As the most populated Muslim country in the world coupled with a very prominent Dutch colonial history, Indonesia’s culture and history is unique. What makes it even more so are the Bali Aga people on the island of Bali and the Torajan people in the mountainous region of South Sulawesi both of which have remained steadfast in their traditional ways despite exterior influences.
In fact, the rituals of the Bali Aga and Torajan communities have survived for numerous centuries, even millennia. One can literally gain a peek into life as it was before the incursion of European and other Asian explorers and traders into the area.
Bali Aga people
The Bali Aga – “original Balinese” in the local language – are believed to be the original settlers on the island of Bali, having fled imperialist invaders by retreating to the mountains and hiding out. Two main villages remain of their culture – Tenganan and Trunyan – and both are included in Nezasa itineraries to Bali.
Buildings in the villages are deliberately arranged in a north-south, east-west pattern surrounded by a solid wall encircling the entire village with four entrance gates. The incredibly colourful fabrics – including the geringsing double ikat, a double-weave cloth – find their origin in Tenganan, the result of a complex tie-dye technique unique to the area. Each village speaks its own language, one different from the next. Inhabitants in Tenganan can only live here if they are born here, and those who marry outside of the community are asked to leave.
What visitors will be particularly fascinated by in Tenganan is the annual ritual blood sacrifice – which is not nearly as violent as it sounds. The Mekare-kare has been practiced in the village for centuries, and is the highlight of the three-day Usaba Sambah festivities that occur in May or June every year. It involves participants drinking tuak – a fermented local palm drink – and then engaging in fighting with weapons such as rotan-woven shields and thorny pandan leaf whips until blood is drawn, at which point the victor is declared. After the fighting, the whole community gathers for an elaborate feast in celebration.
Tana Toraja in South Sulawesi is the second-most popular tourist destination in Indonesia after Bali described as a double-edged sword. While the influx of tourists can impact a local culture, it has also encouraged that culture to remain strong despite changing environs. Everything in their community – cosmologic beliefs, ceremonies, even building arrangements – is focused around the Aluk Todolo “Way of the Ancestors” belief system.
The Torajan people also adhere to the animist tradition – in other words, they believe that all plants and animals, and even inanimate objects, house a spirit. Their fascinating burial rituals are celebrated with fervent energy and often with greater exuberance than even weddings and births. It’s believed in that community that the greater and more elaborate a funeral is, the more important the deceased’s family is in that society.
This belief leads to fascinating trends. Whereas those in the developed world may save money for travel, honeymoons, higher education or real estate, members of the Torajan community save as much as they can for their death. In the case that there isn’t enough money for an appropriate funeral, the deceased’s body is set aside and said to be “sleeping” for as long as several years while the family accumulates the finances needed for the funeral.
The funeral itself involves a great deal of processions. Buffaloes and pigs are often slaughtered by family members in the belief that in doing so, the soul of the deceased will be ferried to a better place.
When a body is ready to be interred, it is often stored in caskets hanging from the side of a cliff with wooden statues carved in their likeness set on a “balcony” on the cliff face to stand guard over the body. In August during Ma’Nene (the Ceremony of Cleaning Corpses), even years later, a body may be exhumed for cleaning, re-embalming and reclothed, in which case it will be carried through the village in a straight line – this is important to the culture, because these lines are connected with a spiritual entity’s path.
The methods of burial represent just one example of the Torajans’ very traditional rituals, the preservation of which is of high importance to UNESCO, which states “such complicated and expensive ceremonies sustain many aspects of prehistoric megalithic culture which cannot be found in any other part of the world today.”
In short, the Torajan and Bali Aga peoples offer a rare living link to the past. Visiting these very special communities is an experience that must not be missed.