Thu, 12 Feb 2004

Trace the past living at Tenganan village

Rachel Greaves, Contributor, Bali

Within a neat, walled township against a backdrop of jungle and angular hills, a group of excited young children are crouched around a shallow hole in the shade of a huge banyan tree.

Curious, I approach them to find out what is going on. Each child is armed with a small stick; and apart from a couple of suppressed giggles, they all fall quiet in anticipation of my reaction.

"Argggghh!" Shrieks of laughter ensue. Inside the hole are four angry cockroaches. But despite the rather distasteful theme, I delight in watching these kids making their own entertainment without the need of sophisticated toys and games.

Under the next tree, I stumble upon a serene herd of water buffalo dozing with their pretty calves. They regard me casually from behind long eyelashes, I have no wish to startle them, but they're unperturbed by my presence and do not move away when I advance with my camera in hand.

I am walking through a cobbled avenue in Tenganan; a unique 700-year-old walled village, hidden in the hills three kilometers north of Candi Dasa in east Bali.

Here, the 300 or so residents practice a time-honored lifestyle based around ritual and ceremony, bound by strict adat (customary law) practices to maintain purity.

Tenganan is one of Bali's original pre-Hindu settlements and a stronghold of native traditions. The residents are the Bali Aga people, descendants of the aboriginal Balinese who resisted the rule of the post-Majapahit kings, fiercely safeguarding and maintaining their own culture through the conviction that they are descended from the gods.

Ceremonial houses, rice barns, shrines, communal pavilions and the imposing bale agung, where the krama desa (council of elders) make their decisions, have been meticulously positioned in accordance with long-established beliefs.

Three broad parallel avenues run north to south, ascending towards the mountains, narrow lanes run east to west forming a grid. Single story dwellings line both sides of the main street; doorways and windows have been enhanced with whimsical flair.

Reaching the northern end of the village, I discover an open, arched doorway; on the far side I glimpse towering breadfruit trees, coconut palms, umbrella ferns and hanging creepers. Pure jungle; what a wonderful natural playground for the kids! Close by, I can hear the rush of the Tukad Pandes River, carving its way through a narrow valley, almost at the end of its long journey to the sea.

Turning reluctantly, I start to make my way back down the sloping terraced street; languorous dogs are draped across doorsteps and a gang of piglets runs across my path.

The Bali Aga society is communal, with a distinct social organization. All of the village property and surrounding fertile farmland belongs to the township as a whole. The villagers do not actually work the land; instead they lease it to sharecroppers from other villages and receive half the harvest.

This leaves the Tenganians free to engage in artistic activities such as weaving, dance and the sacred iron-keyed gamelan selonding music.

They also faithfully adhere to a calendar of complex ceremonies and ritual trance fighting between the men, known as perang pandan or mekare-kare, using prickly pandanus leaf whips to draw blood.

Today, nearly the whole community is involved in the preparation of the food for a large wedding ceremony that will take place over three days.

The men and women have very specific roles and everything is being done on a vast scale. Ladies gossip as they stir enormous blackened pans and cauldrons of bubbling sauces over smoky open fires. Little girls grate fresh coconuts and, full of cheerful banter, the men stand in circles pounding meat, vegetables, coconut and spices to make the traditional lawar.

The laws of the village are elaborately inscribed with ink brewed from burnt macadamia nuts in books created from lontar (papyrus) palm. The rigid protocol dictates that only the physically and mentally healthy, born within the village walls, are admitted into the hierarchy of the inner association.

Strict rules regarding marriage are aimed at preventing the population from inbreeding within kin groups; and if a family has no heir of good standing, the house and land are returned to the community.

Divorce and polygamy are forbidden and, until recently, anyone choosing to marry outside of the community was denied the benefit of communal land ownership and banished to live in the Banjar Pande -- an area to the east of the village.

However, it has become increasingly common for young people to marry outside, so the intended spouse (who must be Balinese) now has the option of participating in a mock cremation ceremony from which he or she is reincarnated as a Tenganian.

Despite the observation of these rules and traditions, it would be inaccurate to say that Tenganan has remained untouched by the influences of the outside world.

The Bali Aga people may be exceptionally conservative and resistant to change, but they have embraced the tourist economy and visitors are welcomed during daylight hours. Thus the fortress-like village has become a living museum, and many of the houses also function as shops and workshops where expert craftsmen and women perform their centuries old skills.

Painted pule (milkwood) masks adorn a stone wall; they depict animals, mythical creatures and clowns, with long thick hair, bulging eyes and prominent pink tongues. Traditional ata vine baskets are laid out on in neat rows on the ground, and artists display their lontar carved books.

I enter one of the houses and find myself encapsulated by hand woven fabrics. Indigenous geometric and floral motifs, and mysterious distorted figures are merged, on a yellowish background, within complex designs in reddish rust, dark indigo, brown, and tan, created from natural dyes -- originally human blood.

These are the famous, highly valued double ikat textiles, known as Geringsing, Tenganan's magic cloth. I meet Nym Arini and she demonstrates the weaving process using a small makeshift body-tension loom with a continuous warp. Here, the intricate pattern has been tie-dyed into both the warp and the weft threads before the fabric is woven, and great skill is needed to align and loosely weave the two into the desired pattern.

A single mistake spoils years of work. Nym Arini explains that a powerful energy is also woven into the textile.

Tenganan is the only place in Indonesia where this double weaving technique is practiced and the ritually significant cloth, used for ceremonial purposes, has the power to protect the wearer from sickness and evil vibrations.

Set on a raised pavilion behind the display of ikat, the 17th century atmosphere is broken by a large television set and an expensive hi-fi system. Tenganan is one of the wealthiest villages in Bali.

I am struck by the remarkable neatness of the village, the safe peaceful ambience, the lack of cars, and the laid-back friendliness and dignity of the people. I am only a few kilometers away from Goa Lawah, the bat cave and temple where the hawkers can be aggressively pushy. Tenganan is a complete contrast, I am left alone to wander around freely, I am invited to enter houses and shops, but I am not pressurized to buy.

Attracted by an ikat sarong, I banter cheerfully with Nym Arini before we finally agree on a price. I wish I could purchase more, I promise to return and I mean it.