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ETHNONYMS: Sassak, Waktu Lima, Wetu Telu


Identification. The Sasak are speakers of the Sasak language and are the dominant population on the island of Lombok, Indonesia. Traditionally they have classified their population, villages, and culture into two native categories: the Wetu Telu, or traditional Sasak, and the Waktu Lima, the more strongly Islamized and market-oriented Sasak. This classification has changed recently. Whereas prior to 1965 whole villages were considered to be Wetu Telu, since that time few Sasak have openly declared themselves to be such.

Location. The island of Lombok, located in the Indonesian archipelago to the east of Bali, is 112 kilometers long by 80 kilometers at its widest point, or about 4,680 square kilometers. The Sasak population is concentrated in the fertile central plains area of the island, but it is also spread over the island in the mountain ranges of the north and southeast as well as in the more arid areas of the south and east. The dry season occurs between May and August, the rainy season between November and March. The greatest precipitation occurs in the west. A central plain running west to east divides this mountainous island, with the highest ranges located in the north, culminating in the volcanic peak of Gunung Rindjani. Some thirty rivers, most originating in the north, make up the island's drainage system, so important to its agrarian economy.

Demography. In 1980 the population was estimated to be near 2.3 million, with a population density of approximately 152 people per square kilometer; however, the population density of the fertile plains is closer to 700 people per square kilometer. The population is growing at an average rate of about 2.37 percent. Well over 90 percent of the population of the island is Sasak; Lombok Balinese predominate in the remainder of the population and are concentrated in the western part of the island, followed by Sumbawanese in the east.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Sasak language, closely related to Balinese and Javanese, is a branch of the Malayo-Polynesian Language Family.

History and Cultural Relations

Prior to the Balinese conquest of Lombok, the island was divided into a number of frequently warring Sasak princedoms. These Hinduized Sasak states converted to Islam in the sixteenth century, but they retained a syncretized religion that had some indigenous ancestor worship, Hindu elements, and newer Muslim beliefs and practices. Conflict between and within these princedoms was common at the time. Such divisiveness enabled the Balinese to conquer Lombok and to become the ruling caste, reducing the Sasak to vassaldom. The Balinese rulers instituted a number of techniques to reinforce their position, including language etiquette relating to caste, in which they spoke down to the Sasak, who were required to use the superior language level in speaking back to them; marriage levels, in which the Balinese could marry Sasak women, but Sasak men could not marry Balinese women; and corvée, in which Balinese could command Sasak labor. The Balinese collected tribute in rice and confiscated Sasak land. Several unsuccessful Sasak revolts against the Balinese were attempted. The Dutch, interested in greater economic control, landed in Lombok in 1894, proclaiming themselves liberators of the Sasak from their Balinese oppressors. The Balinese and their Sasak supporters' engagement in another conflict aided the Dutch conquest in 1895, leading to the puputan, or ritual suicide, of the Balinese ruling dynasty after their defeat. The Dutch colonial government dissolved the ties of allegiance to earlier rulers by setting up a new administrative system under the rule of a resident in Bali, and the Dutch obtained major revenues from the agrarian sector.

During this period the division of the Sasak population into traditional Wetu Telu and the more orthodox Muslim Waktu Lima was pronounced. Dutch-appointed Sasak administrators were usually Waktu Lima, and this provoked Wetu Telu discontent, sometimes taking the form of messianic and revivalistic movements during the early twentieth century. The Waktu Lima Sasak villages were most numerous along the main roads and in market centers, while Wetu Telu villages tended to be more self-sufficient and isolated. Political and economic centers were Waktu Lima, with Waktu Lima officials whose beliefs and practices conflicted with Wetu Telu customs. There was increasing Muslim proselytizing by Waktu Lima missionaries. In the increasing conflict between the two Sasak groups many villages that had been previously considered Waktu Lima became designated as Wetu Telu, particularly in eastern Lombok. Although not predominant in the population, the syncretistic Wetu Telu, united by personal and kinship ties and economic redistribution, were found in the more isolated Sasak villages. In the early 1970s the Wetu Telu disappeared as a culturally distinct category. In 1942 the Japanese invaded Indonesia, ousting the Dutch. The Sasak remember this as a time of forced labor, poverty, and oppression. After Indonesian independence, missionary Muslim leaders called "Tuan Guru" gained great political and economic power on Lombok, ensuring Waktu Lima dominance. The president stressed economic self-sufficiency and mutual aid. Economic conditions were deteriorating. The Land Reform Program of 1960 proved problematic, and attempts to implement it ended by 1965. In 1965 an attempted coup, crushed by the military and blamed on the Communists, led to a bloodbath of alleged Communist sympathizers and a concomitant swelling of the ranks of the followers of the Tuan Guru as the Sasak attempted to avoid persecution. In the late 1970s BIMAS, or the "Green Revolution," had a major economic impact on Lombok. The most recent changes have been an upsurge of economic development projects and tourism.


Villages range in population from several hundred to about 15,000 people. They tend to be clusters of houses around a road or path, surrounded by fields that separate one village settlement from another. The village mosque, administrative office, and marketplace are located along the main road, usually in the middle of the village. House construction varies by village type and by affluence of owners, with houses made of native materials predominating in the more isolated and traditional villages as well as among the less affluent in the more populous villages. Typically, these houses are one- or two-roomed, thatched-roofed, windowless structures built on platforms of packed earth, with bamboo frames and walls of bamboo, earth, and woven grass or palm fronds. Rice barns, containing raised platforms used for entertaining or working, are associated with houses of this type. The more modern housing style often contains several rooms. These are also single-storied structures but are made of concrete or wood with a few windows and roofs of corrugated iron.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Sasak economy is primarily agrarian and dominated by the production of wet rice as the dietary staple and for sale. Most of the population is engaged in farming and lives in rural peasant villages. The economy is labor-intensive. Plows drawn by water buffalo or oxen, hand harvesting, and transportation by horse still predominate despite development efforts. Very important to the production of wet rice is the extensive irrigation system of canals and dikes managed by the subak, irrigation societies that oversee the equitable distribution of water. Other crops such as cassava, soybeans, maize, sweet potatoes, and coconuts are grown for subsistence; rice, coffee, tobacco, peanuts, and onions are among the crops grown for sale as well as for local consumption. In addition to irrigated rice, the Sasak cultivate rainfall-dependent rice in the less-fertile areas, and they practice some swidden cultivation or ladang.

Industrial Arts. Some villages have part-time and seasonal specialists who make earthenware pottery for sale, weave baskets, or are blacksmiths or charcoal makers.

Trade. There is a proliferation of petty traders among the landless Sasak. Small shops, itinerant peddlers, and sellers in the markets are common in all but the most isolated villages. Most petty trade is done by women, while men tend to control larger-scale and off-island trade.

Division of Labor. While both sexes engage in cultivation and work as farm wage laborers, some of the tasks differ along gender lines. Men clear land, build and repair fields and irrigation works, guard crops, plow, build houses, and work as blacksmiths. Women pound rice, clean house, fetch water, weave, and cook (though men cook for feasts). Both sexes plant, weed, harvest, collect, fish, weave baskets, and tend babies.

Land Tenure. Population growth and increasing commercialization have led many smallholders to sell their land, creating an increasingly large landless population. Many have become seasonal laborers or traders. While farming one's own land is the ideal, few landless Sasak can hope ever to save enough money over subsistence needs to purchase land. Many syncretists remain reluctant to sell land or rice, but rapid change is occurring in this regard.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Sasak social system is composed of three hierarchically ranked title levels (sometimes referred to as castes), with two levels for the aristocracy and one for commoners. Nobles and commoners often live in segregated neighborhoods. Caste regulates marriage and affects descent. Descent is bilateral with an emphasis on the patrilineal kin. Kin share labor, jointly contribute to rituals, and provide other help.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terms of reference are Eskimo, but terms of address are Hawaiian. Relative age is important.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Most marriages are monogamous, although polygynous marriages are allowed. The ranking system is important in determining marriage. Men may marry women of lower rank, but women marry below their rank only at the risk of being disowned by their families. First-cousin marriages are often arranged among nobility. Many marriages take place through elopement, which the Sasak call "bride capture." Cousin marriage is preferred and is common. Within the limitations imposed by caste there is considerable freedom of choice of spouses. Residence is neolocal. Divorce is common and is generally the male's option, following Muslim custom.

Domestic Unit. Households consist of people who live together, share meals, and cooperate economically. They are usually composed of nuclear-family members, perhaps including a grandparent or, in grandparental households, a grandchild.

Inheritance. The most important form of heritable property is land, especially irrigated fields or orchards. Inheritance rules vary by village. In many villages daughters receive one share to every three shares inherited by sons. In some villages women do not inherit land and older sons may inherit more than younger sons. Daughters may share equally in inheritance of houses, furnishings, cattle, and money, and they are provided for from the land inherited by their male kin.

Socialization. Child care is provided by both parents, other available adults, or older siblings (especially sisters). Infants and very young children are always carried; physical punishment is avoided.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Indonesian government is headed by a president with other elected officials. Political parties operate through popular vote.

Social Organization. Sasak society has a ranked system of titled levels (arguably called "castes") with two levels for the aristocracy and one for commoners. Additionally, the society is hierarchically organized by relative age, wealth, religious attainment, occupation, and residence.

Political Organization. The island of Lombok is part of the province of Nusa Tenggara Barat, composed of Lombok and Sumbawa. There is a provincial governor. Lombok has three districts, kabupatan, each of which has a district headman, bupati. These districts are Western Lombok, Central Lombok, and Eastern Lombok. Each district is subdivided into subdistricts, kecamatan, which vary greatly in population and have subdistrict headmen called camat. There are several hundred Sasak villages, or desa, with village headmen, kepala desa. Most desa are subdivided into hamlets, gubug, with neighborhood headmen, or keliang. The village council of elders, kerama desa, is an important decision-making body in many villages and works by discussion and consensus.

Social Control. Direct conflict is avoided. Gossip and ostracism are key mechanisms of control. District courts handle problem cases beyond the village level. In the more isolated areas local problems are adjudicated by the kerama desa.

Conflict. Conflicts over succession and control led to warfare in the past. Present disputes over water rights or inheritance are often resolved through adjudication.

Religion and Expressive Culture

All Sasak claim to be Muslim, whether of the more pervasive Waktu Lima orthodox type or of the syncretistic religion embraced by a small percentage of the population. Villages have mosques, and many also have pesantren, informal religious schools, and madrasah, schools offering more formalized religious education. These institutions are often operated by Tuan Guru, influential religious leaders who have exercised considerable political power among the Sasak.

Religious Beliefs. While the distinctions between Wetu Telu and orthodox Muslims have almost disappeared, a small number of Sasak in more isolated villages still embrace the traditional ancestor cult, with life-crisis ceremonies, agricultural feasts, and beliefs in local holy places, local spirits, and ritual inheritance. Generally Sasak today maintain that they are orthodox Muslims obeying the Five Pillars of Islam: the confession of faith in Allah and Mohammed as his prophet; the five daily prayers, salat ; the fast during the month of Ramadan, puasa; the pilgrimage to Mecca, hajj ; and the payment of religious tax for charity and mosque upkeep, zakat. Traditional belief in ancestral spirits, the rice mother, and spirits that possess people and cause misfortunes are less prevalent than they were formerly. Waktu Lima Sasak believe in Allah, the supreme being; Mohammed, the major prophet; Iblis, the satanic being; evil spirits, witches, and spirit doubles or jinn.

Religious Practitioners. The religious officials present in all Sasak villages are the kiyai, of whom the penghulu is the official religious leader. However, a few isolated traditional villages still have pemangku, officials of sacred places.

Ceremonies. Once prevalent adat ceremonies (rituals relating to traditional law), which varied by village, have declined. Replacing them are Islamic ceremonies, which tend to be more individualistic than were the ritual feasts held for life-cycle and agricultural events, and which entail a network of kinship and villagewide obligations.

Arts. Traditional arts include making musical instruments such as gongs, drums, and wooden xylophones (often in carved and painted wooden stands), dance dramas, shadow puppet plays, and Islamic songs and dances. Traditionally large wooden horses for carrying celebrants were made.

Medicine. Illness may be attributed to spirit possession, sorcery, supernatural retribution, reactions to adversity, and disease. The services of belian, native healers, are often used.

Death and Afterlife. Islamic officials preside at funerals, and, in traditional communities, at mourning ceremonies held at specified times afterward. The body is washed by kiyai and kin of the same sex, orifices are plugged, and it is shrouded. Burial takes place soon after death. The corpse is laid on its side facing Mecca, with the head pointed south. Traditionalists believe that deceased kin continue to influence future generations. Orthodox Muslims believe in an afterlife earned by the individual through personal actions.

See also Balinese


Cederroth, Sven (1981). The Spell of the Ancestors and the Power of Mekkah: A Sasak Community on Lombok. Göteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis.

Ecklund, Judith (1977). "Marriage, Seaworms, and Song: Ritualized Responses to Cultural Change in Sasak Life." Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University.

Krulfeld, Ruth (1974). "The Village Economies of the Sasak of Lombok: A Comparison of Three Indonesian Peasant Communities." Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University.

Krulfeld, Ruth (1986). "Sasak Attitudes towards Polygyny and the Changing Position of Women in Sasak Peasant Villages." In Visibility and Power: Essays on Women in Society and Development, edited by Leela Dube and Eleanor Leacock, 194-208. Delhi: Oxford University Press.


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