Thu, 10 Mar 2005

Hindu priest impresses upon Balinese gift of life

I Wayan Juniartha, The Jakarta Post, Denpasar

Hindu high priest Ida Pedanda Gde Bang Buruan Manuaba nodded gently and immediately people began to lower the eight turtles into the salty water of Candidasa beach, some 70 kilometers east of the provincial capital, Denpasar.

Upon touching the water, some wriggled animatedly as if they could sense their imminent freedom. Soon, their flippers started breaking the waves and, in one majestic movement, they all swam into the blue ocean, free at last.

The locals, who flocked the beach by the dozens, bade the turtles farewell by chanting a common Hindu salutation, Om Swastyastu (may God grant you peace and happiness).

"It might be a simple greeting but it also carries the sincere and compassionate feeling we have toward other sentient beings. That's why I asked the locals to chant the salutation," Bang Buruan Manuaba said.

The release of the turtles ended the two-hour-long Hindu ritual that windy afternoon on March 1.

It was unique for two reasons. First, it was initiated and organized by a high priest. In Bali, religious rituals are generally organized by individuals or traditional institutions, such as banjar (traditional neighborhood associations) or desa pekraman (customary villages).

The high priest is usually invited only to officiate at the ceremony. Only on such rare occasions like a prolonged drought, plagues or terrible disasters do the high priests take the initiative of organizing a specific ritual.

Second, not a single animal was killed in the course of the ritual. Balinese Hindu rituals have long been known for their elaborate sacrificial offerings, which involve a variety of animals.

The once-in-a-century Eka Dasa Rudra ritual, for instance, requires the sacrifice of a large number of exotic, and endangered, animals, such as a lion, a tiger, an elephant and an eagle.

"It is about time that we teach our people the importance of conserving and caring for nature and the rich tradition of Balinese Hindus. Sacrificing animals is not the only way for Balinese Hindus to show their gratitude to God," Bang Buruan Manuaba said.

Known as one of the most influential high priests on the island, Manuaba has won a large following in recent years due to his combination of blunt honesty, an eccentric attitude and -- allegedly -- powerful siddhi (supernatural powers).

An outspoken conservationist, he has played a pivotal role in the discussion, drafting and issuance of the Council of the High Priests' recommendation on Jan. 15 that asked the Balinese to stop using turtles and other endangered animals in Hindu rituals.

An ironic arrest

The recent ritual in Candidasa was a culmination of a series of events that began two days earlier, before dawn on Feb. 27, when the police at Padangbai harbor stopped a small truck that had just disembarked from a ferry from Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara. Stashed inside the truck, the officers found nine green turtles (Chelonia mydas), bound and exhausted.

The driver of the truck was 44-year old AA Kt Mataram, who, it turned out was a police officer with the East Lombok police. The arresting officers had suspected Mataram of illegally trafficking turtles for quite some time.

"We'd noted that the vehicle and the suspect had been through Padangbai on at least four occasions. We did not check the vehicle then because he shouted at us that he was a fellow police officer," the arresting officer said.

By the evening, news of the arrest had reached the ears of Adj. Comr. Ketut Arianta at the Bali Police Headquarters in Denpasar. Arianta is one of several senior officers who maintains close contact with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) Turtle Campaign Leader IB Windia Adnyana.

"I notified Windia and later on he informed the high priest. The priest then came up with the idea of going all the way to Candidasa to conduct a religious ceremony for the turtles.

As a devout Hindu and a senior policemen I was asked by the high priest to be a designated driver of the group, a preferred chauffeur," Arianta said grinning.

New modus operandi

The arrest, Windia said, was actually bad news for the turtle conservationists.

"We are aware that certain elements in the police force have, at certain levels, for years tolerated the illegal trade in turtles for their own personal gain, financial or otherwise. However, the fact that a police officer might directly be involved in the illegal operation has raised the problem to a whole new level," he said.

Other recent problems include a new modus operandi employed by turtle poachers. In East Kalimantan, traffickers from Bali, in an effort to elude local law enforcement agencies, have managed to secure the cooperation of local fishermen.

"They paid the locals to do their dirty work, Rp 1 million for 30 turtles," he said.

That is small beer for the Bali-based traffickers, since one adult turtle alone can fetch up to Rp 500,000 in Bali.

Meanwhile, in the Yamdena and Kei areas of Maluku, the traffickers have equipped themselves with a letter from the head of Desa Pekraman Tanjung Benoa in Bali, stating that the captured turtles would be used for Balinese Hindu rituals. They have also convinced the locals into believing that the green turtles are neither an endangered nor a protected species.

"The illegal turtle trade is dynamic, on a fluid, ever- changing playing field and we have to constantly adapt our strategies to meet the new challenges," Windia said.

Fortunately, Karangasem Police chief Adj. Snr. Cmr. Sukawinaya has promised Windia he would thoroughly pursue the cases.

"He is a charming, intelligent officer who is able to quickly grasp the multifaceted issues of the turtle trade and conservation. True to his promise, the police dossier on the suspect was completed on March 7," Windia Adnyana said.

The gift of life

Thus, on the morning of March 1, Arianta drove a minivan, packed with five people and ritual paraphernalia, into Candidasa, a modest tourist destination in eastern Bali.

A small plot by the beach was selected as the site for the ritual; a sacred spot for the locals, and the place where the people of Tenganan, Sedahan and Nyuhtebel villages usually hold their annual Melasti (purification of temple effigies).

When the small entourage arrived, to their surprise, they were greeted by none other than the Karangasem Police chief.

"We later learned that he canceled an important meeting with his superiors just to be able to attend the ceremony," Windia said.

Manuaba spent almost an hour reciting sacred mantras before an array of various, colorful offerings in a ritual known as Guru Piduka. Lying on the ground next to him were eight turtles (one of which was set aside as evidence).

"Guru Piduka is our way of expressing our regret to God for the way we have treated His beautiful creatures, the turtles, in a cruel and selfish manner," the priest said.

He then sprinkled holy water on each of the turtles in a ritual known as Prayascita Biyekaon while praying for their well- being.

A few moments later the turtles were released into the ocean while Manuaba recited the powerful mantra that combined the powerful energy of Siwa with the compassionate heart of Buddha.

The mantra ended with the touching utterances of Lokasamasta Sukhambhavantu (May the universe and all beings be in tranquil peace and happiness).

Afterwards, the high priest approached the locals, who were somewhat amazed at observing a ritual that did not involve the killing of an animal, and spoke to them in a solemn voice.

"This is the ultimate sacrificial offering. It is ultimate because through this ritual we have given other creatures a chance to survive, we have spared them from horrible death.

"Our religion has taught us that the most valuable of all gifts is the gift of life. If you give life to Nature then, believe me, it shall protect and cherish yours," he said.