Mystical Art of Wood Carving: Karwar, Sacred Culture in Biak Tradition

Mystical Art of Wood Carving: Karwar, Sacred Culture in Biak Tradition

Amidst the beauty of the Indonesian jungle is a small town that bears witness to the wonders of the Karwar culture, which originated from the people of Biak, who inhabit the eastern islands of Papua, Indonesia.

Karwar statue is a sitting or standing human statue with a large head and a face known for its sharp nose and wide mouth. In the Biak language, "Karwar" comes from the words "Arwah (or Spirits in English)", while the "statue" is called "amfyanir" or "karwar". Karwar statues have a very important meaning as a symbol of respect for ancestors or deceased relatives.

Image by National Museum of Indonesia

In Biak culture, Karwar statues play a special role in honoring ancestral spirits, bridging the close connection between the human world and the spiritual realm. Through the presence of these statues, rich stories from the past that carry cultural heritage live on in everyday life. These statues bear silent witness to the amazing stories of the ancestors and exude a powerful magical presence through their cultural heritage.

The people of Biak believe that Karwar statues bring special blessings, especially to the families who care for them. This belief is closely related to the understanding that establishing good communication with ancestral spirits will bring good in their lives, as well as a way to ask for guidance in their daily lives.

Image from  Indonesia's Ministry of Education and Culture

In the past, the making of Karwar statues was known only to carvers with special skills, through a series of traditional rituals involving the preparation of areca nut, betel nut, and lime. The place where the Karwar statue is made is kept secret so as not to be known by others, as it is believed that the Karwar statue reflects the life of the spirit or spirits of the deceased.

The time required to make a Karwar statue depends on the type of wood used, size, motifs and ornaments applied. With diligence and deep expertise, the carvers create these statues as symbols laden with meaning and honor for their community.

The process of making a Karwar statue begins with the carving of the head, feet, hands, body and carved motifs. In the proportions of the statue, the Karwar head is larger than the body. This consideration carries a deep message where the Biak people prioritize consideration before action.

Micha Ronsumbre, a Biak cultural anthropologist, explains that the Biak believe that actions taken with careful thought will prevent them from regretting them in the future. With smaller bodies, the Biak are known as agile, hardworking, non-greedy individuals who are always considerate of others around them. The large nose on the Karwar statue symbolizes the ability to sense and recognize the truth of speech.

In the process of summoning spirits into the Karwar statue, this step is performed by a person called a "wennamon" or mediator. The wennamon has the ability to bridge communication between the real world and the spirit world of the deceased or the world of the gods. When the spirit or ruh is present and enters the statue, the statue is considered an activated Karwar.

Image from Indonesia's Ministry of Education and Culture

Karwar statues have a sacred status because they symbolize the presence of the spirits of ancestors or relatives, as well as a memorial to their good deeds, wisdom, and kindness during life. They are remembered as people who were always ready to help and assist the less fortunate. These statues play an important role in preserving the rich traditions and values of the Biak community.

But unfortunately, Karwar statues are not very popular and there is little literature about them. A new generation of artists or sculptors to preserve this culture is also hard to find. The majority of artists in the region have their main jobs as civil servants or teachers. Nevertheless, this culture has been recognized as Indonesia's National Cultural Heritage in 2020, which marks an effort to preserve it.

Source: Indonesia's Ministry of Education and Culture

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