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The Ancient Survival: The Bali Aga  

by on Wednesday, 14 June 2006One Comment | 13,828 views

At one time the island was populated by pure Indonesians, an ancient people who filed and blackened their teeth. They lived in small communities, family clans ruled by a council of elders who acted as the priests of their religion. Their cult centred in the worship of the powerful spirits of nature, and especially those of their ancestors, with whom they continued to live, a great family of both the dead and the living. Occasionally, by means of mediums and sacrifices, they brought their ancestral spirits down to this earth to protect them. They buried their dead or simply abandoned them in the jungle to be carried away by the spirits, and it is possible that they even ate parts of the bodies in order to absorb the magic power inherent in their ancient headmen.

The pure descendants of these people, calling themselves Bali Aga or Bali Mula, the “ original “ Balinese, still live, isolated and independent, in the mountains where they found refuge from imperialistic strangers. Hidden in the hills of east Bali, near Karangasem, lies the village of Tenganan, where the most conservative of the Bali Aga preserve the old traditions with the greatest zeal. Tenganan is a rabidly isolated community, socially and economically separate from the rest of Bali, almost a republic in itself. It is shut off from the world by a solid wall that surrounds the entire village, which is meant to keep outsider away, and is broken only by four gates, each facing one of the cardinal points. Of these gates, three open to the gardens and plantations of the village, but the main gate is so narrow that a stout person has difficulty in squeezing through. Such is the obsession for in Tenganan that there is an official specially appointed to sweep the village after the visits of strangers, to obliterate their footprints.





We became acquainted with I-Tanggu, a youngish man with fingernails four inches long, who was the perbekel of Tenganan, the representative of his village with the Dutch Government. We were surprised to find him quite sociable. Once we played host to him in Denpasar and from then on we were often invited to visit Tenganan. Unlike the rest of the villages in Bali, there is hardly any vegetation around the Tenganan houses, which are all exactly alike and are arranged in rows on each side of stone-paved avenues. In the central place is the council house where the elders meet, a long shed about ten feet wide by some seventy feet long, strongly built and apparently very old. Further along are other buildings for public use, the purpose of some kept a secret. The most curious are the unique mill for grinding kemiri nuts to obtain oil, and the wooden Ferris-wheel, usually dismantled, in which the women revolve for hours in strange rite. The dwelling of I-Tanggu is just like all the others: a small gate reached by a flight of step leads into a court in which are the sleeping-quarters, the kitchen, and a long house for relatives and for storage. There is also a small empty shrine where the spirits may rest when they visit their descendants.






The people of Tenganan are tall, slender, and aristocratic in the rather ghostly, decadent way, with light skins and refined manners. The majority of the men still wear their hair long. They are proud and look down even on the Hindu-Balinese nobility, who respect them and leave them alone. They live in a strange communistic or, rather, patriarchal-communalistic system in which individual ownership of property is not recognized and in which even the plans and measurements of the houses are set and alike for everybody. The village of Tenganan owns communally enormous tracts of fertile and well-cultivated lands that fill every need of the village and make it one of the richest in the island. I-Tanggu told me this legend of how the land came to belong to the village:



“Hundreds of years ago, long before the Hindu-Javanese settled in Bali, the powerful king Bedaulu lost his favourite horse. Broken-hearted, king sent the men of whole villages in all directions with orders to find the stray horse. The Tenganans went eastward* until, after days of travel, they found the corpse of the horse. The king asked them to name their reward, but their spokesman said they wanted only the land where the horse was found; that is, the area covered by the smell of the carcass. Although the horse had been dead for many days under the tropical sun, Bedaulu considered this a modest request and sent an official with a delicate sense of smell to measure off the land, starting from the place where the horse lay. Accompanied by the chief of Tenganan, he walked for days, but no matter how far the two went, the smell seemed to follow them. Finally the official was exhausted and could go no father; he said he considered that land already covered enough, and the Tenganans were satisfied. When the official left, the chief pulled from under his clothes a large piece of the rotten flesh of the horse”.

I-Tanggu told me the story as we went up to the top of a hill to look at one of the remains of the famous horse; the penis, “which had turned to stone”. On the summit, under a large tree, was the relic, a long river stone shaped like a phallus by the action of water. Passing people had left offerings on top of it. I-Tanggu also said that the people of Tenganan are not permitted to work their vast lands with their own hands, but hire other Balinese to do the agricultural work for them.




*The people of tenganan claim to have come originally from the district of Bedulu, named after King Bedaulu, near the once holy city of Pejeng. The bratan people, a branch of the same family, are supposed to have gone northward in search of the horse. But having failed, they did not dare to return and still live near Singaraja in Desa Bratan, where they constitute a special caste of silver-workers, and where Patimah has her silver shops. The Tenganans still recognize their alliance with the people from Bedulu and make special visits to them at the feasts of the temple of Samuan Tiga. The people of Bedulu also go Tenganan on special occasions to make offerings.

The aristocratic communists of Tenganan go to the plantation only to make tuak, beer from sugar palms.

On the way down the hill, I was allowed a glimpse of the sacred temple of Tenganan, of which we had heard mysterious reports. It was a small enclosure under a great banyan tree surrounded by a low wall of uncut stones roughly piled up. Inside were a few mounds of the same stones, reminiscent of altars, and in one of them there was a larger stone with what appeared to be a natural cavity. I could not go into the enclosure because no outsider is ever permitted to enter it. I-Tanggu could not divulge the purpose of such a primitive “temple” and could not even name the deities worshipped there, but he added mysteriously that there were three of them! It seems extraordinary that this pile of stones is the only sacred, “essential” place of worship for the Tenganans who are expert carvers and fine artists.*




Just outside the village I had seen a regular Balinese-style temple with fine roofs and elaborate carvings, but this, I-Tanggu said with contempt, did not mean much to them and was more for the use of their Balinese guests and coolies, perhaps as a concession to the official cult of the island, so that would not be considered as savages, people without a “proper” temple.




*This extraordinary village must not, however, be taken as a typical Bali Aga community. Tenganan was deliberately cut off from the natural development of the rest of Bali and remains today a unique, rabidly conservative, and strictly tribal community that seems to take pride in doing things “differently”, even from the rest of the Bali Agas. Institutions that are the very essence of Balinese culture, such as the shadow-plays (wayang kulit), are unknown, while others are even forbidden. Many rites and festivals peculiar to Tenganan do not exist elsewhere.

Dr. E. V. Korn has made an exhaustive study of the Tenganan people (De doorpsrepubliek Tenganan Pagringsingan), but their religious concepts remain obscure, perhaps even to the Tenganans themselves. Like the other Balinese they worship the Gunung Agung and rule their life by the internal principle of orientation high and low, right and left. They venerate shapeless stones (batu menurun), considered to be the fragments of the famous horse of Outje Seraya, stones that are the symbols of “origin” of totemic groups that are sharply divided into “right” and “left”. The people of Tenganan were influenced by distorted ideas from an early version of pre-Majapahit Hinduism and have a vague notion of the Hindu Trinity, headed, however, by Indra, generally a minor deity, who is to the Tenganans the same as Siwa-Iswara, the supreme god, “Lord of the Centre”, with the kubu (home) of “Sanghyang” (Brahma) at the right and that of “Ijeng” (Wisnu) at the left. One of their lonely temples, or, rather, tabooed enclosures, is supposedly the reflection on this earth of the heavenly lake of Indra.

The clubs of virgins (seka daha) and of adolescent boys (seka truna), who are still untouched by the magical impurity supposed to come from sexual intercourse, are an interesting feature of Bali Aga villages not to be found among the Hindu-Balinese. In Tenganan a ceremonial meeting is held for them once a year. The virgins wear golden crowns covered with quivering flowers of beaten gold, and are dressed from the armpits to the ground in bright silk scarfs which they hold between jeweled fingers, often tipped with four-inch artificial fingernails made of solid gold. They appear dancing the rejang, arranged in line from the smallest baby, a year old, perhaps, to the grown girls who on past occasions have failed to obtain a husband.




They dance accompanied by the gamelan selunding, an ancient, rarely heard orchestra that has great iron sound-plates, struck energetically by the old men of the village with oversize wooden hammers. This dance could not be more archaic and simple: standing in a double line, they fling the scarfs slowly away, first to one side, then to the other, half turning the body each time. In the long intervals between movements they stand motionless with downcast eyes until a change of position is announced bye the orchestra. This is the whole dance; a slow-motion version of the stilted feminine dances of Java, giving one an unearthly feeling of suspended movement, and bearing no relation to the exuberant vitality of the Balinese dances we were accustomed to see.



Soon boys in their best clothes and wearing keris begin to appear and form a group at the other end of the dancing-space, watching the girls. When enough boys have gathered, the music stops and the audience, mostly women, shows a lively interest. The music begins again, playing the theme for the abuang, a dance in which the boys express their preferences. One by one the girls step to the front to show themselves in a short posed dance with their eyes on the ground and their arms tensely outstretched. Each of the marriageable girls has her chance, but the boys are shy and at first nobody takes up the challenge. It is only after the girls have danced a second or third round that one of the boys overcomes his shyness, walks up to his favourite girl when her turn comes again, and takes his place in a stately dance. If she is pleased, she will continue to dance with him until the bar of music is over, but if she dislikes the boy, she leaves the floor and goes back into line while the crowd laughs at the rejected suitor.




Marriage restrictions are peculiar in Tenganan; their isolationist law allows no one to marry outside the village, and even there only within certain rules as to family and caste. There was, for instance, the daughter of the priest who was already past marriageable age, but who could not find a husband since there were no unmarried men of her class. This continual inbreeding perhaps accounts for the decadent and aristocratic type of the people. A Tenganan who marries outside the village or breaks one of their taboos is thrown out of the village; such exiles have formed a small village of their own just outside the main gate, but they are never again admitted into the mother community.

The Balinese have often accused the Tenganans of cannibalism, which is of course indignantly denied and about which the Tenganans are extremely sensitive. But people from Karangasem and even renegade Tenganans tell naïve stories like this.

In olden days there were celebrations in which aged men were sacrificed and eaten, and once there were none left in Tenganan. For a long time the council had planed to rebuild the bale agung, the assembly hall, already in ruins. The wood for the pillars had been cut by the old men years before and was dry and well seasoned. But when the work was started and the time came to put up the pillars, the workers could not proceed, because nobody knew which was the bottom and which the top of the logs. In all Bali it is forbidden in a construction to stand a log “upside-down”- that is, in the opposite direction from which it grew. Work on the bale agung was interrupted and there was worry and confusion, until a young man announced that, if they swore to stop eating their old men, he would find a way to locate the right end of the logs. After long deliberations the council agreed and presently the young man produced his own grandfather, whom he had kept hidden for years in a rice granary. The old man measured each log, tied a rope in the exact centre, and had it lifted up; the end closer to the roots was heavier and the log tilted in that direction, so the council could proceed with their work, and old men could continue to live.


I have been told by Balinese that in Tenganan today a corpse is washed with water that is allowed to drip into a sheaf of un-husked rice placed under the body. The rice is then dried in the sun, threshed, and cooked. After the burial a human figure is made of the cooked rice which is served to the dead man’s descendants, who proceed to eat it, each asking for some part-the head, an arm, and so forth-a funeral dinner that may well signify the ritual eating of the corpse to absorb its magical powers. This, of course, is pure hearsay which I could not verify through my Tenganan friends.

The Balinese also believe that human beings were sacrificed in Tenganan to make dyes for their famous ceremonial scarfs, the kamben grinsing,* a cloth that, because it is supposed to be dyed with human blood, has the power to insulate the wearer against evil vibrations and is prescribed at all important Balinese rituals. These scrarfs, in which the warp is left uncut, are much in demand by the Balinese. The kamben grinsing is a loosely woven, narrow scarf of thick cotton with intricate designs in rich tones of rust-red, beige, and black against a yellowish background. The process of dying and weaving is unbelievably long and complicated, and over five years are required from the time the cotton is prepared to the finished scarf, according to Korn. The threads are left in each of the dyes for months, macerated in kemiri oil for months to fix each colour, and then dried in the sun for months after each stage. The design is obtained by the double “ikat” process (ikat,”to tie”): that is, the threads of both the warp and weft are patterned previous to the weaving. To do this warp and weft are stretched on frames, and groups of threads are tightly bound with fibres at certain points before they are dipped into the dye, so that the tied part remains uncoloured to produce the design.




* Kamben means simply “cloth”, “article of dress”; grinsing means “flaming”, “mottled” like an orchid. Single ikat, where only the warp is “ikated”, is common throughout Indonesia, and some are famous, like the large shawls from Sumba, Sumbawa, Roti, and Flores, which are highly prized; but a “double ikat” is extremely rare; besides those from Tenganan, others known are from Gujarat in India and simple shawls made in Zurich, Switzerland (according to Ikle).

This is repeated with each colour, the part already dyed also protected by the fibre binding. When the threads are finally coloured and ready to be woven, the design of the weft is fitted exactly into the one on the warp, and a mistake spoils the work of years. Taking into consideration the laboriousness of the dyeing, the painstaking, difficult weaving, and the mystery that surrounds the secret process, it is easy to understand why the popular mind has endowed the kamben grinsing with such extraordinary powers. In Tenganan the scarfs are an essential part of ceremonial dress, and I-Tanggu told me that if he sold his he would lose this place in the village council. Only the finest scarfs are worn in Tenganan; imperfect ones or those in which the dyes fail to produce the required tones are sold to outsiders.


In north Bali, on the slopes of the Batur, above Tejakula, is the Bali Aga village of Sembiran, where even the daily language is different from that of the rest of Bali. There, as in Tenganan, the “temple” is a group of rough stone altars surrounded by a neglected fence. It is hidden in the jungle near the edge of a deep ravine, a dangerous haunted place, where not even the people of Sembiran would venture alone. In Sembiran the dead are not buried; after washing the corpse, it is wrapped in new cloth, carried to the edge of the ravine, and deposited on a bamboo platform with offerings, consecrated water, and the belongings of the deceased. There it is left for three days; if, after that, it has not disappeared, this means that the spirits did not care to take it, so it is thrown unceremoniously into the ravine to be eaten by wild beasts.

There are many other mountain villages that have resisted the influence of Hinduism. Although not as extraordinary as Tenganan and Sembiran, they are equally conservative Bali Aga, like Trunyan on the shores of Lake Batur, where the largest statue in Bali is kept, that of Ratu Gede Pancering Jagat, powerful patron guardian of the village. There is Taro, the home of Kbo Iwa, a fearful giant of pre-Hindu days who was so great that there was never enough food to feed him and he went about eating people. To provide him with a place to sleep, the villagers of Taro built the longest council house in Bali. He is supposed to have carved all the ancient monument and sculptured caves with his own fingernails. In the highlands between the Batur and the Bratan, the Agung and the Batukaru, there are many Bali Aga villages, and in some, like Selulung, Batukaang, and Catur, there are remains of ancient and primitive monuments; stone statues and small pyramids, some of which are purely Indonesian in character, while others show early Hindu, perhaps Buddhist influence. In Bali Aga villages there is much that remains of the ancient race who once inhabited all of Bali, but who were to become the fascinating Balinese of today.

Editor’s Note
Source: Island of Bali Miguel Covarrubiasz.
See also Trunyan, Sembiran and Taro.

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