Bissu priest endures shift of fortunes
Tantri Yuliandini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
Save the drowning, feed the hungry, quench the thirst of the thirsty, correct without calculating (gain). Such are the duties of the Bissu, an ancient community of priests of an ancient, pre- Islamic, Bugis religion in South Sulawesi.
Their purpose in life is purely selfless, wherein they are meant to become a mediator between the male upper world, and the female world below, hence they must be gender-less.
The Bissu claim to be neither male nor female, nevertheless their physical appearance shows them to be effeminate males.
The Bissu High Priest of the Bone regency is Baharuddin Daeng Tawero, a silent man in his 70s who wore a woman's headscarf when interviewed by The Jakarta Post recently.
He and 21 others from the Bissu community were visiting the capital last week for a performance at Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) together with other maestros -- Cirebon mask dancer Rasinah and Balinese Joged Pingitan dancer Ni Ketut Cenik -- organized by The Jakarta Arts Council (DKJ).
Sitting on a hotel bed with one leg propped up under his chin, Daeng Tawero seemed to be out of touch with his surroundings. Staring blankly in front of him, the Bissu High Priest only responded when given a direct question by Halilintar Lathief, anthropologist and my Bugis language translator for the interview.
"I had always acted as a woman since I was little, I cooked and wove cloth, everything that is expected of a woman," Daeng Tawero said through the interpreter.
Despite acknowledging five genders -- oroane (male), makkunrai (female), calabai (transgender), calalai (masculine female), and the asexual Bissu -- social denigration of the other three genders are still prevalent in the Bugis community, and Daeng Tawero had a difficult time in his childhood in coping with his "peculiarities".
"I would stay home, closeted in a separate room in the house so that others would not see me," he said.
According to Halilintar, the Makassar Wars between 1667 and 1905 created a macho image of the male so much so that calabai and the Bissu became alienated and eventually scorned by the dominant oroane.
Daeng Tawero's entrance into the spiritual world of the Bissu in 1953 came from a "supernatural revelation", he said without elaborating further. He apprenticed himself to his great-uncle who at the time was the Puang Lolo, the second in command from the High Priest, in Bone.
"A Bissu must have a civilized tongue, civilized behavior and civilized walk," he explained, while adding that it is achieved by difficult training to overcome the physical temptations that he had to undergo for 20 years before finally being ordained as a Bissu priest in 1973.
"No one knows when the training will end, not even the teacher, it could be five years, 10 years, 20 years. Only when the teacher receives divine guidance will the training end," Daeng Tawero added.
In the past, the Bissu played an important and crucial role in the court system -- providing spiritual advice as well as advice on how to govern a kingdom to the kings of ancient South Sulawesi. Daeng Tawero was appointed Bissu priest in a court ceremony of the Bone Kingdom with the Bissu name of Camming Puleng, meaning "moon mirror".
In a more modern context, the Bissu is the guardian of the Bugis tradition, keeping ancient palace rituals alive, such as the blessing of heirlooms, conducting rituals for certain blessings, dressing and beautifying brides, even administering traditional medicine.
Shifting social perception following the DI/TII (Darul Islam/Indonesian Islamic Army) rebellion in the 1950s and following the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) aborted coup in 1965 also became the Bissu's doom, for they are considered idol worshipers and communists.
Many were forced to embrace Islam, admit to being male, and take on traditional male roles such as working in fields. Others were brutally murdered, including the Puang Matowa (Bissu High Priest) at the time who was beheaded.
"The worst humiliation for a Bissu is for their traditional long hair to be shorn off, and many were shaved during the Operasi Toba (repentance operation) that was launched by Islamist puritans between 1965 and 1967," Halilintar said, adding that the incidence left a deep scar in the Bissu so they are highly suspicious of outsiders.
Daeng Tawero escaped this fate because he was a quiet, unassuming person, respected because he never brought trouble or caused any unrest. "His community protected him from the mob," Halilintar said.
But the damage was done, today only a small number of Bissu survive in four areas in South Sulawesi -- Bone, Wajo, Soppeng, and Pangkep. They were once considered a highly respected, integral and important members of society, but are now viewed with contempt and as outcasts by many. Being a calabai was shameful, and a humiliation for the family.
"I don't know why I was created like this, but my family never accepted me," Puang Lolo Angel, 35, whose Bissu name is Sessungriu, as she wept.
The plight of the Bissu was what moved Daeng Tawero to accept the highest title of the Bissu priest, Puang Matowa (eldest) on Sept. 23, 2003, after the position had been vacant for 40 years.
Together with the Latar Nusa non-governmental organization -- for minimizing friction between traditional cultures and modern religion -- Daeng Tawero now works to revive the Bissu tradition, calling upon the approximately 5,000 transgender Bissu in South Sulawesi to leave their sex-oriented ways to embrace the spirituality of the Bissu priesthood.
"I saw what happened to the Bissu in the past, so much violence, I was called on to revive the new generation. I must not disappoint," Daeng Tawero said.