Fri, 21 Mar 2003

Balinese nurture cultural identity in Langkat

Apriadi Gunawan, The Jakarta Post, Langkat, North Sumatra

"When in Rome, do as the Romans," so goes the well-known proverb. And Wayan Mangku Digejen, a Hindu priest who lives in Hamlet Bingei village, has done just that.

Along with him are some 30 families of Balinese origin who have lived in this hamlet for many years. They live in harmony with the locals. As they are resolved to live in this hamlet, formerly inhabited mostly by Javanese and Malay, the place is known as Cita Darma Balinese village.

Located some 35 kilometers from Stabat, the capital of Langkat regency, the hamlet can be reached by car. Despite its muddy road, which usually gets muddier in the wet season, the panoramic views of undulating terrain that can be seen from along the road leading to this hamlet are stunning to the eye.

The fatigue that may hit you after walking along the road through state plantation company PT Perkebunan Nusantara II disappears the moment you set foot in this hamlet. Upon entering, you may feel as if you have gone back in time to another civilization hundreds of years ago. The houses are built in the traditional Hindu architectural style, just like those you can find in Bali now.

"We maintain our forefathers' culture so that our descendants will always know who their ancestors were," said Wayan Mangku Digejen, 75.

He said that most of the residents of Balinese origin in this hamlet came from Kedelalang, Gianyar regency, Bali. They left Bali after Mount Agung erupted in 1961, which had caused widespread destruction.

The eruption left behind a dry and arid land that led to crop failure. "As a result, most of the locals left Bali for a new land. Some 50 families went west to North Sumatra," he said.

In North Sumatra, most of the migrants preferred to dwell in Langkat as traders. Some, he added, went to work in the plantations in, for example, Tanjung Garbus, in the Deli Serdang and Asahan regencies.

These Balinese were hospitable and open. In addition, they were endowed with a deep level of artistic and cultural feelings. As such, they made their hamlet quite comfortable.

In the center of the hamlet, there are two temples: Alet Widie Nate and Panitaan Agung, which is the main temple. Both were built in 1976 by the Balinese. Inside the main temple are three bamboo drums which are beat to summon the residents to gather together. They are usually sounded on certain days, for example for the Purnama Tilem religious rite, which is conducted every 15 days and lasts from 5 p.m. until the night.

Wayan also talked about other activities involving all the residents, such as the observation of Balongan, Kuningan and Nyepi, which are holy days on the Hindu calendar.

The head of the Balinese hamlet, Ketut Sate, said that religious rites in this hamlet showed great dynamism. Unfortunately, he added, artistic and cultural activities, such as dance performances, had long ceased to be practiced, as the props had been broken.

He added that although they had lived in this place for over three decades, they had yet to have a pengabenan (a Balinese crematorium). If one of the residents dies, he or she is buried, he said, adding that several years later, when the family has enough money, the corpse is exhumed and the bones taken to Bali to be cremated during a special rite.

"We have asked the Langkat regency administration to allow us to conduct this cremation rite here but we have yet to get a response," he said.

The chief of the tourism, art and cultural office of Langkat regency, Supono, confirmed that his office had received the request but that they were still studying it.

He added, though, that the Langkat regency administration would focus on the development of its culture for the residents of Balinese origin so that the village could become a prime tourist attraction in the regency.

"We have made this village one of the tourist destinations for 2003," he added.