The Island of Bali is developing fast, in part due to its popularity as a tourist destination. Despite this, there are some villages still occupied by the indigenous people of Bali, where little has changed over the centuries. The rituals of these Bali Aga villages, which lie mostly in the east, are fascinating for foreign travellers and for other Balinese, who come in large numbers to witness these special ceremonies.
I arrived around 7 PM in Tenganan Dauh Tukad village the night before the Pandan War. Walking up the nearly deserted main street, I discovered that most of the community members were attending a prayer ritual in the main temple. Soon, however, people started streaming out of the temple and I struck up a conversation with Komang, who very kindly invited me back to his house for coffee and cake.
After coffee, Komang and I made our way to a smaller village temple where young people were already filing through the gates. The boys moved to one side while the girls, beautifully adorned in traditional attire, took their place on a small raised platform on the opposite side. Soon enough, the boisterous boys started throwing romantic words in the direction of the ever so bashful girls. A couple of the male suitors were very poetic. Others were less so, trying phrases like, “How about going on my scoopy (motorbike) together, just you and me – yes?”
It was highly entertaining, and even the priests were laughing at the young people’s antics. The evening got more and more lively as the suggestions became increasingly inventive. Komang explained that the event was a kind of pre-courtship, where many boys were hoping to impress a future bride.
Some of the girls threw their own words back or laughed, but the overall intention was clear – for connections to be made. In the end, I was not sure if any of those boys were successful, but it was not for want of trying.
After the exchanges, everyone filed out and began to prepare for the next ritual – the race around the village. This involved eight of the younger boys climbing onto the backs of older boys for a piggyback style relay race. The younger boys clung on for dear life as the runners used all their strength and speed to complete three circuits of the village. Somehow these boys managed to keep their traditional finery intact, their krises (sacred dagger with a wavy-edged blade) lodged firmly into their fine double ikat textile sarongs and I did not see one ornate golden crown fall.
There were also eight pigs who at times dodged and weaved between the boys and, at times, seemed to be chasing them. The pigs were on poles and hoisted on the shoulders of the male or (strong) female bearers. These pigs had been slow cooked over a coconut shell fire. There were a lot of yells of encouragement from the crowd as these eight boys and eight cooked pigs ran for their lives. The whole affair was incredibly noisy and a lot of fun.
After the excitement, I was invited back for a suckling pig feast with Komang’s family. There was a variety of pork dishes, including sate, spare ribs, sausage and a delicious pork stew with banana stems. Over dinner, Komang briefed me on the origin of the Pandan War ritual, known locally as Makare-Kare.
He explained that this annual ceremony was to honour the God of War, Indra. Dating from Vedic times, Indra has been seen as the supreme ruler of the gods and hailed as the god of war and of thunder and storms. He is revered as the greatest of all warriors who can defend the gods and mankind alike against the forces of evil.
The day of the Pandan War was hot and so I found myself a shady spot well before it was due to start. While waiting, I struck up a conversation with Ayu, from Tabanan, “I have travelled three hours from my village to be here,” Ayu said. “I would not miss this Pandan War for anything. I came last year too. This original Balinese culture is so different from the Balinese culture in my village. The Pandan War ritual is over 1,000 years old, and not found anywhere else in Bali. It is a marvel and I think it’s important for my children to see it.”
The War started in the early afternoon under an intense hot blue sky. The gamelan orchestra struck up their gongs, drums and percussion instruments as the first two warriors appeared on the stage holding pandanus leaves with razor sharp spikes. As they engaged in battle, the orchestra’s tempo kept getting faster and faster, eventually reaching fever pitch. Ayu explained the gamelan players were skilfully matching their rhythm with that of the fighting.
I was mesmerised by the deep lunges and agile foot movements of the successive pairs of warriors appearing before the crowd. Their fast and furious strikes made the large crowd go into frenzy. The fighting got pretty gruesome at times, with most battles resulting in a bit of bloodletting. The referee had to move as swiftly as the warriors to control the fights, and many had to be broken up. The warriors indeed have to be very brave but, as the afternoon wore on, many more stepped up to take on the challenge. This included rounds with boys as young as eight years old.
Despite the drama of the fighting, throughout the ritual there was a wonderful spirit of comradery among the warriors, and smiles were often exchanged between opponents. Ayu’s sister, Putu, nudged me, “I think they are actually dancing. That is the way I explain it to my children, so they don’t get too upset.”
After each fight, the two opponents left the stage immediately, streaked with blood but giving one another one last smile and then they smeared a yellow paste on each other’s wounds.
“I was only eight years old when I started to fight,” Komang said after his round. “I fight every year.” After turning his back to show me his wounds he said, “It’s not so painful. The first time it really hurt. Now I am used to it and can master mind over matter, and I barely feel it. The paste we rub on each other’s backs is turmeric and other herbs. It will be all healed in three days.”
As the War raged, demure young village maidens watched from the adjacent bale. They were dressed in sparkling golden crowns and intricately woven double ikat bodices, with pink silk sashes accentuating their tiny waists. They watched the fight with an aloof air which occasionally transformed into a smile. The young women also had the most exquisite makeup and hairstyles.
I struck up a conversation with Kadek, who told me it had taken two hours to get ready but assured me that it was worth it. “We have love on our mind all the time. Whether we are swinging on the old Vedic wooden swing ritual or watching the men fight with the pandanus leaves, or at the evening romantic poetry ritual, we are contemplating a suitor.”
The Tenganan Duah Tukad villagers preserve their authentic, age-old aga culture with many time-honoured rituals. These villagers are in fact the oldest tribal group in Bali. The village is self-sustaining, with two major productive honey bee enterprises, a thriving Ikat fabric cottage industry and artisan miniature book production from lontar palm leaf. It also produces ata craftwork, weaving ata grass to make placemats, bags and baskets. The village is very welcoming of guests at any time.
In Bali, as in all the islands I have travelled to in Indonesia, people always show great respect for visitors, and it is not uncommon to be invited into the homes of villagers for a coffee or a meal. In this deeply traditional village, however, I experienced a special sense of genuine inclusion and openness to me as an outsider.
I walked away having made many new friends and felt very privileged to have learnt a little more about the Bali Aga customs and culture.
Cultural advice: Facebook – BuAna Bali
For more information: www.tenganandauhtukad.com
Accommodation: Candidasa is 4 km away. There are many homestays, villas and hotels.
Restaurant: Vincents on the main road of Candidasa has western and Balinese food and good cappuccino.
This article is originally from paper. Read NOW!Jakarta Magazine August 2018 issue “Capital of Culture”. Available at selected bookstore or SUBSCRIBE here.
Story by Stephanie Brookes
Photos by David Metcalf
David Metcalf runs photo workshops in Bali and cultural photography tours in Bali, Borneo, Vietnam, Odisha India and Myanmar.