Originally published in The Caravan on November 1, 2015

Amid the green-and-gold paddy fields of western Lombok, an island of some 3 million people just east of Bali, and home to the predominantly Muslim Sasak people, stands the Puri Lingsar temple complex. I visited the place on a December morning, to find, at the entrance, a billboard featuring a soldier in dark glasses shaking hands with a portly civilian, against a backdrop of mountains and, mysteriously, a giant hosepipe. Inside, traditional gamelan orchestras clanged away, and hundreds of devotees crowded into the Kemaliq, a courtyard built around a sacred pool. Some sat with their palms joined and raised above their heads, in the gesture typical of Hindu worship. Others adjusted their prayer mats to face towards Mecca. Many women were dressed in kebayas—tight-fitting blouses, worn with a sash and a sarong—while others wore hijabs.

Late in the afternoon, the dignitaries arrived. One of them, a man in military fatigues and accompanied by a large entourage, stood inspecting the scene. He was the temple’s Sasak Muslim pemangku, or supervisor, I was told, and I recognised him from the billboard. Nearby, I spotted the fleshy civilian from the billboard too—Zaini Arony, the local bupati, or elected representative. The sky had been darkening for a while, and it began to rain. Even so, there was an hour of traditional dances, followed by a round of speeches.

At one point, the master of ceremonies announced the presence of a special guest from India—me. “You can identify her by her big nose,” he said. A young policeman sidled up to me. “Are you Hindu?,” he asked. I nodded. “So am I,” he said, his body language immediately more relaxed. “Can you tell me why you treat women so badly?” Local Hindus, he said, were embarrassed “because people keep saying Hindus rape and beat women after reading the news about India.” I was spared having to answer by a call from the bupati. A roar filled the air, and the crowd started flinging about gobs of sticky rice.

I had arrived on the day of perang topat—literally, “the rice-cake war.” Every year, since the mid-nineteenth century, Balinese Hindus and Sasak Muslims have gathered here to good-naturedly pelt each other with balls of boiled rice stuffed into woven coconut leaves. The event is part of Pujawali, a five-day festival that falls sometime in late November or early December. At Puri Lingsar, thousands of Hindus and Muslims gather to worship together, creating a striking symbol of Indonesia’s fabled syncretism and inter-religious harmony.

But there’s more to the festival, and to communal currents in Indonesia, than just that. On Lombok, Hindus and Muslims harbour prejudices against each other, rooted deep in the island’s past. Hindus from Bali ruled Lombok from 1740 to 1894, when they were replaced by Dutch colonialists. At present, political power lies with the Sasak majority, and only a tenth of Lombok’s inhabitants are Balinese Hindus, but Sasak resentment against Balinese domination survives. But beyond the tensions between Hindus and Muslims, there is also rising disagreement among Lombok’s Muslims over the unorthodox celebrations at Puri Lingsar, exacerbated by the surge of conservative Islam across Indonesia since the fall, in 1998, of a dictatorship that kept religion relatively separate from public life. The celebration, then, is a peculiar mix of tolerance and suspicion, agreement and discord.

A quarter of an hour into the melee, a policeman’s whistle signalled the end of the event, and people began to swarm towards the exits carrying armfuls of rice cakes. The bupati had already departed, having thrown a single symbolic rice cake towards no one in particular.

The temple, I discovered, has two pemangku, one Hindu and one Muslim, who run their affairs independently. Each community also has its own ritual orchestra, and during my visit they appeared to be competing to drown each other out. Hindus and Muslims also prepare their celebratory meals for Pujawali in separate compounds. On the way into the temple complex with my guide—Nyoman Sumantri, a Balinese Hindu professor of law—I had noticed the carcasses of two buffaloes—animals considered edible by both the local Hindus and Muslims. The Balinese have no historical prohibition on eating beef, but with Hindu beliefs from India gaining strength here, cows are not slaughtered at the temple.

Lombok’s Hindus and Muslims agree that this spot is sacred because of the springs feeding what they consider holy water into the Kemaliq pool. The Balinese claim the springs were created, in the mid-eighteenth century, by a Hindu deity, Batara Gede Lingsar, believed to have helped in their overthrow of Lombok’s Sasak rulers. The Sasak, however, hold that the springs were created in the fifteenth century, after Datu Wali Milir, a Muslim preacher credited with spreading Islam across the island, struck the earth at this spot with his wooden staff.

The island’s Muslims fall into two broad categories: the Waktu Lima and the Waktu Telu. The Waktu Lima follow a reformist, orthodox Islam, and pray five times a day (lima is “five” in the local language). The Waktu Telu pray thrice a day—telu is “three”—and have retained elements of their pre-Islamic culture. Nearly all the Muslims who participate in Pujawali are Waktu Telu. The majority of Sasak were Waktu Telu once, but their numbers have shrunk to some 40,000. As a result, the number of Sasak Muslim worshippers at the festival is also in decline. Many Islamic leaders today pointedly advise their congregations to stay away.

Still, the Waktu Telu have particular reason to attend. They are overwhelmingly farmers, with livelihoods closely tied to water and fertility, and Pujawali also functions as a harvest festival. Before the Waktu Lima iteration of Islam spread through Lombok, both Sasak Muslims and Balinese Hindus shared a culture of water worship. The Lingsar temple controls irrigation networks in the surrounding area. Once I learned this, the hosepipe on the billboard at the temple entrance suddenly made sense.

During the festivities, I met with the Balinese pemangku, Ikatut Linga Bagiyarta. He offered me some buffalo and rice, before launching into a lengthy soliloquy on the harmony and peace between the Lombok’s Hindu and Muslim communities. Though it was difficult to edge in a question, after a while I asked him about the Sasak version of the founding of Lingsar, and the claim that the springs predate the arrival of the Balinese on the island. His jaw tightened. “People can say whatever they want,” he replied, his loquaciousness at an abrupt end.