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Sikka and the House of da Silva

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The thatched dwelling stands worn and empty on the shore of the Savu Sea. Children play football inside its walls, peering out from the shade of the verandah as Bama and I walk past. Across the street three simple graves clad in pink tiles lie sheltered beneath timber rafters and sheets of corrugated iron. One is furnished with a prominent wooden cross, its arms bearing a proud name in white: “Dona M. Felixia Ika da Silva”.

The da Silvas were the royal family of Sikka, and from Lepo Geté, the ‘Great House’ by the sea, the rajas controlled a sizeable portion of eastern Flores. The last king, Don Thomas da Silva, died only in 1954, but by that time the local capital had shifted to Maumere.

Through a modern lens, Sikka Natar seems a strange choice for a centre of political power. The village does not have a harbour, and nor does it lie on an overland trade route, but down a narrow road improbably wedged between steep slopes and the foaming waters of the Indian Ocean. But such is its historical significance that Sikka gives its name to the local tongue and its surrounding regency – where the Portuguese first came ashore in 1559. Today the Iberian influence is still easily discernible in the names of the Florenese and the dominant religion of the island.

In the first half of the 20th century, Sikka’s oral histories were separately recorded by Dominicus Dionitius Pareira Kondi and Alexius Boer Pareira, two schoolteachers who became government officials under the last raja. Together with about 100 handwritten documents, their manuscripts now make up the Hikayat Kerajaan Sikka, the ‘Chronicles of the Kingdom of Sikka’.

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Weathered curves

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Lepo Geté, the ‘Great House’, reconstructed

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Growing cotton for ikat textiles

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Softening the cotton after removing its seeds

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Spinning yarns by hand and foot

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Ikat literally means “to tie”, as motifs are tied onto the threads with dried sugar palm leaf

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Making natural dye by mixing lime powder (from coral) in water with the indigo plant

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Ikat making is a long process – one sarung alone can take 3-4 months from start to finish

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Weaving – one of the final stages in the process

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Sikka is known for its rich ikat motifs

The Hikayat holds that the Ata Sikka, or the Sikkanese people, are descendants of a tribe of immigrants from the distant west – most likely a location in mainland Southeast Asia. According to legend, two ships arrived in Flores; the first carried the forebearers of the indigenous Ata Sikka, and the second the ancestors of its rulers. Bama and I are told the da Silvas were of Portuguese origin from Malacca, but we later learn that this is only part of the story.

Across the Portuguese holdings of maritime South and Southeast Asia, intermarriage between European settlers and local women created a new group known as the Topasses. The Dutch and the indigenous peoples of Indonesia called them the ‘Black Portuguese’, and like the Eurasians of Macau, they acted as a bridge between colonial rulers and the native inhabitants. Throughout eastern Flores and Timor the Topasses controlled the sandalwood trade, holding a degree of self-rule within the colonial system and raising up strong military forces of their own.

In his book written after three decades of meticulous study, anthropologist E. Douglas Lewis dubs the rulers of Sikka “stranger-kings”. For Lewis, this trait is best embodied in the first Catholic raja Don Alésu, born of a Topass mother from Portuguese Timor and the first Sikkanese ruler to adopt the surname ‘da Silva’.

At a young age Don Alésu left Flores for Malacca, where he was sponsored in his education by a Portuguese ruler described in the Hikayat as ‘Raja Worilla’. For several years the prince was schooled in the art of governance and the Catholic faith, and prior to his return, Don Alésu sent Raja Worilla’s own son, Augustinyu da Gama, to serve as Sikka’s first teacher of religion.

1607 is the date given for the formal creation of a Sikkanese kingdom loyal to the Portuguese under Don Alésu. He is credited with uniting a loose confederation of tiny states into a single political entity, creating and sealing alliances with gifts of elephant tusks procured in Malacca, known as bala mangung (‘ivory masts’) in the Sikkanese language. Once the bala mangung was presented to a local leader, his people would recite the following verses:

   

Ina lau krus pu’ang,

Diat beli nora pu’ang,

Ama lau gereja wang,

Dokang beli nora kating,

Baké ba’a nora mangung,

Bikong ‘lo’a lopa ‘liong.

Oré beli ba’a nora lajar,

Kiling ba’a ‘lo’a lopa kolok,

Mangung lau laru walu,

Lajar lusi réta wata pitu.

The mother who stands below the cross,

Has given the strongest foundation,

The father who stands before the door of the church,

Has bestowed authority,

And has raised up the ship’s mast,

So the ship will not pitch and roll,

And has hoisted the sail,

So it does not droop and flutter,

Eight masts below,

Seven sails above.

   

According to the chronicles, Augustinyu da Gama played a major role in these affairs, accompanying the raja as he forged alliances throughout east-central Flores. And so it was that as Don Alésu consolidated control over the rajadom, the people of his domain embraced Christianity. Today Sikka Natar has a grand wooden church which opened on Christmas Eve 1899 – 45 years after the Portuguese relinquished their claims on Flores and handed them to the Dutch.

In its very fabric the church is an expression of European Catholicism married with local tradition: it possesses stained glass at both ends and walls decorated with native ikat patterns. Through the open windows the sound of waves murmurs above the silence, propelled by the winds that carried Sikka’s ancestors to their new home. 

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Sikka’s wooden church

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Before the cross

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A magnificent house of prayer

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Stained glass above the altar

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Ikat patterns and a gong

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People of the Book

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Terrific, James! I always marvel at the mathematical precision of the ikat process, and loved seeing your studies of it – and the marvellous church ikats … aren’t they wonderful? Did you touch them? Were you able to gauge their weight and texture?

    July 7, 2014
    • Absolutely, Meredith! I was awed by the painstaking detail and the effort put into making these fabulous textiles. The ikat inside the church were painted on the wall, but they did such a convincing job that I did wonder if it was actual fabric.

      Weight-wise, I would say ikat is not like silk or linen but it is not too heavy either. The texture is quite smooth and lovely to touch. Newly-made ikat feels quite stiff because of the tamarind they use to glue the threads together before weaving – but we were told it gets progressively softer and brighter after each wash.

      July 7, 2014
  2. What a beautifully written piece on Sikka, James! I was surprised to see the road we had to pass through to get to this place, and to learn that it was the capital of the kingdom left me wondering even more. I really adore those ikat motifs inside the church, such a nice local touch to the already beautiful structure. And to see the entire process of making an ikat sarung made me do something I never did before: buying a piece of traditional cloth when I travel. For me, it was more of a token of appreciation towards the time those women consumed to create that piece of art.

    July 7, 2014
    • I agree completely, Bama. The ikat at Sikka was the most elaborate we saw on Flores and I just knew I had to buy a scarf from those ladies. It’s a shame I only unearthed the story of the da Silvas after coming back from Flores… now I wish I had known about them before making the trip!

      July 7, 2014
  3. This is just lovely. You write so well James. I never would have thought to read a piece on such an obscure group of people but you had me from beginning to end. Their sarungs are beautiful. And their church also.
    Alison

    July 7, 2014
    • Thank you so much, Alison. Sikka was a gorgeous little village – and so peaceful too. When we arrived a local woman came with the key to the church and opened it up for us. I loved how it felt to be under those soaring timber trusses, touching the warm wooden pillars and hearing the sound of the sea.

      July 7, 2014
  4. Reblogged this on BWLE: Explore The World Wth Your Kids! and commented:
    Another lyrical installment from far-off places with amazing history and enduring traditions.

    July 8, 2014
    • Thanks for the reblog and the kind words. 🙂

      July 8, 2014
  5. A brilliant post James with so much visual and historical detail! Love the gallery showing the making of Ikat literally from scratch. I had wrongly assumed Ikat had its origin in India since ‘kat’ means tie in most South Indian languages! Incidentally ‘Nat’ is village or land in Tamil! The church walls and woodwork are stunning and so well preserved. The ‘Boer Pareira’ made me chuckle….integration at its best 🙂

    July 10, 2014
    • Thank you, Madhu! Perhaps the Ikat of India and Indonesia evolved independently of each other… although their shared names must have the same root in Sanskrit! Natar is indeed ‘village’ in the local language so your comparison has me intrigued – surely there must have been long-standing trading links between Flores and the south of India. I did wonder about that name, although Indonesians have a real knack for incorporating outside influences with effortless ease. You will no doubt spot the mark of India when you get there! 🙂

      July 10, 2014

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