gone forever. Understandably, there have been some concerns about the future of the festival as development continues apace.
“It is imperative that we are able to pursue Bau Nyale every year. People must be allowed free access to this beach,” said Pak Lalu, a local Sasak chief.
As Lombok embarks on a new chapter, embracing a future in which tourism is the key driver, it can be hard to see where a festival such as Bau Nyale fits in. The Sasak people, aware of the ability of tourism to eradicate a local culture, intend to strike a balance between the two.
What is certain is that once you have been to Bau Nyale and experienced it for yourself, you will want to go back again and again. As long as these wriggling worms appear once a year, the magic and allure of Princess Mandalika will continue to hold strong for decades.