Every year, within a neat walled township in East Bali, an extraordinary theatrical fight takes place utilizing prickly pandanus leaf whips The setting is Tenganan Pegringsingan, a remarkable 700-year-old village, hidden in a valley four kilometers north of Candidasa and seemingly as old as the hills. Here, the residents practice a time-honored lifestyle based around ritual and ceremony, bound by strict ‘adat’ customary laws to maintain purity.

Tenganan is one of Bali’s original pre-Hindu settlements and a stronghold of native traditions. The villagers are the Bali Aga people, descendants of the original 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.

Within the village walls, ceremonial longhouses, rice barns, shrines, and communal pavilions including the imposing ‘bale agung’ – where the council of elders, known as the ‘krama desa’, makes its decisions – have been meticulously positioned in accordance with long-established beliefs. Three broad parallel cobbled avenues run north to south, ascending towards the mountains, with narrow lanes running east to west to form a grid. Single-storey dwellings line both sides of the main street, their doorways and windows enhanced with a whimsical flair. Pink-and- yellow-dyed roosters holler from their bamboo cages and lazy dogs lie draped across steps, while buffaloes and gangs of piglets roam freely. 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 Tenganese free to engage in artistic activities such as weaving, dancing, and playing their sacred, iron keyed, gamelan ‘selonding’ music. Where the belief systems of other Balinese Hindus focus on the Trinity of Brahma,Wisnu and Siwa, the people of Tenganan worship Indra, the God of War, as their ultimate godhead, and faithfully adhere to a calendar of complex ceremonies to honor him. No wonder, then, that many major religious festivals in Tenganan involve a ritualistic battle between the young men of the village. This includes a mud war to acknowledge a village member’s entrance into adulthood, as well as the ‘Mesabatan Biu’ battle to elect the chief of the village’s youth organization, during which the young men throw bananas – yes bananas – at the candidates.

The month-long ‘Usaba Sambah’ Festival, meanwhile, incorporates a ferocious fray known as ‘Perang Pandan’ or ‘Mekare-kare’. The fight – actually a series of duals – takes place over two days in June or July of each year, and is staged upon an elevated stage in the central avenue, accompanied by much merriment and laughter together with the intense martial sounds of the selonding music. Each combatant is armed with a 15-centimetre-long ‘sword’ comprised of a bundle of pandanas leaves, edged with tiny sharp thorns, while warding off his attacker with a tightly woven ‘ata’ vine shield. Each dual lasts only a few seconds and there are no winners and no losers because the objective is to spill blood as an offering to the gods. After the battles, the combatants’ wounds are treated with a stinging mixture of alcohol and turmeric, leaving no scars. On the first day of the Mekare-kare, the unmarried maidens of the village ride creaky wooden ferris wheels in a ceremony that resembles the old Vedic rites.

A foot-powered turning platform, operated by the men, propels a series of wooden swing seats occupied by the girls, who swing high above the ground for hours on end. The turning symbolizes the descent of the sun to the earth. During festivals such as this, the women of the village wear the famous hand-woven double ikat textile, known as ‘Geringsing’. Tenganan is the only place in Indonesia where this double weaving technique is practiced, and visitors can watch the women performing the weaving process, each using a small 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 can spoil months of work. An intense and powerful energy is also woven into the textile enabling it to protect the wearer from sickness, evil vibrations, and ill-fate. The cloth is believed to be the inspiration of Batara Indra, the Creator who, when contemplating the moon and the stars and the heavens, was called upon to teach the women of Tenganan the intricate ikat patterning. Hence, at the Mekare-kare,the women and young girls of Tenganan look particularly resplendent in their ritually significant geringsing cloth.

Despite being resistant to change, the people of Tenganan have embraced the tourist economy and the fortress-like village has become a living museum, with many of the houses also functioning as shops and workshops where expert craftsmen and women perform their centuries’ old skills. The villagers are also accomplished basket-makers and calligraphers; traditional ata vine baskets are laid out in neat rows upon the ground to dry in the sun, and artists display their carved lontar palm books. It’s not possible to stay overnight in Tenganan but visitors are welcomed at any time of year during daylight hours in exchange for a small cash donation.

Often overlooked is the village of Tenganan Dauh Tukad (which means 'west of the river'), approached via the same road that leads to Tenganan Pegringsingan but with a turn off to the left. This village was once part of the original Tenganan but became separated by a river following a flood. Quieter and much less visited, Tenganan Dauh Tukad is similar to Tenganan Pegringsingan but not bound by such strict customary laws. Dates for this year’s Mekara-kare war have yet to be confirmed but are likely to be mid-June in Tenganan Pegringsingan and mid-July in Tenganan Dauh Tukad. Visitors can look forward to a truly astonishing spectacle.

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Jl. Tangkuban Perahu III No. 4 Padangsambian, Denpasar
Bali - Indonesia


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