It was rainy season in Bali, but there was very little rain. Instead of falling out of the sky, the water was thick in the air. The plants were often wonderfully green to our eyes, but the rice paddies and fields were drier than they should have been, and the locals were eager for more rain. When we had first been planning our trip to Indonesia, we had expected to get drenched on a near-daily basis due to visiting in the middle of the rainy season (we’d heard it would be nice most of each day, but with up to a few hours of intense rain each afternoon!), but the El Niño weather pattern that came up over the end of 2015 took much of the expected water to the other side of the Pacific, leaving us with intense humidity but very little rain. And so the usual rhythms of farming in Indonesia, which rely on the abundance of the wet months, were all askew this season. Even with the humidity of the equatorial jungles all around, the plants were just too dry.
In the village of Pejarakan, where we were staying at the House of Hobbit, there is a tradition called Gebug Ende performed in hopes of bringing back the rain in times like this. Our hosts Putu and Sila were kind enough to suggest that we could join in watching it, although they introduced it to us not in the context of the rain, but rather along the lines of a “sacred martial arts fight.” They told us we could go in the afternoon of our first day in the town, after our snorkeling trip with Sila. We didn’t really know what we were getting into, but it sounded like something worth experiencing, so of course we went along with Sila to check it out. It turned out to be a fascinating cultural experience unlike anything we had seen before.
Sila brought us to the outer grounds of one of the temples in the village, where he said funerals often took place. We at first thought he meant there was a cemetery, but it turns out that the Balinese practice cremation and do not generally keep public displays of gravestones or urns. We later looked up what the local Hindu funeral practices would be like, and it turns out that they often involve the burning of a bull statue or a tower over the sarcophagus as part of a ceremony including music, dancing, and religious trances. The fires help to return the dead to the elements of earth, wind, water, fire, and ether, and to release their souls for reincarnation. Because these ceremonies can be quite expensive, sometimes villages will wait months or years, with the bodies preserved, or with only symbolic icons representing the deceased people left, until multiple families can pool their money and send their loved ones on with style. The images available online for these ceremonies are quite striking:
We did not get to personally see any of these remarkable, celebratory, cremation ceremonies during our time in Indonesia, but the very different kind of ritual that Sila let us witness was also very neat to see.
Although it took place just outside a funerary temple, the ceremony was not specifically linked to the site and indeed would change places every few days (seemingly in case changing the location helped the gods hear the wishes of the people better) to other areas big enough to fit the crowd. For this was clearly THE place to be for much of the community that day.
We saw almost no truly elderly folk throughout our travels in Indonesia, and the same was true in Pejarakan. But beyond that, there was a great range of people gathered in a circle outside the temple, from toddlers and children through 50-somethings, men and women, boys and girls. There was a sense of excitement throughout, with people chatting and eagerly looking towards the center of the crowd. Embedded in the sound of all the chatter was a constant jangle of bells and drums, coming from a group of musicians seated on the inner ring of the far side of the circle. Gathered behind them, presumably for a better view and for a layer of protection, was a gaggle of children. There were even a few people selling snacks, such as a man with a motorbike topped off with a crate of ice cream bars playing a little mechanical ditty.
The purpose of this gathering was a ritual fight between two men at a time (of comparable physical stature and age, to keep it fair). They would take off their shirts as an older man tied on a ritual cloth around their heads and a special sash around their waists, and then they would take up a long stick and a shield each. The sticks looked like they were cut from a sapling, stiff by the handle, and whippy farther on, hard and painful to be hit with. The shields were circles made of stiff leather and bamboo, with handles and slots for lying along the left arm and held in front. After the weapons and shields were tested against each other by some of the men, the combatants went into the center of the circle and started at it, trying to reach around their shields with their sticks to wack their opponent. Occasionally, the fighters would be so intense in their efforts to hit each other that they would tumble into the crowd, and the young women and children would shriek as they backed up out of the way.
(In this second video, you can hear the ice cream bike’s music in the last few moments.)
The fights were sharp and quick, with referees breaking in with shields to protect themselves as soon as someone got a hit on the body. At which point, the winner of the round would have to do a celebratory dance, while the referees would check if the loser was too hurt or if they were still eager to do another round. Sila told us that people generally believed that the gods would be more likely to bring them rain the harder they fought, the better each round’s winner celebrated, and the more the audience cheered. And as you might expect, there was quite a lot of cheering and yelling for the winners, people shaking bells and craning their heads to watch every move of the fight.
But after a few wacks made contact, complete with welts and cuts a few inches long and maybe a centimeter thick across the men’s arms and torsos, the fight would be over. The fighters were cleaned up and their ritual sashes removed, while the jangling bells and drums kept up their cheery rhythm. To our surprise, the roster of fighters hadn’t been determined ahead of time, and between the fights people would encourage each other to volunteer. Sometimes it was quite long between rounds, and there was an awkward anticipation as many of the onlookers wanted the fights to go on but didn’t want to do it themselves. Sila told us that children as young as 8 could participate against others their age, and that on rare occasions, women did too! However, the women wouldn’t be quite as topless as the men when they did so…
Toby asked if he would be allowed to join in, and Sila replied that yes, technically he could. But that everyone would find it pretty funny if he did! This was not something non-locals would normally ever see, let alone participate in, and a white American joining in would have been quite a sight. Toby, however, was not very keen on the idea of getting whipped, and so tried to keep his head down and avoid the attention of anyone who might want to volunteer him for a fight!
During all this, we stayed fairly close to Sila, and he occasionally would explain what was happening, but was also of course chatting and joking with his friends who were there. It seemed like quite a social event, although the focus seemed to stay on who would be fighting next and how each battle would go. Sila told us how important this practice was for the community, and how much many there were hoping the fights would lead to the rain coming back soon. During this particular afternoon, there was actually a little bit of rain, but only a drizzle – not enough to finish the ritual fight and declare it a success.
He seemed slightly uncertain himself about how much of an effect it would have, but eager to support the efforts overall, just in case it helped, and because it was part of the local culture. It turned out that the fights would go on for a number of hours in the afternoon for three days in a row, before stopping for a few days to test if the rain would come, and if not they would start up again in another place. I mention this because Sila went back a few days in a row during our stay in Pejarakan, and said that he tried to go whenever the fights occurred for at least a while each day. He told us that the practice didn’t occur in more than a few places in Bali, and that it had come to the island only a few generations back, when some communities immigrated from another Indonesian island to eastern Bali, from whence it was brought to the northwestern corner of the island in the area around Pejarakan.
It was exciting and an honor for us to be invited to witness this local heritage practice. We were nervous about intruding, and we did feel rather out of place throughout, a bit like voyeurs peeping in on others’ private beliefs (it definitely seemed like we were the only tourists there; a few people noticed us and joked a bit with Sila about bringing us along, but otherwise didn’t pay us much attention). But since we had been invited, we were happy to check it out and to see what was going on. It really was a very memorable experience, with the energy of the music, the brief intensity of the fights, and the awkward uncertainty of who would fight next, creating anticipation between each set.
It was also striking to us how in America we hear stories of indigenous cultures performing “rain dances” to change the weather, and Toby and I know that such practices can be quite important to those communities. But usually we hear about these traditions in the past tense, or with lots of stereotyping and a sense of distance from most people’s everyday lives (result of the tragic genocides and forced cultural assimilation of so many Native Americans, I imagine). And so it was a little surreal for us to witness a comparable practice, living and ongoing, in person.
Two days later, torrents of rain came down on Pejarakan for hours, soaking the earth and all its living plants and creatures alike. Regardless of the science and metaphysics involved, we were happy that the community eventually got the water they had so wanted.