Tanahair, Ibu Pertiwi

Indonesians have several names for their land. Ibu Pertiwi and Tanahair (or Tanah Air) are among them.

Ibu Pertiwi (Mother Pertiwi) is an affectionate reference; to us, our land is our mother. This kind of reference is not exclusively Indonesian, of course. Many nations refer to their lands as motherland. The belief that earth is a mother — mother earth — is probably as ancient as human civilisations. The name Pertiwi itself is said to have been derived from Prithvi, the Hindu godess of Earth, the wife of father sky deity, Dyaus.

Tanahair comes from the words tanah (land) and air (water). Officially and in the lexical standard of Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia (the Grand Dictionary of the Indonesian Language), the nomen should be written as two separate words: tanah air. Personally and as a matter of choice, I prefer to write it as a single word tanahair because I believe that our lands and waters are not separate, they are a single entity, an inseparable unity. Indonesia would not have existed without such a concept: we are a nation of islands and seas; separating the lands and the seas divides the nation, destroys its coherence.

Ibu Pertiwi and tanahair sound loftier and more romantic to me than Indonesia, the official name of the country whose territory is our motherland. I love Indonesia, of course. It is the country of my birth and I am its citizen. However, as a name and as a political entity, Indonesia can conveniently be replaced by the pronoun it or its — the same pronoun that can be used for inanimate or genderless being. There is no romance in it, and it doesn’t sound as affectionate as it does Ibu Pertiwi or tanahair. Ibu Pertiwi will always be a mother, a supreme She who will always occupy the center of my heart, nurani, together with love and God — all of them, in hierarchy and in unity, the source and the mover of life.

Tanahair might not sound like a living thing. Water and land, in our modernized and ‘cognitivized’ concepts of things, are inanimate beings. But we don’t have to look far to feel that they are not. They are as breathing as we are, and they give breath to us — they are a life on their own and a source of life to us and to everything living. And although it can conveniently be referred by the pronoun it or its, tanahair is not actually an it; it is more like she, like a mother, Mother Earth, Ibu Pertiwi. We cannot mention her name without some sort of affection, reverence, respect.

Bandung, 11 February 2014
Eki Akhwan


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