I La Galigo: A Scattered Legacy of the Great Bugis Epic

12 Aug

Photos and Text by : Stania Puspawardani

FIRST THING THAT CAUGHT MY ATTENTION when I arrived in Makassar was the unique characters below the name of almost every street in the city. I quickly concluded that it was lontarak, Bugis’s native alphabet and assumed it’s a variation of Arabic typings due to the thick Islamic culture in the province. As the bus passed through the roads from Sultan Hasanudin airport to Sahid Hotel in Dr Sam Ratulangi Street, I asked our tour guide to verify my assertions. According to the man, I have correctly guessed that it is lontarak, but the script doesn’t correlate with Arabic syntax. Later, I read that there are diverse opinions saying lontarak was originated from Arabic, Sanskrits and even Egypt[1].

Lontarak was named after it’s medium, which is lontarak leaf (Borassus flabellifer, in Java it’s called lontar leaf). The term lontarak can refers to the alphabet, the paper and the book[2]. Through lontarak, countless information sources, historic annals and great literature works have been preserved[3], including I La Galigo, the allegedly world’s longest epic[4].

La Galigo, Bugis literature heritage

I had a chance to visit La Galigo Museum with Angela Patria, Destarata, Adkhilni Sidqi, Ferdien and Desta’s friend during our trip. The museum is located inside the Fort Rotterdam and currently being revamped. We came early to the fort as we are peg to return to Jakarta on the same day. The entrance fee is 3,000 rupiah for adult and 2,000 for kids. The museum contains South Sulawesi’s arts, cultural and historical artifacts, including miniature of Toraja houses and coffin (Erong), the map of the archipelago areas which recognizes Gowa kingdom’s authority in 1600, the governance tree structure and many more.

It’s in the second floor of connected room that I found Sureq Galigo. According to UNESCO, it’s the first part of the I La Galigo lengthy manuscript. The script has 217 pages and undated, but possibly was written in the first half of the 19th century. Many La Galigo manuscripts do exist and can be found all over the world. It’s needless to say that each and every manuscript remains genuinely and totally a product of the Indonesian literary heritage—independent of its current whereabouts.

It is important to note that in the post–war period of Darul Islam terror in South Sulawesi. In its struggle to create an Islamic state, the movement thought it necessary to eliminate all things considered to be non–Islamic. Manuscripts, in particular manuscripts containing the pre-Islamic La Galigo texts, were at that time regarded as dangerous, heretical possessions.

The majority of these manuscripts have survived in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, in public and private collections. Other La Galigo manuscripts are available in public collections in locations such as Jakarta (Indonesia), Leiden (The Netherlands), London and Manchester (United Kingdom), Berlin (Germany), and Washington DC (United States of America).

I La Galigo tells the story of the descent of the first human being (mula tau) who populate the earth and concludes with the return of his descendants, the first generations of humans, to the realm of the gods, leaving the earth empty again. It starts with the decision made by the gods of the Upper-world and the Underworld to fill the empty Middle world by sending their children to live there. The Upper world sent the male Batara Guru and the Underworld the female Wé Nyiliq Timoq. They marry and become the grandparents of Sawérigading and his twin sister Wé Tenriabéng in the Luwuq kingdom. Sawérigading makes extensive travels and falls deeply in love with his twin sister. This incestuous love is strictly prohibited. Sawérigading then goes to China and marries We Cudaiq who has similar appearance with his twin sister. They have son, named I La Galigo who travels around the world. Sawérigading and his wife then return to Luwuq, but his ship sinks to the bottom of the sea. The incident makes the couple the rulers of the Underworld. Shortly afterwards, all human on earth are called back to the Upper and Underworlds, except for one couple who are to stay and rule over the kingdom of Luwuq[5][6].

Bissu, the Islamic transgender priest

The preservation of I La Galigo is unattached from the existing of Bissu, a transgender priest that can read the divine language of the manuscript, which is Torilangi language. Before reading the La Galigo script, people will bang drums on a designated rhythm and burn incenses. After the drumbeats stop, bissu will spell mantras and ask forgiveness for Gods whose names are going to be read[7]. Bissu themselves are mentioned in the narrative, as they assist Batara Guru when he descended and help Sawérigading sailing to meet We Cudaiq.

The bissu are imagined to be hermaphroditic beings who embody female and male elements. This is not queer as Bugis culture acknowledged four genders plus a fifth ‘para-gender’ identity. In addition to male-men (oroane) and female-women (makunrai), there are calalai (biological females who take many social roles as men), calabai (biological males who adhere to the expectations of women) and bissu[8].

Bissu has existed in South Sulawesi since pre-Islamic era and plays a distinct role in society even after the arrival of Islam. The main role of bissu is to bestow blessings, be it before planting/harvesting rice, consecrating marriage and blessing people before going hajj (Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca). The Islamic insurgency under Kahar Muzakar in 1966 saw bissu as deviant of Islamic teachings. Under Toba (Repentance) Operation, bissu were hunt down. Those who were caught forced to be men, if not, they would be killed. Now, bissu community is holding a regular Mapalili Ritual every year. In 2002, Puang Matoa Sidi was elected as the imam for bissu in South Sulawesi[9].

A world class masterpice

I La Galigo has been performed in international stages. The initial breakthrough performance was shown in 2004 in Esplanade, Singapore under the auspices of Change Performing Arts from Italy[10]. The production brainchild was started in 2000 by prominent stage-director Robert Wilson, documentary filmmaker Rhoda Grauer, dancer Restu Kusumaningrum and master composer Rahayu Supanggah.

The performance has received warm welcomes in other parts of the world and cover by various international media. To date, Robert Wilson’s I La Galigo has been perform in Lyon’s Les Nuits de Fourviere (2004), New York’s US Lincoln Center (2005) and Milan’s Teatro degli Arcimboldi (2008). Bissu imam Puang Matoa Sidi reminds us, “Sawérigading has also travelled across the globe. (Sureq) Galigo was meant for the world” [11].

[1] Maknun, Tadjuddin. “Lontarak: Arti, Asal Usul, dan Nilai Budaya yang Dikandungnya”A presentation paper on 2008 Indonesia’s Cultural Congress.

24 October 2009.

[2] Tim Wacana Nusantara. “Lontaraq dan Aksara Lontara (Aksara Bugis)”. 21 February 2010.

[3] Cummings, William. “Historical texts as social maps

Lontaraq bilang in early modern Makassar”. KITLV. 2005.

[4] Jaffar, Johan. “Bugis epic is world’s longest written poem”. New Straits Times, 23 April 2005.

[5] UNESCO Memory of the World Register. I La Galigo. Ref N° 2010-64. Year of submission: 2008.

[6] Koolhof, Sirtjo.

“The “La Galigo”; A Bugis encyclopedia and its growth”. KITLV. 1999

[7] Daeng Rusle.“Bissu; Celah di Budaya Bugis”. 2 July 2007.

[8] Graham, Sharyn. “Research Report; Sex, Gender and Priests in South Sulawesi, Indonesia”. IIASNewsletter #29. 2002.

[9] Suyono, Seno Joko et al. “Bissu: Antara Ada dan Tiada”. Majalah TEMPO. 8 April 2002,

[10] “Robert Wilson. I La Galigo.” Downloaded at 8 August 2010.

[11]Suyono, Seno Joko.”Wilson, La Galigo dan Purnati”. Majalah TEMPO. 30 Desember 2002


Posted by on 12 August 2010 in Uncategorized


4 responses to “I La Galigo: A Scattered Legacy of the Great Bugis Epic

  1. sony

    15 August 2010 at 13:13

    Hallo Mbak Salam Kenal

  2. gombang

    16 August 2010 at 17:09

    Kalau soal orang Bugis secara lebih mendalam mungkin bisa dibaca juga buku Manusia Bugis. Btw, why you don’t write about Makassarese culture also? After all you visit a Makassarese area, hehehe.

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    3 September 2010 at 08:51

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