Reflecting on 2019: Indigenous languages and religions

2019 marked the United Nations’ Year of Indigenous Languages, a year designed to “recognize and acknowledge the range, diversity and global value of languages as well as the critical and endangered status of many individual languages around the world, the vast majority of them being indigenous languages”. Language is not solely about vocabulary and grammar structures to convey meaning, but holistically links to world view, identity, memory and understanding.

Unrelated to the UN’s Year for Indigenous Languages but in many ways running parallel in its aims of raising awareness of the threats to indigenous practices and way of life, in the same year CRCS UGM hosted The First International Conference on Indigenous Religions, published a report advocating social inclusion for indigenous religions, as well as releasing Atas Nama Percaya or In the Name of Belief, the first film of the Indonesian Pluralities documentary series in collaboration with Watchdoc and Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. Reflecting back on the year, we look at how language and belief are connected, and how these affect – and are affected by – the environment in which they were borne.

In the stretching arc of Indonesia’s islands, around 706 languages are spoken by communities living across the ranging topographies of forests, mountains and cities. For each community, language has passed down through generations, and vocabulary is shaped by familial relations and connection to specific landscapes. As is becoming increasingly clearer, biodiversity, cultural diversity and linguistic diversity are all intrinsically linked, with higher biodiversity associated with higher rates of languages. Luisa Maffi (2018) calls this interconnectedness ‘biocultural diversity’, and highlights how growing urbanisation, migration, deforestation and enforced loss of indigenous culture around the world has culminated in a loss of all three.


Describing biocultural diversity as a ‘socio-ecological adaptive system’, Maffi along with a body of researchers have attempted to raise awareness of this interconnectedness. We often consider how humans are shaped by the world around them, but increasingly researchers are beginning to understand that the nature, often considered ‘pristine’ and untouched by humans is equally transformed and reliant on the humans living within them. Those living in rainforest ecosystems for example, can increase biodiversity by spreading seeds in different times of the year, or cutting down plants which drain the soil. Controlled burning practices by aborigine communities in Australia can help prevent damaging bushfires and help revitalise nutrient levels.

This humans’ dependency on the land, and the land’s dependency on human interaction, can be classed as ‘traditional ecological knowledge (TEK)’—relational and agricultural accumulative knowledge passed down through indigenous communities. The Ammatoa of South Sulawesi, as one example of a community using TEK, structure their forest use in circles, leaving a central ring untouched to respect the personhood of the forest and to allow undisturbed growth. An outer ring exists in which they can take what they need. This allows the forest to continue growing without depletion and with diversity of plants in the outer ring, while those of the community can still use as much as the community needs to live. These practices reflect the Ammatoa’s belief in the personhood of the forest and ancestor worship, meaning a strong belief in reciprocity and respect. Language develops out of the need to communicate this worldview, and document and categories various species which are important to the clan. As Nations explains, “Native languages crystallize the lessons of centuries of daily trial and error”.

Towards more recognition

With the development of communities into industrialised agricultural societies and cities, the everyday connection with the natural world and the people around becomes weaker, and the relational aspects are lost. State policies championing one dominant group or religion throughout history have also meant that those communities holding onto their local belief system, language or area have been threatened.

These strains to indigenous ways of being, including language, have been felt across the archipelago. For the Bajau community in Sulawesi as one example, the ocean-dependent community has long existed through nomadism and connection with ancestors and spirits.

Although primarily Muslim, traditional Bajau beliefs continue to be central to the community, yet lifestyle changes driven by declining fish populations and state regulations has led to young Bajau people travelling to the main islands for education—primarily based on recognised religion and modern practices—as well as employment. With growing awareness of lifestyle and religion outside the seafaring community, there has been a growing contestation of identity. Young people learn differently to how their parents did, with many learning that their Bajau worldview is not compatible with that of the recognised religions, and their lifestyle and practices outdated, studying more in the national Bahasa Indonesia rather than the Bajau language. The various forces of local culture, nationalism and globalisation all manifest in this struggle of identity.

Loss in this sense becomes compounded: with the loss of indigenous religions and language, there is loss of life. With loss of biological life comes loss of indigenous religions and languages. Perhaps more noticeably in Indonesia than in other parts of the world, indigenous communities, their languages, practices and belief systems are tied up in religion due to the importance of religion constitutionally. Prior to the 2017 Constitutional Court ruling on the inclusion of indigenous religions (kepercayaan) on identity cards (KTP & KK), followers of indigenous religions lacked legal rights surrounding recognition, education, marriage, health care and other civic issues due to the state’s favoritism of world religions, with many forced to convert to the recognised religions, losing their local identity through having to stop or desacralise their traditional practices and rituals. Often if rituals continue to be practiced, these traditions are turned into tourist attractions or ‘cultural events’ with varying degrees of sensitivity.

Since the Constitutional Court ruling, followers of kepercayaan have now been able to apply for the previously blank space on the card to be replaced with the category of Kepercayaan terhadap Tuhan Yang Maha Esa, allowing control of faith matters such as education, spaces of worship and marriage. In a step towards greater inclusivity in Indonesian citizenship, those following an indigenous religion, and not one of the six ‘world’ religions can begin to have a greater voice in the public sphere, allowing communities to shape their own curriculum for schools based on their cosmology, protection for their practices, and hopefully with a growing acceptance of kepercayaan in wider society, buffering the rate of loss which the country has been facing.


Yet that is only one part of the solution to the loss of biocultural diversity and the rights of kepercayaan communities. While the Constitutional Court’s ruling is a step in the right direction for recognition of indigenous believers, it has the potential to alienate those who see themselves as both a follower of a world religion, but also who holds indigenous beliefs (as many people are) and calls into question who can be categorised as officially part of kepercayaan.

At the same time, the law still fails to address the issue of loss of indigenous beliefs and languages through other factors such as general dismissal of indigenous communities, loss of land for mining or deforestation, or migration for employment, with recent statistics saying that by 2045, more than 70% of Indonesia’s population will be living in cities, meaning further homogenisation and separation from natural spaces. This loss of connection is what Maffi describes as a ‘deleterious feedback loop’ with the loss of one accelerating the loss of another in a continuous spiral.

A number of studies have suggested that over 100 of Indonesia’s languages are vulnerable or at risk of dying completely, and many others existing only in the home and not in a formal setting, meaning while language remains, the breadth and variety of language used is greatly reduced. At the same time, biodiversity continues to be lost at an accelerating rate, with the loss of forests at around 450,000 hectares a year and around 1600 species documented as threatened. Once species and environments are lost, the language and rituals associated cease to function in reality.

There needs to be a wider conversation on the importance of language, a discussion on what it means for different communities to speak one language over another, what is lost when language is lost, and whether a focus should be on revitalisation of language or merely recording and archiving, in the hope of preserving at least some of its meaning for future generations. At the same time, across the world there needs to be an examination and redefinition of the relationship between society and nature, shifting common language away from terms such as ‘resource’ and ‘stock’ into a more holistic narrative. This of course, relies on current rates of deforestation and environmental destruction to slow or cease. For certain industries such as agriculture and fishing, looking to indigenous belief systems and their languages can begin to offer alternative, more sympathetic and sustainable practices, allowing for community revitalisation, continued effective agricultural practices, and at the same time protecting the variety of ecosystems found across the archipelago.


Forging Sacred Spaces through Sound: the Matua Community

Studying the ‘sound’ of religion has long been the domain of ethnomusicologists and anthropologists, but not so much the discipline of Religious Studies itself. Yet religion is never solely experienced visually; it involves ritual, singing, chanting, breathing, bell ringing, murmuring, and the vibrations and sensations that come with such sounds.

That was one of the main ideas Dr Carola Lorea, research fellow at the Religion and Globalisation Cluster, Asia Research Institute at the NUS, delivered in the first CRCS-ICRS Wednesday Forum of October by looking at the case of the Matua, a displaced ethnic community originating from East Bengal, now spread across modern day India, Bangladesh and the Andaman Islands. Borrowing R Murray Schaffer’s thought on ‘soundscape’, Lorea explained how for the Matua music is central in their religious practices. ‘Soundscape’ not only includes the ritualistic sounds, but also the background ‘noise’ and everyday peripheral sounds that make up one’s experience of the world. It gives context for the formation of Matuan religious identity to take place.

The displacement of the Matua

The Matua community formed in the 19th century following the teachings of the gurus Harichand Thakur (believed to be the reincarnation of Vishnu/Rama/Krishna/Caitanya) and his son Guruchand Thakur (worshipped as an incarnation of Shiva). The performance gatherings are devotional and bodily, including the recital of sacred texts and participants chanting the sacred word ‘Haribol’ as well as dancing, or matam, to reach the siddhi (perfection)The Matua begin their rituals by welcoming guests with garlands of coconut beads, sandalwood paste to the forehead and hugging before the performance starts. (To get a sense of how the Matuan rituals sound like, watch a documentary film on them.)

The formation of the Matua was also as a resistance to the caste system and oppression felt by the community as part of the Untouchable or dalit caste. Translated literally as ‘madness’ or ‘drunk’ in Bengali, ‘matua’ was initially a derogatory epithet directed at the South Asian community due to the loudness and the seemingly intoxicated nature of their music and dancing central to their religious life. The Matua took ownership of this term, turning it into a positive attribute to their customs and rituals, and continued to sing and dance. Although the caste system was made illegal after India’s independence, Untouchables like the Matua continued to be discriminated against through lack of rights and erasure from culture and history.

After India’s Independence and subsequent Partition in 1947 which led to East Bengal transitioning into Bangladesh, the Matuans who continued to live within their original homeland became a religious minority, despite being a community of around nine million at the time. Many Matuans crossed the border to India where some were given refugee status, but an unknown number became stateless. Those who were granted refugee status were relocated by the government according to the Caste system. As Untouchables, the Matua were sent to isolated, inaccessible areas around the country, and the government’s colonisation scheme transmigrated them to as far as the sparsely populated Andaman Islands lying in the ocean between India and Indonesia. Presently, it is thought there are around 15 million Matuans overall, but due to the high number of stateless Matuans and lack of collected data on the community, there remains no actual figures about the total population or how the community move and work within the various regions.

The Matua. Photo: Carola Lorea

The politics and poetics of religious sound

It is due to that erasure and fragmentation that Lorea feels it is crucial to study the aural make-up of displaced communities. To this day there remains little documentation or cultural acknowledgement of the Matua people, which means that despite their large numbers, they have had almost no political or cultural power within the general population. If we are to take Spivak’s question, ‘can the subaltern speak?’, perhaps for the Matua the question should be—if the subaltern can speak, or play in the case of the Matua—what are the politics behind the refusal to listen? While Dalit Literature has developed as a genre, this excludes the great body of cultural work created by the various Matuan community around South Asia. Where various other tribal communities around India and the region have developed an audience in the Jazz or ethnic music scene, the music of the Matua continues to be seen as “unnecessary noise”. As Lorea described it, this untouchable cultural heritage has never become intangible cultural heritage.

Taken from interviews with members of the Matua community during Lorea’s research, one Matuan likened their music performances to the adzan, a reminder for Muslims to pray. Yet in the primarily Muslim country of Bangladesh, when the actual adzan plays, the Matua have to stop the sādhanā, highlighting the sonic hierarchy that develops in a space that holds religious majorities and minorities. Lorea calls this ‘the politics and poetics of religious sound’. Here we can see the development of sonic territories, the license for one sound to preside over another.

This ‘place’ of sound created by the community not only enters through the ears of those in the surrounding area, but also affect the landscape in other ways, creating large, sonorous vibrations which have been known to interfere with mobile phone signals and cure the heart problems of patients in nearby hospitals. The border of this new space ends where the music can no longer be heard, or where the sacred sound can no longer be felt. The performers may be far from the original marshes of East Bengal, but in that moment, the space in which they inhabit is distinctly theirs, and those who are open to experiencing and learning about this world of the Matua, they can. This encompassing sound of drums, horns, singing of ‘Haribol’, crying and ululating is an egalitarian way of celebrating the teachings of Harichand Thakur. One music teacher within the Matua commented, “Harichand Thakur…  he did not prescribe any mantra or prayer: he said his message will spread as far as the sound of the danka will reach. …The message, it enters automatically inside of you.” In this sense, anyone who is willing to understand can. There is no requirement to be able to read or write, nor a background in theology. All one needs is the ability to feel.

 Photo: Carola Lorea

How to study the sound of religion?

As the presentation came to a close, the discussion moved in the direction of how to approach an academic study of religious sound: how does one actually study or theorize the sound of the sacred?

Lorea explained three main schools of studying sound. The first is looking at the content of the music, whether the lyrics or elements feature religious knowledge, about the life of the saints, the prophets, or religious knowledge. The second school can be termed a phenomenological approach, and this involves comparing religious or sacred music across cultures and regions and the universally shared patterns which can be found, whether that be a certain pitch, the pace, or the intensity of the religious music. Yet both of these school require certain conditions which some forms of religious sound won’t have. For example, to look at the content of the religious music assumes there will be words which represent the spiritual element, and if we are to look at sacred sound phenomenologically, there are a number of flaws with comparing different religions.

The third school, to which Lorea subscribes, focuses on context—the music is sacred when the community contextualises it and defines it as sacred. To develop a real understanding of the sacredness of the sound created, a researcher should develop an understanding of the local system, listen to the songs and learn the various parts, discuss the content and the story behind the songs. For Lorea, embodied learning is key to understanding religious sound.

The forum and subsequent discussion not only provided insight into the largely overlooked community within South Asia but also critiques against the existing tendency in Religious Studies which gives much emphasis on written sources. Citing Isaac Weiner (2013), this lack of sonic study is a ‘disciplinary deafness’, with departments instead focusing on the visual and the written, or a ‘scriptist bias’, as termed by Roy Harris (1986), using sacred texts as the dominant, reliable source. The Matua community exemplifies a religious community for whom ‘soundscape’ is vital in identity formation and therefore cannot be neglected.

Written for CRCS as part of my scholarship. Read this and more on the website:

Co-creatureliness as a narrative of ethics in the Anthropocene

13 September 2019

Creeping its way into everyday discourse is the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in which humans have been the dominant influence on the Earth’s environment and climate, unfortunately with unsustainable activities and damaging effects. As these effects become increasingly visible in our modern world, the question remains how we as a worldwide community can stop, or perhaps even reverse, the effects of global warming.

Looking at the current crisis, the historical background of the Anthropocene, and religious examples of human/nature interactions, Michael Northcott, professor of religion and ecology at the Indonesian Consortium of Religious Studies, introduces the concept of ‘creaturely ethics’, an inclusive new framework for dealing with the current ecological crisis, at the CRCS-ICRS Wednesday Forum, 28th August 2019.

The Anthropocene epoch, popularised by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000, reflects the imbalance in the world caused by humanity’s movement of materials and changing of chemicals in the earth and atmosphere. There are two distinct moments in history which are thought to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene. For Crutzen, the beginning of the epoch can be traced to the latter half of the 18th century and James Watt’s invention of the steam engine. Northcott explained how it was during this period which saw the beginning of increased production of manmade greenhouse emissions, primarily C02, CH4 and N20. Northcott himself, however, points to much later during the 1950s. This was a period known as ‘the Great Acceleration’ due to the rapid increase in human population, energy and water use, technological advancement, consumerism, and tourism, among other things.

Using graphs displaying human activity over the past fifty years (see below in slides by IGBP and notice what the year 1950 marks), Northcott emphasised just how rapid technology and industry has developed, and how this development has directly correlated with rising global emissions, deforestation, extinction and other crises. In the past fifty years, 70% of all land areas are now managed by humans, 90% of all fish in the oceans have been harvested since 1950, and there is currently 50 kg of ‘waste’ per square metre of planet. Quoting Will Steffen, “In a single lifetime humanity has become a planetary-scale geological force” (in Anthropocene Review, 2015).

Humans’ embeddedness into Earth system

Northcott introduced James Hutton, the 18th century geologist who created the concept of the Earth System by studying patterns of geomorphic and sedimentary rock found in his native Scotland to try and understand the timescale and processes necessary to produce such features. Looking at the layers of up-thrusted rock formations and patterns in erosion, Hutton concluded that the Earth was potentially billions of years old, far older than the history of humanity. If we view the Earth’s history as a 24-hour clock for example, the whole of human history can be packed into less than a minute.

This narrative of insignificance is common within modern science, countering ideas of anthropocentrism from earlier theological beliefs. But, Northcott reasons, this idea should be reviewed. If Hutton’s Earth system was all about ‘the interrelation of geophysical, chemical and biological processes’ – a symbiotic relationship between the land, oceans, atmospheres and poles – now human activity is ‘embedded’ into this system. There are no elements left untouched by human hands. Our species now shapes the planet, and for Northcott, it is the religious thinkers who have been saying this all along.

The Genesis story is an obvious example of a religious narrative about the responsibility of humans on the planet. But Northcott points to modern history, as far back as the 1800s, where theologians grappled with the profound impact humans have on the climate. Antonio Stoppani in Corso Geologgia (1873) termed human’s impression on the Earth as the ‘Anthropozoic Era’, marvelling at the power wielded by mankind. John Ruskins, the artist and writer lamented the manmade fogs that hung over Manchester and called for humanity to act humbly and with restraint, to return to God.

Northcott also introduced Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who explored how the boundaries of the world and humankind are blurring more so than ever in a “gigantic planetary contraction” (in Heart of Matter, 1948). Northcott used an example of driving to Bali: You set the intention of driving from Yogyakarta to Bali, in acting on this intention, you use of fuel which in turn produces C02 emissions. The very intention of getting to Bali via the means of a fossil fuel-powered vehicle have added to the atmosphere and thus changed the planet. Each decision made in the brain is intrinsically linked to the Earth’s climate and processes.

Developing a co-creaturely ethics

So what is a possible solution? Crutzen suggests the potential of a world body, who manage the “wise use of Earth’s resources, control of human and domestic animal population, and overall careful manipulation and restoration of the natural environment” (in Earth System Science in the Anthropocene, 2006).

Yet for Northcott, the concept of a transnational controlling body is implausible, particularly when considering the rise of populist governments across the planet and the increasing power of multinational corporations like Google and Amazon. Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si(2015)points to the maelstrom of economic growth without limits, the destruction of the environments and livelihoods of the poor, blind following of the ‘magic of markets’, and technological power as the “root causes of the ecological crisis”. He believes we must move away from the carbon economy and into a circular one in order to slow the process. But control and regulation is not enough. There needs to be a shift in the growth-above-all mindset and development of ethics in relation to the ecological crisis.

Northcott returns to the theologians and their emphasis on ‘community, compassion and care’. Taking the parable of the good Samaritan from the New Testament, Northcott explained how in the current crisis, we should act like the Samaritan, helping those who are foreign to us, and “who are affected by our actions at a distance” by engaging in the global community. Using a variety of examples from across religious traditions, creatures, Northcott explained, “are implicated in our salvation, and in our move from Earth to Heaven.” They “are also beings with purposes which ought to be respected.” It is this which Northcott terms as ‘the co-creatureliness’.

Co-creatureliness ethics has two main purposes. The first is the development of the idea that humans cannot save the environment single-handedly, but instead must provide the spaces for nature to return and replenish as it once was – a practice commonly referred to as ‘rewilding’. The second aim is to develop a new, religiously-minded narrative allowing communities to understand the issues of global warming, and the steps that need to be made, without being faced with cold facts and statistics.

The concept of rewilding and allowing nature to manage environments can link with previous ideas of stewardship and God’s vicegerency found within Abrahamic religions, as we can’t escape the sense of responsibility about what has happened to the planet, we can help provide spaces for other creatures to manage. Northcott pointed to the example of Knepp Castle Estate in the UK. The owner Charlie Burrell was failing to make a profit through modern agriculture, deciding to use the space instead to allow rewilding. By leaving the natural shrubs and thorn bushes to grow, new trees could seed in amongst the brambles, this was the first step. Next, he brought in one of the oldest forms of cattle, as well as other animals, who naturally managed the land. Bird and plant species in the area, as a result, have greatly increased.

Northcott also introduced a similar case in Papua, where an area with vast shark and fish depletion was restricted for human access. In doing so, the shark population jumped back with incredible speed and the coral and fish populations have also made a recovery, a representation of the interconnected nature of an ecosystem. Cases like this have proved far more effective than special scientific zones, or national parks, which are managed by humans.

The second aim of co-creaturely ethics is the more slippery task of developing an effective narrative. Co-creaturely ethics forms a symbiotic explanation of science, culture and religious tradition, allowing a new environmental form of religious ethics. It is down to those who can take the information presented by science, and develop it into a narrative that moves. As Michael Northcott finished his presentation, “Straight scientific facts do not change behaviour. You have to mediate the science through culture.”

First on the CRCS website