8 February, 2016

Author: Stephanie Brookes

Ambon Island was once a powerhouse of the world with the Portuguese establishing control over the clove trade in the early 16th century. However, long before the Portuguese sailed in with their tall ships, conquered the Spice Islands, built towering forts, and attempted to monopolize the spice trade, an ancient practice was well entrenched in the tiny island of Ambon.

I had read some sketchy reports of a sacred eel that occasionally appears in a pond tucked away in a village just out of Ambon. The pond was in a small village called Waai, only one-hour drive along the coast from Ambon city, so I headed out along the coast to see for myself.

On arrival in Waai, I managed to track down Afandy, guardian of the pond, and he eagerly confirmed that not one, but two sacred eels visit the village pond but only after some sacred rites had been performed.

Alfandy went on to explain how the village goes into lock-down twice a year. No outsiders are permitted to enter Waai village during this time. This is to allow the ancient ceremony to take place. It begins with seven spears being thrown, not by the Kepala Desa (the village head), but by a village member who is given the title of Captain.

The ceremony, which dates back hundreds of years, calls in the sacred eels. These appear on cue, once all rites are conducted.

Still only 16 years old, Afandy told me, “I have been the guardian of the eels for six years. My grandfather was the keeper before me, but now he is too old. He lives in that house over there,” Afandy pointed to an old wooden house, tucked away behind the trees. He added, “He is very sick and does not like to receive visitors.” Casually picking up a raw egg from a small pile near his feet, Afandy offered, “Here, have an egg”.

He went on to explain how the “regular” eels love to eat eggs and how, through feeding and spending time with them, over the years he has earned their trust. Afandy is known in the village as “the eel whisperer” and is very confident about getting in the water and having these huge eels, the size of a man’s arm, swim around him and take eggs from his hand. “I never get bitten, however, do not try this for yourself”, he said, “because the eels know me well.” To prove his point, with a sharp tap on the rock, Afandy then cracked the top of the egg in his hand, creating a small hole and then waded out to the middle of the pond. A shiny gray eel slithered up to him and promptly sucked the contents out of the top.

The pond is fed by an underground spring, and the eels are free to go between the two separate ponds divided by a bridge and an underwater passage. Next to the pond, some very industrious clothes washing was going on, with river stones acting as a washboard. People were chatting and going nonchalantly about their daily village life next to the sacred pond, not seeming to notice the four or so giant egg-eating eels swimming about with gay abandon.

“The water from the spring emerged many hundreds of years ago,” Afandy told me, “Seven spears were thrown, all with coconut – that is important. Yes, the coconut is symbolic. I
don’t know why, that is the way it was told to me by my grandfather.” He continued, “The spears went in different directions, and one special spear landed here where we are sitting now. That spear marked the spot of this spring. We call this pond Waaiselaka, which means water (waai) and silver (selaka) in our Melayu dialect.”

The ceremony is held twice a year, once in January and at one other time set by the village council. Twice a year, the captain locks the bridge so no traffic can get through. A key is attached to a special spear brought down from the border area of Tulehu Village (meaning under the tree) and Liang Village (meaning under the ground). The key holds special significance, conveyed in a dream that Pak Baldus (the grandfather) had long ago. He is from the Alfur tribe, originally from the neighboring island of Seram. Pak Baldus has been seeing the sacred eels since he was 20 years old.

The ceremony is called Kunci Negri, meaning key country. First, the village priest assigns seven men to throw seven spears, and then the captain, who wears special traditional clothes, performs a bathing ritual at the spring. Also, a traditional dance must be performed. The dance is called the Kabasaran or Cakalele dance, which is a traditional Moluccan war dance. However, it can also be used in customary celebrations, such as the Kunci Negri.

Two sacred eels then appear. The villagers believe the eels are their ancestors. Afandy explained in a very matter-of-fact tone, “One is fatter than the other, and they are thicker than these regular eels and not so long. One wears a woven necktie, and the other wears a gold earring. We don’t know where they come from. They appear at this spot. This is a sacred place.”

Afandi left me with a word of warning, “Do not eat eel when you are in Ambon. It is believed that if you eat eel, your skin turns into eel skin. That is not a good look. Everyone knows about that. Please take heed.” With that, he quietly took his leave, this fine young man, keeper of the sacred eel pond, guardian and storyteller of an ancient rite of Waai village.

Source: Now Jakarta Magazine