Bengkulu province is located on the southwest coast of Sumatra. With an area of 19,919 sq km (7,691 sq mi), Bengkulu is the smallest province in Sumatra. Despite its small population and isolation, it is also a region of awe-inspiring natural beauty. The region is blessed with a wealth of natural riches, nurturing a variety of rare plant and animal species. It is bordered on the east by the Bukit Barisan range which acts as it’s backbone from north to south. The western part of the region is dominated by sunny coastal plains and is bordered by the shores of the Indian Ocean. The entire province is filled with stunning forested landscapes and plantations.
(Photo credited to Google Maps )
Bengkulu region was part of the Buddhist Srivijaya kingdom. After the Srivijaya kingdom was defeated by the Majapahit kingdom of East Java in the 13th century, Bengkulu came under the influence of the Majapahit until the late 15th century. It is generally believed that before the introduction of Islam in the 12th century to the region, the people who lived within the region developed their own script known as the Rejang script or also known as the Ka-Ga-Nga script to write the five Rejang dialects. In the late 17th century the British controlled most of Bengkulu (Bencoolen, as they called it), and then the region gradually came under Dutch occupation in 1824. Under the leadership of Sukarno, Indonesia gained it’s independence from the Dutch on August 17, 1945.
Bengkulu province, with a population of 1.7 million inhabitants, encompasses a mix of cultures and ethnic groups with over 8 ethnic groups, each speaking their own language. The interior is mainly populated by the Rejangs (60% of the province’s total population) and the Lembaks, while coastal towns are inhabited by the Bengkulu-Malays, the Serawais, the Kaurs, etc. Foreign travellers who have ever come to this province are usually surprised by the incredibly friendly locals who tend to have the time to greet, to chat, and to help foreign travellers.
In general, the culture in Bengkulu province is largely influenced by Islam, but each ethnic group in the region has a unique cultural identity shaped by the ancient myths, the Malay heritages, the physical landscape, and the European colonialists. Islam was introduced to Bengkulu in the 12th century and gradually Islamic values blended with the traditional cultural practices.
Ikan sejerek – bereh secupak (lit. a bunch of fishes – a quart of rice), a popular Bengkulu-Malay expression which roughly means be thankful for what you have today and live a simple, peaceful, and content life. This expression reflects that there is a slower pace of life in every corner of Bengkulu province. Even the provincial capital city moves at a more relaxed speed then many western cultures. The people always seem not to be in a big rush to get things done. It is very common for the locals to take the opportunity to greet and talk to foreign travelers. Life in Bengkulu tends to be much less stressful, where drinking strong black coffee and smoking are popular pastimes for the people.
In Bengkulu province, especially in the rural areas, the kepala desa (village head) and the tetua adat (the traditional leaders and the elders) are still highly respected and valued for their cultural knowledge and leadership. They are frequently asked by the local communities to supervise, to make important decisions, and to give written or oral approval when needed. The old tradition of gotong-royong (mutual co-operation) and musyawarah (consensus) are still strongly retained and demonstrated by the people throughout Bengkulu. These values inspire the people to cooperate and work together to meet their community needs and interests.
Music and dance have been central to Bengkulu culture since the ages of kings. In the Rejang tradition, for example, the Kejei dance performance has its roots in the Rejang’s biggest cultural event, the Kejei ritual. This ritual existed before the arrival of the four Buddhist monks of the Majapahit in the 15th century. Today the Kejei dance is presented at special events, such as at the welcome ceremony for important guests, the harvest celebration, and traditional wedding parties. It is performed by young women and men dancing together and accompanied by traditional musical instruments. Besides the richness in traditional arts, the Rejang also has its own script called the Rejang script or the Ka-Ga-Nga script as a part of its cultural heritage. The script is still in use among the Rejang traditionalists and is an art form in and of itself, rarely found among ethnic groups in Southeast Asia.
Rainforests of Bengkulu are home to some endangered species of plant and wildlife such as the world’s largest flower Rafflesia arnoldii, the world’s tallest flower Titan Arum (locally known as Kibut), sun bears, Sumatran tigers and Sumatran elephants. Find out more here
Agriculture is the backbone of Bengkulu province’s economy. It is the fastest growing sector and contributes to nearly 37% of the economic growth rate. Most people who live in rural areas depend mainly on agriculture to make a living and provide for their families. Bengkulu’s primary agricultural products are rubber, rice, coffee, fish and corn. Crude palm oil and coal are also important exports.
In recent years, trade and tourism have become the second largest sector of the economy contributing approximately 20%, while the services sector generates about 18% of Bengkulu’s economic growth rate.
The Tabot festival is the biggest and the most vibrant cultural festival in the province of Bengkulu. This celebration is held annually from the first to the tenth of the month of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar) in the capital city of Bengkulu near Fort Marlborough and Tugu Square. The festival is primarily held to accommodate the Sepoy descendants’ Tabot sacred ritual which commemorates the death of Imam Hussein ibn Ali at the battle of the Karbala desert in 680 (61 HA). More generally, however, the Tabot festival celebrates the Islamic New Year.
Visitors will be provided with a diverse cultural experience through witnessing firsthand the customs and traditions of various neighboring districts, provinces, and even some Shia-majority countries. This 10-day festival highlights dance, music, craft exhibition, bazaar, singing contests, and the Telong-telong contest. Spectators can observe everything from the Bengkulu dol drums and tassa to the wide variety of traditional and contemporary performances. On the 9th evening of the festival, the grand Tabot replicas are carried through the streets with much merriment to the sounds of traditional music. The replicas are first displayed at Tugu square and then tossed on the grave of Sheik Burhanuddin at noon the next day.