Each month, travelling duo Stephanie Brookes and David Metcalf, explore some of the lesser-known enclaves of Indonesia and bring back tales of hidden heritage and cultural journeys of discovery. Here are a few highlights from 2015.
A holy energy resides in the Dieng Plateau, Java. A rich history unfolds around the temples and shrines, which anthropologists have been visiting since the early Dutch colonial days. The local people practice meditation into the night, and they embrace ascetic practices and incorporate animistic rituals to honour the many gods that reside in the mountains.
Worshipped even before Borobudur was established, powerful resident deities and spirits dwell in many sacred spots. The area has been a site of pilgrimages since ancient times, including Javanese mystics and followers of the Javanese Kejawen tradition who visit, as well as Balinese Hindus.
In this place of extraordinary beauty, towering majestic mountains over 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) frame the plateau and a stunning blue-green coloured lake spreads across the valley floor, with gusts of steam rising from thermal vents. Thick grey mud bubbles with toil and trouble. Locals say such mud spots can at times settle, only to have the bubbles reappear in another area. Mystery and wonder abound in this historic valley.
For the Dayak people of Kalimantan and other tribal people strung across the Indonesian archipelago, weaving is a living heritage. As Mina (Aunty) Herta sat on the wooden floor of her humble weathered eighty-year-old home, she flexed her big toe and masterfully plaited three strands of rattan. This would soon be transformed into a handle for the rice basket she was making. Between the strands of a woven basket, an intricate skill is passed through the generations.
In the village of Bukit Rawi, on the banks of the Kayan River in Central Kalimantan, there is a collective of weavers. Story telling and weaving are one and the same. There is, for example, a lovely story woven into a pattern depicting the Tree of Life, known as Batang Garing. This tells how two greedy hornbills were fighting over wealth and power, so much so that they killed each other. The higher power governing the world at the time punished the great birds and turned their dripping blood from its source in heaven into human beings. These creatures then had to live their lives, continually confronted by mysteries, which required solving, and so it is still for us on earth.
On the outskirts of Ubud, Bali, history is unraveled in the rock carvings, temples and many reliefs found throughout the Tampaksiring area, many following the flow of the holy Pakerisan River. Temples dating back to the eighth century reveal ornate pictorial reliefs, which tell stories of a time long ago. One of the most ornate temple complexes is Gunung Kawi, where a series of ten grand candis (temples) are chiselled into giant cliffs. These representing members of royalty stand guard as they face Mount Agung.
Around the eighth century, the Hindu priest, Rsi Marhandya came to Bali, from Java and for the next 400 years many temples and monasteries were established. I met the temple sweeper, Wayan at Gunung Kawi, who explained these giant carvings depict King Anak Wungsu, who ruled over central and east Bali from AD 1050 to AD 1080. Historic accounts vary but Wayan told me the candis represent the King’s brothers, and the others are believed to represent the King’s four wives who would have committed suicide after his death, which was customary in the day.
Still practised today in Lombok is the old tradition of stick fighting and if you chance upon a dual you are in for a real spectacle. It is a game of strength and skill and draws a large crowd. You will hear one before you see one. The local villages pack in tightly, offering their very loud and boisterous support, adding to the excitement and energy of the dual.
The fight involves two men armed with rattan whips and cowhide shields for protection, who engage in a battle of strikes to each other’s bodies. The performance, enhanced by crowd cheers, is umpired by the pekembar, the only other person allowed in the fight area, who declares the winner based on many factors involving technique, stealth, and a battle of wits. At the conclusion of the fight, traditional drumming beats out loud and proud, music fills the air and the event closes with a bang.
Published in NowJakarta! Magazine