Meaning and magic permeate daily life here – Just-mature girls ride hand-crafted Ferris wheels in a ceremonial act to echo the ups and downs of life, native geringsing fabrics keep villagers safe and every building is laid out to respect century-old beliefs.
Curious to experience one of village’s most iconic ceremonies, Perang Pandan (Pandan Wars), Potato Head ventured out to Karangasem – here’s our story.
Behind the high stone walls of Tenganan Dauh Tukad, the almost burnt husks of coconuts send out a sweet, lingering fragrance into the early morning air. Homemade penjor (decorative bamboo poles) flank the cobbled streets, gloriously made up for the day’s occasion. Beyond lie palm jungles, sun-baked hills and indigo-blue skies.
At the bale banjar (central pavilions), the build-up has already begun. Children bet their pocket money on big plastic animal mats, with ancient cross-legged croupiers cackling and egging them on. Men fold coconut leaves around hundreds of plegantung (sticky rice and palm sugar snacks), and great pyramids of orange-and-apple-stacked gebogan glide by, bundled upon the heads of colourfully adorned women.
Creaky Ferris wheels, wooden and man-powered, carry beautiful young girls, dressed in their ceremonial best. The looped electronic melody of an ice-cream vendor is the only audible reminder of modern life.
Perang Pandan (Pandan Wars) are part of a month-long ceremony called Usabah Sambah which is unique to Tenganan. Fuelled by tuak (local palm liquor) and adrenalin, bare-chested Balinese warriors armed with spiky pandan leaf clubs and homemade rattan shields thrash each other atop a makeshift stage.
Known locally as mekare-kare, the mass coming of age ritual is carried out to honour Dewa Indra, the Hindu god of war and the Tengananese people’s primary deity. Spilling sacrificial blood is the main goal and almost every male in the village, as young as eight and as old as 80, puts themselves forward to fight.
By lunchtime, crowds of people – local photographers, curious Balinese and bewildered tourists – have appeared and gather around the ring. Referees, weapons and warriors stand by as the native Selonding gamelan percussion begins. Hypnotic, metallic crescendos soundtrack each duel, directing the choreography of the fighters.
Each bout lasts minutes with techniques varying between swinging and scratching but always accompanied by mass whooping and yelping from fighters and their fans. Footing is lost. Men stagger backwards into the mob. Thorny weapons are flung up into the air, coming apart on their journey down.
Up in the stands, beautiful virgin girls wearing golden crowns look on like princesses watching a duel. Teruna (pubescent boys) with scarlet lips, painted eyebrows and brightly hued eyelids, perch opposite, as if part of some strange pantomime.
In the lower circle around the ring, those who have fought swagger and strut, parading welts and wounds like trophies. Amongst the crowd of bloodied backs, men carry large bowls of lumpy yellow paste, stopping to dab competitors’ sores with their healing ointment of turmeric and vinegar.
After an hour and a half, everyone has fought. The gamelan stops and the crowds hush in preparation for prayer. Incense is lit, flowers distributed – quiet worship brings reflection and stillness over the rabble. Afterwards, stragglers stay and chat, others retire to their family temples to pray, eat and drink together. Most tourists leave by early evening, but some remain, ushered into homes for an evening meal.
Tenganan’s symmetrical layout, meaningful old architecture and car-free dirt paths offer an insight into an old Bali that stands in blunt contrast with the choked up streets and teeming nightlife of the island’s tourist drags. Many, including Katamama’s architect Andra Matin, have been charmed by the simplicity of life, adherence to traditions and warmth of the people living in Bali’s most ancient thoroughfares.
But despite its rawness, the community of Tenganan is not as secluded as it once was. In the past thirty years, influences from the outside world have started to touch the area. Tourism has opened up and people are now permitted to marry outside of their own society. English is spoken by a few of the inhabitants who have taken jobs as villa hosts, ojek (motorbike taxi) drivers or mountain guides in Ubud, Candidasa or Denpasar. Young people have iPhones, snapping ceremony selfies to post on their Facebook pages (the village itself even has a Facebook page – run by a Dutch lady known as Ibu Ana by the locals). But let us hope that while the people of Tenganan remain curious and gracious when it comes to outside visitors and their cultures, their own ancient crafts, spectacles and ceremonies, like Perang Pandan, live on.