Thursday, December 20, 2018

Cultures: Lemukét

Let me tell you of the time I visited a Lemukét town accompanying a caravan of merchants. Back then I was keen to explore as many corners of Tanah Sunda as I could and readily signed up for work with any company that would provide food and a small part of profit in exchange for my labour or spear.  
I was told that the relations with the Lemukét were friendly and that we were unlikely to find ourselves in any serious danger as long as we stayed in the foreigners' quarter and kept our interactions with the locals limited to the appropriate castes, mostly our counterpart merchants in the designated market place. 
Like many other cultures the Lemukét once had a more glorious past in which their power and influence stretched beyond their traditional homelands. Their rule over others was no better or worse than any other conquerers have ever been. Depending on the particular rulers in power, cruelty or benevolence where to be found in greater or lesser measures. But the eventual downfall of their empire was more due to the nature of their society than the usual invading rivals or slave revolts. 
In the employment of the merchants my duty, besides protection, was to aid our party with the trading of goods. I was to measure out the correct quantities of various spices according to the agreed terms while also being present as a guard, alert and on the look out for quick hands attempting to steal away any of our assets. 
We had set up our stalls in the square in the early morning after we first arrived and welcomed the locals who came to browse, haggle and barter for what we had to offer. While there are various languages spoken across Tanah Sunda there are common words and signs used amongst many people, particularly the traders, merchants and seafarers. However I noticed that the Lemukét traders were not as accommodating to us in this regard as other people were. 
They often misconstrued our meanings which I first attributed to our differing accents and ways of speaking but soon realised was feigned and meant to mock us. Their attitude was that of disdain that we did not speak their words as eloquently as they did and that we did not abide by their intricate social customs which meant we often insulted their sensibilities with every simple sentence and action that was only meant to advance a fair trade. Even looking at the wrong person in the wrong way was taken as a personal affront. This cause our work to take twice as long as necessary while they seemed to gain no benefit other than personal satisfaction at seeing us struggle.
I was allowed to take a pause from the work when the sun was at its highest and the crowds thinned out. Proclaiming I was going to eat and rest, I in fact secretly wished to indulge my curiosity and explore some of the other streets and squares. The engraved wall reliefs and statues of the local temples were famed for their beauty and I was eager to see them with my own eyes. The streets were quiet as most were seeking relief from the midday sun and I presumed my attire, as simple as it was, would not mark me out as a foreigner. I would not draw attention to myself as long as I held my tongue. 
I encountered a beautiful plaza lined with trees, providing shade and cover. In the centre was a small flower garden with a large pool of clear water which I raised to my mouth to quench my thirst. That is when a call came out from a building at the far side of the court and an armed guard came rushing out. I turned around to take flight but there stood another man, face painted bright and menacing, large plumes crowning from a headdress and a spear pointed at my chest. 
They started shouting at me and although I did not understand their words it was clear I had trespassed and they wanted to know who I was. I raised my hands in appeasement and moved by instinct I spoke out in apology. Learning I was a foreigner enraged them and one of the guards struck me hard against the cheek with the back of his hand. I cowered down sure that I was about to be run through by their spears but the guards pulled me up and marched me to the main building where they bound my hands. 
What followed was several days of imprisonment, where I was subjected to the full bureaucracy of the Lemukét legal system. I was moved from building to building where I was paraded in front of what I presumed to be various kinds of courts and judges. Often the discussion between the various officials seemed to be about anything other than my supposed crime. Standing under guard in the corner of a hall discussions and arguments would rage until the sun set without ever questioning or even motioning to me.
Eventually my employers were brought into the proceedings and I was made aware that I was being used as an excuse to dispute the mercantile rights of a particular clan. The various families of the Lemukét being ever involved in political machinations to further their goals would use the convoluted laws of their society as a means to attack and undermine each other. 
That is when I understood why the Lemukét where not able to hold on to their empire. Layers of bureaucracy, social stratification and stifling social customs were a constraint that incentivised the clans to work for short term gain and eschew cooperation for mutual benefit. Their ways were not sustainable on a scale larger and while once in a generation they might be united under strong leadership eventually the squabbling between the various interest groups would cause internal fractures and divisions to their overall detriment.
In any case, my freedom was bought with a fine which came from my expected profit from the venture and I was told to count myself lucky that I did not end up on a stake or in an arena fighting for my life against slaves and beasts. The reason that I was set free with merely a fine being that the two opposing clans did not want to escalate matters further between them for fear it would turn into open violence, the Lemukét on the whole preferring to see that their rivals suffer suspiciously common 'accidents' like drowning in the river after late night walks.
While the Lemukét often send out envoys to other peoples in the hopes of further increasing trade and commerce, and they do have much to offer in terms of resources and artisanal goods, I believe that if they are ever to enjoy more prosperity and have more influence in the lands of Tanah Sunda they must become more welcoming both to strangers and to change as their culture is too rigid to allow the full flourishing of their people. 
For the right price or venture I would travel in those lands again. But I doubt the ways of the Lemukét have changed much in the intervening years so I would make sure to keep to myself as much as I could and get out when the deals are done.
- An Account of Tanah Sunda by Rishasingra

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