After the slightly disappointing Hot Springs adventure, I jumped at the chance to see the Holy Week procession in Larantuka. Larantuka is the regional capital of East Flores. It’s small and most of the industry is connected to the sea. The town has a long history, and even has a King! At Easter time, Larantuka comes alive during the Holy Week (Semana Santa) procession when the Catholic community come to worship. I went to the Holy Week procession in Larantuka, and I met the King! Read on…
Flying to Maumere
We flew to Maumera for lunch and then travelled overland for three hours to find the quiet and sleepy tropical town at the foot of a jungle clad volcano named Ile Mandiri. There is a lot of tuna fishing and scuba diving in the fast moving cold water round Larantuka, and there’s a ferry port serving some of the outer islands. Our host pointed out some buildings across the bay and said they were owned by small Japanese businesses who exported tuna. I was reminded of Hot Tuna on NatGeo.
A party of pseudo-natives, dressed in tribal clothes were waiting for us, and offered us ‘aren’ which is the alcoholic drink of the region. I had a quick snifter and then took some photos and chatted with the school kids in costume. They told me that they made the costumes themselves and lived in the local villages.
Larantuka was strongly influenced by Portuguese traders, who brought religion, some architectural style and the habit of nighttime promenades. After dinner at the Bupati’s residence, I slipped away from the group to walk the streets. There were quite a few people about and I wandered my way to the cathedral to take a few photos.
Meeting the King
My travelling buddy suddenly appeared. “Pak Daniel!” he exclaimed. “Come on!” We threaded our way through the crowds at high speed and found ourselves at the Royal Palace!
We had been invited to meet the King of Larantuka. Everyone sat a little awkwardly and chatted gently with the King and some of his family. We heard how his family have reigned here since the 12th century in a 22 generation dynasty.
He is old, yet affable and hospitable and we even got to pose for a few photographs! Then it was back to the homestay to sleep after the 3am start.
Two chapels and a brush with the law
The next day I visited the two chapels – Kapela Tuan Ana and Kapela Tuan Ma – and looked at the icons and relics scattered about the town. People were queueing to get into the churches to receive communion and kiss the statue.
I went into the cathedral and persuaded a couple of the special forces police to take selfies. Then everyone hopped onto a tuna boat and we set off for Adonara island to see another church.
The sea procession
After that, and under increasingly hot weather, we crossed back to the mainland to watch the waterborne part of the procession. It started with a boat carrying a statue of Jesus, following the shoreline, accompanied by guardian canoes which were paddled by local kids.
There were many boats out on the water, each one loaded to the limit or beyond with watchers. I was reminded of a tribal war party as the boats jostled for position and tried to keep up with, yet also maintain a respectful distance from, the highlight boat.
Sure enough, there were a few bumps and scrapes between boats, and some hot tempered exchanges between the Bugis/Baju crew. The journey took about an hour and a half of paddling, against the tide and many of the guardian canoes were left behind, or rescued by watcher boats.
On the deck of our boat was a large capstan-type wooden pole, sticking up from the deck. I’d seen it used for tying mooring rope, and at one point I was standing on it to maintain balance and get a better view. The crew started shouting at me to get off because it was the place where they made sacrifice or “the heart of the ship.” I expect a few cockerels have met their end at that place and I was glad it wasn’t me next! I settled for some super sunburn, which might be justice for offending the crew of the boat.
The land events begin
Passing by pretty large numbers of people on the shore, and watched by the floating hordes, the cross arrived at the water’s edge by the chapel and was ceremonially carried on to shore.
We returned to land and watched the cross being carried from the chapel to the cathedral, flanked by thousands of mournful singers.
The evening procession
We returned to the homestay to refresh and then made our way to the night time procession. Jesus’ coffin, the Virgin Mary and thousands of penitents proceed through Larantuka, stopping at symbolic sacred places around the seven kilometer route.
We arrived slightly late, and, short cutting through the cemetery, arrived at the roadside after the start of the procession. I have to admit that I was expecting the kind of pushing and shoving that large crowds can produce, but in fact everyone was extremely decorous and solemn as might be expected at a death. The people carried candles and sang low key songs about Maria. I wasn’t counting how many passed but they were 8 across the road and it took about 30 mins so I guess it was several thousand at least.
We join the procession
A group of nuns passed us and this was our signal, so we, grabbed candles and joined the walkers. We walked along until the first stop and then waited there for the coffin carrying the body of Jesus to arrive.
It arrived, along with Mata Delorosa who stood up and sang a very mournful tune. Then we watched it depart on the circuit of the town, followed by many more people. We bailed out of the procession and went back to our accommodation, and the next day flew back to Jakarta, stopping in Kupang to see a weaving centre and a local music display.
Summing up the Holy Week procession in Larantuka
My friend, Pak Wilbert told me that about 15,000 people visit the Holy Week procession in Larantuka and at the moment they have just 300 hotel rooms in town. Most people come from around the Flores, a broad circle of Catholic faith islands, and the ferry companies put on special extra boat services. Once they are here, many families open their houses for guests, provide hospitality and make a little extra cash.
This event is becoming more significant globally and visitors are coming from further afield. Indonesian places like Kalimantan, but also international guests. I met some Australian people and also heard Polish and Dutch language on the streets.
There are a lot of reports about Islamic insensitivity to other religions in Indonesia, if not outright persecution, and it’s worth noting that Eastern Indonesia is predominantly Christian in faith. In my opinion, it’s heartening to see people of many faiths practicing their beliefs in Indonesia. The foundation of the country is based on respect and tolerance for all people, along with all their differences, and the Holy Week procession in Larantuka – despite the high security presence – can be seen to exemplify this. The Holy Week procession in Larantuka was a truly moving and emotional experience, and while it is in no way developed for mass tourism, the area offers amazing potential for ‘off-the-beaten-track’ adventures among friendly people who don’t see many travellers.
I’d like to say thank you to the guys that helped me on this trip, especially Pak Eduardo and Pak Wilbert. Also thanks to the house that put me up at short notice. It was very comfortable and hospitable. All in all, the Holy Week procession in Larantuka was an amazing and unforgettable experience!
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- Larantuka is at the East end of Flores island in Nusa Tenggera Timur. Best to fly to Maumere and go overland for three hours.
- Also possible to fly to Kupang from Larantuka, and then on to Bali or Surabaya for transit.
- A busy port is serviced by Pelni ferries to other islands in the area and further away. Come prepared for long ferry journeys!