On Misool, the most beautiful island with profound emotion, what we can experience is the mystical sensation.
Word: Ayu Arman
Two weeks of exploring Misool Island—one of the four major islands in Raja Ampat, West Papua—was like visiting the aura of our mother earth. As far as the eyes could see, the sun’s rays gently touched the surface of the water in the bays and the narrow straits creating a calming view. Limestone rocks on the karst hills stood in rows like pillars settling on the water to support the sky.
Like a hidden and spacious paradise, Misool is the earth’s unspoiled and ancient land with aquamarine waters lined by towering karst cliffs in various shapes and forms. The ancient stones are reminiscent of temples from a bygone age.
We were fascinated by the charming heavenly panorama of limestone islands, bays, straits, karst hills, as well as the clear seawater. It was hard to believe that such a place so full of natural wonders could exist.
An ancient, majestic and serene kingdom on the sea with a shaded water park emerged in my mind when we arrived in Sunmalelen Island, Sunbayo, Yapap, Dafalen, Lenmakana, Namlol, Balbulol, Puncak Harfat, and other small islands. Without the company of trained guides, we would certainly have become lost among the labyrinth-like karst cliffs which stood tall and resembled an array of objects; kingdom gates, reliefs of temples, a king’s crown, a symbol of linga-yoni, a heart, Christmas trees, the Twin Towers, and strongholds.
I realized that Misool with all its silent charm told me about its long story of how nature had forged a harmonious relationship between flora and fauna; long before humans ever set foot here. Through geology, the landscape tells the historiography of the earth’s formation which began approximately 4.5 billion years ago.
Geological researches found that the Raja Ampat Islands were formed by the movement of the Pacific plate and the formation of deep waters in the Jurassic period. Around 125 million years ago, or in the Early Cretaceous period, the Australian continent moved towards the north and formed the archipelagos (Supriatna, 1995).
Based on geological estimation, the India-Australia plate moved about 8 cm / year to the northeast; and the Pacific plate moved about 10 cm / year to the northwest which later formed the Sorong Fault, thus splitting the islands of Batanta, Salawati, Waigeo, Misool, Kofiau and Mansuar.
The movement of the two plates also formed straits and the combination of karst landscapes of tropical islands and coral reefs. The hundred million years of the earth movement has made Misool the best island in its geological outcrop. Its various karst rocks are sedimentary rocks containing macro fossils. The rocks are estimated to have been formed 150 to 240 million years ago when they were uplifted by tectonic processes creating the archipelago.
The island is located in the southernmost area of Raja Ampat, measuring 2,034 km2 and knits together not only the earth and water but also the heaven above it. There is a pride and honour in those fortunate enough to have been born in a country whose seabed has been described as the Amazon due to its abundance of coral reefs and fish species. There are approximately 400 species of coral, 75 percent of the world’s ornamental fish species, and a variety of mega-fauna—whales, sharks, octopuses, manta rays – which inhabit this vast water world.
Misool waters also have approximately 200 saltwater lagoons of all shapes and sizes stretching like an infinite green carpet, bustling with unique and wonderful corals. Three of these lagoons are home to jellyfish.
The water havens also host the sponge-eating hawksbill and green turtles.
A number of environmental and marine research projects have been conducted by various international agencies. They have revealed that the waters of Raja Ampat are the heart of the world’s Coral Triangle. Misool is the largest conservation area in the park network of small islands around Raja Ampat.
On this island, small mountains stand firm with their feet decorated with various coral reefs. The rhythmic dances of soft corals and black corals following the pulse of the ocean currents present a kaleidoscope beneath the ocean waves that is nothing short of amazing.
A hunk of rock can be understood as a piece of heart but can also represent a Christmas tree or even a symbol of male strength.
Enter into the karst caves where stalactites and stalagmites form mystical shapes. If you look hard enough, you’ll witness the shape of a lady in an everlasting contemplation. My trip to Misool began with trekking through a karst cave known by the local community as the holy cave.
THE HOLY CAVE OF TOMOLOL
Not much information is available on the caves of Raja Ampat. Scientific caving expeditions have yet to be conducted in this area. However, most people of Misool know of the existence of this holy cave.
The cave is often visited by local people due to its ancestral ties which serve them as an anchor to their modern world and shape their culture at the same time.
Due to its significant position, Tomolol is often seen as a sacred cave. It is considered as a mystical and holy area by the Misool islanders.
This cave is a storehouse of magical charm. Its cliffs’ niches are towering. The coral chunks facing each other form a gate marking the entrance of the sacred place. The ocean around the cave is calm. Its turquoise water would tempt anyone to reflect on its surface.
“Look at the writing on the cave,” said Harun Sapua, our guide, pointing out white streaks made of limestone when our boat arrived at the mouth of the cave.
There were trails of water droplets exactly at the top of the holy cave, which had slowly eroded the limestone wall, forming the word “Allah” in Arabic script. Sites such as these only increase the cave’s relevance as a sacred place.
This cave has spawned folklore tales which are passed down hereditarily. In the cave’s veranda, there are two jere or graves. They are believed to be the graves of a couple, their ancestors; the remains of a husband and wife who are believed to be the first Islamic preachers in Misool.
Most people also believe that this huge cave was once the centre of the Misool kingdom.
Mystical stories often blow out of the cave. According to our guide, it is said that the sound of tambourines being played can often be heard in this lcoation. Visitors are considered lucky if they could hear the sound of tambourines as it means their presence is welcomed by the ancestors and guardians of the cave.
Our guide advised us to pray first, asking permission to make a pilgrimage, before entering and taking in the majesty of the great cavern.
We prayed together and praise the Lord! We were suddenly startled by the soft sound of tambourines. We all fell silent, signing to each other to the depths of the cave, where we believed was the source of the sound.
Who would have thought that the story of our guide happened to us? We could hear the sound so clearly before it gradually disappeared. The strange thing was that none of us had goose bumps, feared or felt threatened by the magical sound. In fact, all of us wanted to feel the sensation of the sound even longer. If only we could greet the tamborine players and share stories. But we were lucky enough to witness it even only for a short while.
Nobody knows who the buried couple in the cave were. In fact, the elders we encountered were reluctant to mention the names of the two graves. They just said, “Let the names of the graves remain unknown.” However, most of them answered by following the discourse of their elders before them; that the graves are those of Arabian scholars and merchants who first preached Islam in Misool.
Although the karst cave of Tomolol is sacred, it was not a frightening place. This cave displays magnificence and grandeur. From the mouth of the cave, the turquoise water carpet with stalactites and stalagmites charms the eyes of the visitors. The energy emitted by the cave’s chamber is cool and serene.
We made our way into the cave via a small boat and we were immediately ambushed by the atmosphere of an ancient aura.
The stalactites and stalagmites which clung to the walls of the cave were constantly wet. Its murky water and unseen bottom gave an eerie and mystical sensation. In some places there were stalactites and stalagmites that met, forming stalagnate pillars. In this part of the cave, there were also ledges to jump off. At the end of the cave, a small lake among the karst cliffs could be found.
In addition to using a small boat, you can also swim in the cave. Exploring the cave via body rafting or snorkelling is an excellent way to feel the freshness of the seawater.
To reach Tomolol, indigenous guides who understand the condition of the sea and the safest route towards the cave’s location is certainly recommended. It is important to note that not all Misool residents know the path.
TENGKORAK CAVE: A TRACE OF THE PAST
From Tomolol, our speedboat headed to Sunmalelen Island. The Forbidden Island, as it is called by the local people. It takes only 30 minutes from Tomolol to reach Sunmalelen.
In the Matbat language, Sunmalelen means a forbidden place. It is unknown why their ancestors named this island “forbidden”. Perhaps the word “sunmalelen” was used due to the many haunting spirits of human corpses resting in the overhanging cliffs’ caves and niches of the island.
Along the way to this island, it was difficult to not be amazed. While our speedboat cut through the clear and calm sea waters, we passed through megalithic cliffs which walled our way. It was like entering a sea megalithic kingdom.
I was drowned in my own daydream until our guides pulled the speedboat over and tied its rope up at one of the high cliff rocks.
“Let’s climb the cliff,” said our guide pointing. Together with the rest of the team, I climbed the cliff and entered one of the gaping cliff’s niches.
What we saw took me by surprise. Dozens of human bones such as skulls, teeth, an array of skeletal remains as well as various other bones that could no longer be recognized were scattered there. I looked at the bones carefully. There were 32 skulls in the first niche that we visited.
We then stepped deeper into the cliff’s tunnel (a small cave). In the cave, there were approximately 51 human skeletons, of which some were partially crushed.
According to our guides, the number of human skeletons has started to diminish. The guides do not know exactly where the bones disappear to.
My mind began to wander and imagine the Misool civilization hundreds of years ago.
The skulls scattered in the cliff’s niches evident of the story of past lives here inside the caves amidst the Misool waters, directly adjacent to Seram Island; an island that used to connect the islands of Papua and Maluku.
From the elders’ oral tradition, there are many versions on the origins of the skulls. Most of them believe that when the Matbat tribe—the native people of Misool—still inhabited the mountains, the caves in the middle of the ocean were prisons for other tribes who came into the territorial waters of Matbat. They were captured, detained and left to die in the caves.
Another oral version says the skulls are the remains of bodies of tribal people, pirates, and foreigners who invaded Misool waters and later killed by local tribes. Their bodies were then thrown into the cliffs’ niches.
The oral narrative told by the elders were true in some ways. Two books, namely Pemberontakan Nuku, Persekutuan Lintas Budaya di Maluku Papua Sekitar 1780-1810 (Nuku Rebellion, Cross Cultural Connection in Maluku Papua Around 1780–1810) written by Muridan Widjojo and Masa Kuasa Belanda di Papua 1898-1962 (The Netherlands Occupation in Papua 1898–1962) written by Rosmaida Siaga, mentioned about the caves. They write that that Misool, besides being one of the central kingdoms of Raja Ampat, was also a place of trade and a refuge of bandits and rebels from Papua. Consequently, Misool waters were often used as an arena of intertribal fighting, looting and piracy attacks resulting in the deaths of many people.
When prince Nuku of Tidore rebelled against the Dutch in 1780, the roles of the four kingdoms in Raja Ampat along with their pirates, especially Salawati and Misool, were significant. The allies strengthened the rebel army of Prince Nuku in the fight against the three allies of the VOC in Maluku: Ternate, Ambon, and Banda. This conflict was eventually won by prince Nuku.
In fact, Salawati and Misool were the hiding places and strongholds of Prince Nuku when preparing the rebellion. Geographically, Misool waters were difficult to be penetrated and conquered by invading forces. Enemies attempting to sail into the middle of Misool waters rarely made it out safely. Not only could the pirates strike suddenly and seize belongings, but the wind of Misool waters was also fierce and dangerous, causing difficulties in manoeuvring. The skulls on Sunmalelen Island could well be remnants of battles in the past.
ANCIENT ROCK PAINTINGS, AN EXPRESSION COMMUNICATION FROM THE PAST
Red-coloured rock paintings on several cliffs are similar to the reliefs outside the Cave Tengkorak; both of which are found on Sunmalelen, South East Misool.
The paint strokes on the rock form women’s hands with long tapering fingers. There are also paintings of marine fauna such as tuna, sharks, dolphins, sticks, several canoes, overlapping abstract images, lines and colours symbolizing fertility.
At the first glance of a painting on the top of a steep rock, abstract rock paintings were revealed. However, the form of the paintings began appearing clearly when our speedboat approached the cliffs of Tengkorak Cave.
The various formations of the giant red rock paintings were tickling my thoughts to dance with many questions: Does our future lie within our past? Who were the artists crafting the images on these cliffs? What are the meanings of the various symbols within the paintings?
In archaeology, a painting on a rock is not merely an image created for aesthetic purposes. Each rock painting made has intention, rules, and a specific calculation. What is drawn is with regard to information about guidelines, events, or associated with certain rites. Rock paintings are typically made to express particular feelings or something that is revered and respected.
Indonesia, according to the National Center for Archaeological Research, is rich with rock paintings. The diversity of rock paintings in Indonesia represents the painting development of various communities. One rock painting that shocked the world was the hands in Leang Timpuseng, Maros, Sulawesi, which is nearly 40 thousand years old. Upon its discovery it became the world’s oldest rock painting, changing the theory that rock paintings developed in Europe only. As a result, scientists now believe that human creativity might have appeared before the migration out of Africa.
In Misool, more than 1,000 ancient rock paintings have been discovered in over 60 sites. The rock paintings were first discovered by divers who then conveyed the information to Jean-Michel Chazine of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (NCSR-France) in 1998. The discovery was announced by Chazine at the World Archaeological Congress in Jordan on January 13–18 2013, that West Papua is a small paradise for the world of archaeology.
The National Center for Archaeological Research conducted in-depth studies of the prehistoric sites around South Misool from 2014 to 2016. The research team found six sites of rock paintings of five cliffs, displaying animal figures and hands all painted in red in Tomolol Cave, Usaha Jaya, South Misool. A cave site was found as well on the cave’s wall whose base was submerged in seawater as high as three meters. It displays a black sailboat image believed to be an Austronesian boat.
The rock paintings found in Misool have similar characteristics with those on the islands of Seram, Maluku, and Berau Bay which are about 200 kilometres away from Misool. The hallmark of the paintings includes formations of fish, sea cucumbers, squid, jellyfish, shrimp, seahorses, mantas, turtles, fish bones, fish heads, fish tails, ships, boats, hands, lizards, snakes, birds, boomerangs, drums, spears, arrows, axes, bows, hands and geometric images.
The Archaeological Research Office in Jayapura states that the findings from the rock paintings in Misool indicates the presence of Austronesian-speaking peoples, as well as evidence that Misool was once a route for European trade and other areas of Asia.
Archaeologists, Peter Bellwood of the Australian National University in Canberra, and David Tanudirjo of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, agree on that around Raja Ampat Islands, a cultural interaction between Austronesian and prehistoric groups of Australomelanesian who arrived first in Papua 60 thousand years ago had taken place.
THE FOSSIL CAVE SITE AT PUTRI TERMENUNG CAVE
When we came to Putri Termenung Cave (the Contemplating Lady Cave) on Lenmakana island, Southeast Misool, we did not know what to expect as we had no information about the site prior to our visit.
“We’ve arrived at the location of Putri Termenung Cave,” said our guide as he pulled the speedboat onto the white sandy beach surrounded by limestone islands.
We hurried to descend on the beach and entered a small area overgrown with various plants. “Where is the cave?” I asked as there was no visible sign of any cave in the vicinity.
“We will enter the cave through the cliff above,” said the guide while pointing to the rocky cliff whose height reached six metres.
Cautiously, we climbed the cliff and finally reached a narrow cave entrance. Before entering the cave’s entrance, our guide said a mantra in his mother tongue and suggested we put a few cigarettes as offerings at either side of the entrance.
In the rural areas of Misool Island, local people still generally have a close relationship with nature. They often perform offering rituals to honour the living things around them. The tradition is considered to play the role to maintain the forests, water, land, and all the riches on earth. The rites are cultural languages inherited by the ancestors to preserve and maintain the earth, and for humanity’s continued existence there. They believe that the universe is not only inhabited by humankind, but also by other creatures living alongside us.
“This cave has two entrances. The first entrance we are about to pass is quite large, but shallow. Its length is about 30 metres. We must mind our step since it is very dark inside and there are a lot of stalactites. We will have to bend down slightly while walking,” advised the guide before we entered the first cave in order to reach Putri Termenung.
In the hallway of the cave, we could barely see as it was very dark and narrow inside. Light only came from the torches we had in our hands. We could only see the sun’s rays when we almost reached the exit of the cave. From the exit of the first cave, our eyes immediately saw a huge cave entrance. It was what the local people called Putri Termenung Cave.
Although Putri Termenung Cave has become a tourist spot, not all Misool residents know the location of this cave. According to Nawawi, one of our guides, the discovery of this cave was due to the tales of the elders. They said that in the great land of Batanme on Lenmakana Island, there was a cave which used to be the hiding place of the Dutch army to avoid the pursuit of the Japanese troops during the Pacific War in 1941. At the time, the Japanese army did not face any difficulties in seizing Indonesia from the Dutch. They ruled Indonesia from Maluku Islands through Morotai and from the eastern part of Misool Island.
The elders’ tale was then verified by several villagers, one of which was Nawawi. They looked for the cave in the cliff crevices. When first rediscovered, the cave was a sanctuary for birds. Hundreds of swallows nested there, their nests hung low on the cave ceiling.
In 2010, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) conducted a survey of the cave with the Misool community. They concluded this cave to be a fossil cave site due to the absence of water flow. It was dry. There were only a few droplets of calcite which indicated karstification process. Its stalagmites and stalactites ornaments were very beautiful and diverse. On the cave walls, there were visible helectites forming cave pearls, and several crystal-like stones.
While we were in the cave, aside from storied halls, there was also aha stalagmite karst, resembling a long-loose-haired lady in contemplation. It is for this reason that the cave is named “Putri Termenung” or Contemplating Lady.
The stalagmites and stalactites in the cave are guaranteed to ignite your imagination to run wild. When I stared at the white stalagmite karst resembling a lady in contemplation, images of the Thinker by the 19th century Greek sculptor Auguste Rodin came to mind.
Just like Rodin’s sculpture and the contemplating lady, the cave was silent. Only the occasionally faint wind quietly moving foliage could be heard as the background music among the silence of the cave. And in that silence, the pores on my skin could feel the mystical presence of an ancient place encompassing lives of a forever ago.
A trip to the caves of the Misool Island will not be your typical holiday. You can clearly see ancient calcareous rocks with dense vegetation which support a variety of life, dramatic karsts, heavy rains and powerful winds.
The holy cave, the skull cave, the Contemplating Lady cave, and the ancient red painted images on the cliff walls of Misool Island are archaeological sites which are important to witness and experience. The existence of human activity in these caves represents our long relationship and reliance on the shelter and resources of nature; something which is not far removed from today. (AA)