I had been tra-velling in Sumatra, the largest of Indon-esia's 17,000-odd islands, for three weeks. There was still much to see in this sprawling island, the eighth largest in the world, but time was running short. I decided to head to the northern-most part of Sumatra, to the oil-rich province of Aceh. A decade-long civil war in the region had led to tens of thousands of deaths, and to many more people being forcibly displaced from their homes. Acehnese independence fighters, smarting under what they saw as pervasive discrimination at the hands of the Javanese-dominated Indonesian state, were still active in some parts. The province had also suffered a toll of some 80,000 people in the deadly tsunami that struck in 2004, which totally devastated large parts along the coast. The province had been recently granted some autonomy, in particular being allowed to impose Islamic laws in some matters, one of the principal demands of the Acehense separatists, for the Acehense consider themselves to be among the more Islamised of Indonesia's many ethnic communities.
I boarded an overnight bus at Medan, Sumatra's largest city, for Banda Aceh, the capital of the Aceh province, a journey of some fifteen hours. With great difficulty and considerable haggling, I managed to secure a room in a shabby lodge in Banda Aceh that cheekily announced itself as 'Your Second Home'. After freshening up, I took a walk around the town, which was small enough to negotiate on foot.
The sprawling three-domed Masjid Rayya or Central Mosque, had been miraculously, or so people said, spared the ravages of the tsunami. It stood in pearly-white majesty in a vast plain on the other side of the river. Inside its colonnaded, marble-floored hall, a marriage ceremony had just concluded. Groups of small boys and girls were scattered in the inner portals of the mosque, swaying their backs as they recited from copies of the Quran that were placed on carved stands before them, their teachers keeping a close watch. To my pleasant surprise, some of the teachers were women, as were the staff who swept the mosque. Such a thing would be unthinkable in India. In contrast to India and much of the rest of the Muslim world, women could freely pray in mosques here, because the particular school of Islamic jurisprudence followed by Indonesians, the Shafi maslak, allowed for it.
I spent an entire day at Banda Aceh's impressive state museum. Housed in a Dutch colonial mansion, is a treasure trove of artifacts that illustrate the waves of cultural influences that together have made for a unique Acehnese identity, which the people of the province, who insist they are distinct from the rest of Indonesia, jealously guard. There were eleventh century inscriptions in the Tamil language carved on massive slabs of stone, a legacy of the times when this part of Sumatra was under Chola rule. There were dozens of Arabic tomes, neatly calligraphed on palm-leaf paper, including richly embellished copies of the Quran and works on Islamic mysticism, jurisprudence and theology. There were letters, in the form of enormous scrolls, penned by successive Sultans of Aceh, to the rulers of England and Portugal discussing trade matters, particularly in relation to the lucrative spice trade and the menace of pirates, and to the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul, appealing for military assistance against Dutch marauders. There were photographs of Dutch colonial officers, wearing coats and hats in the tropical sun, surrounded by bevies of native servants or seated imperiously atop caparisoned elephants, and framed portraits local Rajas holding court, surrounded by their fawning courtiers. In the courtyard of the museum were rows of Chinese-style tombs, shaped like pagodas, of successive Muslim rulers of Aceh and neighbouring kingdoms.
Some sixty thousand people had lost their lives in Banda Aceh town alone in the wake of the tsunami in 2004, which also destroyed some seventy per cent of the town's buildings. Amazingly, the town had been hurriedly reconstructed and seemed distinctly more organized and cheery than the other places I had visited in Sumatra. Yet, the terror of the tsunami remained deeply impressed in people's minds. It was commemorated by the giant tsunami memorial, built in the shape of a massive ship, as well as a real ship, more than a hundred metres long, that was heaved up by the killer waves of the tsunami from the sea and deposited three kilometres inland, where it now stood, in the middle of a rebuilt settlement, like a giant beached whale.
From Banda Aceh I took a ferry to the village of Iboih on the island of Pulau Weh, twenty miles into the Andaman Sea, touted about in tourist brochures, and quite rightly so, as one of Indonesia's most inviting island resorts. It was famed for its magnificent corals and palm-fringed beaches.
The three days I spent in Iboih were sheer, un-distilled, and well-deserved bliss. The highpoint of my stay was on my last evening, when I met Nasir, a local fisherman, who agreed to take me along with him on his glass-bottomed boat to the nearby Rubiah island. Hardly twenty metres offshore, when he lifted the board covering the bottom of the boat, an amazing, entirely different world spread out before my awe-struck eyes: the underwater life that Pulau Weh is so famous for. There, some thirty metres below, at the bottom of the still sea, were rows upon rows of corals, some like giant pin-cushions, others like quaint vegetables, in a myriad colours and dozens of varieties of brilliantly-hued tropical fish. We spotted a school of what seemed like a school of sharks in the far distance.
Aceh's official name, Aceh Darus Salam (The Abode of Peace') reflects the local government's pretentious claim of ruling according to the Islamic law or shariah. This, in fact, was one of the major demands made by Acehnese separatists, who claimed that Indonesia's official policy of secularism was an affront to the strong Islamic identity of the Acehnese people. But, when asked in which way Aceh was actually an 'Islamic state', a claim made by its government and many of its people, ordinary Acehnese almost invariably answered that in Aceh women must wear head-scarves, locally called tudong, and that alcohol was officially banned. Yet, in almost every respect, Aceh is hardly different from the rest of Indonesia. Corruption is rampant. Gullible tourists make easy targets for unscrupulous touts, and at almost every turn one must be cautious for fear of being cheated. There is a yawning gap between the super-rich, who zip around in sleek cars, shop in fancy stores and live in palatial bungalows, and the impoverished majority. Women may be forced to wear headscarves, some against their will, but many also wear tight jeans and skin-hugging tops, hardly modest hijab dress. Alcohol may be officially banned, but it can be procured, although with some difficulty, and ganja is readily available and even locally grown and exported elsewhere. Western music and Indonesian pop blares out of cars and shops, and American soap operas dubbed in Bahasa Acehense are a rage. On the ferry trip from Pulau Weh back to Banda Aceh, passengers were inflicted with violent scenes from a television programme starring punk-haired Indonesian singers hugging scantily-dressed Western women, and semi-nude girls gyrating lustily on a stage. There is thus little merit in the government's much-vaunted claims of having turned Aceh into a thriving enclave of practical Islam.
I had been in Sumatra for almost a month now, and it was time to return to Malaysia, and from there to head back home, to India. The journey back was monstrous. The boat to Penang, across the Andaman Sea, in Malaysia, almost drowned in a violent storm, which made me promise myself never to undertake a sea journey again. Except, perhaps, back to Aceh again, if I had the chance, so thoroughly had it captivated me.(The writer can be reached at [email protected])