A number of cultures in Indonesia have practiced war rituals passed down from generation to generation. The blood spilt onto the soil was seen as natural fertilisers and casualties were considered as offerings for the power that be. Fadil Aziz recounts watching four sacred wars in eastern Indonesia.
Erich Fromm, the influential researcher in the field of violence, argues that there are two types of aggression in human beings: defensive aggression and offensive aggression. But in Indonesia, we discover a third type: sacred aggression. A number of cultures in the archipelago have strong traditions of war, which, uniquely, are noble-aimed and guarded by sacred values. Victims may fall, but ties of friendship are still maintained and vendettas are highly taboo. What looks primitive to foreigners is actually a holy ritual for the participants.
In the dark of the night, after a 40-kilometre trek through Sumba’s wild, I finally reached the end of the road. Asphalt now turned to soil. About an hour later, the road completely vanished. I had to leave my motorcycle behind and continued on foot, relying on flashlight. Not all the regions in Sumba enjoy the flow of electricity.
I came to see the Pajura, a boxing custom typical of Sumba and a tradition that is rarely seen by outsiders. By midnight, people began arriving, walking distances of dozens of kilometres with bare feet. The flow of people pouring into the arena, a small area on the beach flanked by cliffs, never seemed to cease. Within minutes, the makeshift arena filled up with people numbering in the hundreds, the majority of which are men. Precisely how so many people from different villages were able to figure out where the arena was, in the dark of the night, without the use of some kind of electronic communication device or navigational system, remains a mystery to me.
The spectators settled anxiously, their collective impatience for the impending show emanated a droning buzz. The fight atmosphere was starting to thicken. From amongst the crowd, 26 mighty men appeared and came forward, and were subsequently divided into two groups. Their fists were wrapped in weeds, which functions like boxing gloves. Referee and police checked their hands to make sure no sharp objects were secretly inserted. Spectators pushed and elbowed each other, fighting to get the best spot.
And then, without warning, it started. Under the dim light of the moon, the fighters began hitting each other. The audience howled. Pajura is not a sporting event; there is no winner or loser. This brutal tradition is also not a mindless brawl between villages or groups. Although split into two groups, participants within the same group may hit at each other. It was unclear which was friend and which was foe.
A boxer got in a good punch. The loud crack emitted from the opponent’s face made me cringe, but everyone else in the audience howled cheerfully. Another boxer ate the sand, hard. The audience laughed merrily while jeering on the collapsed boxer. The referee was busy holding the audience back to keep them from coming into the arena.
Although seemingly barbarian, the Pajura in its purest form is a sacred tradition. To the local community, any spilt blood is considered as an offering to the earth, a sort of nutritious fertilizer to enrich the soil. After the fight, the fighters shook hands with each other. Faces may be bruised, but the heart must stay pure. There must be no revenge. If a desire to return the favour occurs, then they must wait for next year’s Pajura.
The story goes that once upon a time, three brothers from Waiwuang set sail to look for rice for the starving village. But after a long time gone, the three brothers were never heard of anymore. The anxious villagers tried to track them down, but their effort was in vain.
Unable to cope with her husband’s apparent demise, one of the victim’s wives then remarried. But at that exact moment, her husband, thought to be lost forever, suddenly returned. The entire village was caught in a furore. After a lengthy deliberation, the village council decided that the marriage that the widow had already performed with the new husband was indubitably legal. To console the lost husband’s heart, the villagers held Pasola, a spear-throwing game.
Pasola is derived from the word “sola” or “hola”, meaning “wood that is shaped like a spear”. In Pasola, the main weapon is a two-metre spear made of lamtoro wood, in which the end should not be sharpened. But because villagers use machetes to cut the lamtoro wood and not the saw, the tip of the wood inadvertently becomes rather sharp.
Participants in the Pasola are split into two groups. Each participant rides a horse and carries a spear. After the cue is given, the action begins. In the vast prairie, each man throws a spear from the saddle. This is a difficult thing to do. Participants need to control their horses running at full speed with one hand, while the other hand throws the spear. When an attack comes, a Pasola warrior must duck down to avoid the oncoming missile or dodge away by hanging on to the side of the horse’s body, much like the Indian American way. Not infrequently, the spears flew toward the crowd of spectators. This is one truly “interactive” show.
According to customary rules, everything that occurs within the arena must be accepted with gallantry and sportsmanship. Families cannot demand retribution if one of their members is injured or possibly killed, and police are forbidden to interfere. Like Pajura, any blood spilled in Pasola is also considered as fertilizer for the soil so that harvest will be more abundant in the future. But that does not mean that Pasola is a barbaric tradition. There are many rules that must be obeyed by the participants. One is to never attack a participant who had fallen from their horse.
Pasola is a very popular cultural attraction in Indonesia. Tourists from around the world come to watch the event every year. A number of anthropologists claimed that Pasola is rooted in the riding culture and Marapu religion adopted by the Sumba community. This tradition is usually held at the beginning of the year, although no one knows the exact date. Only the Rato (a sort of preacher in Marapu) has the right to decide the date of Pasola on a particular year. According to custom, Pasola is held only if nyale (green sea worms) had crept down to the beach. The Rato will usually sit on a large rock as he cast a spell to find out when the worms will appear.
War tradition in Bali? Sounds strange indeed. We know the island as a place where beautiful smiles always readily grace the faces of its residents. It is rather unimaginable to think that this peaceful heaven holds a bloody war ritual in its arsenal.
The Perang Pandan (Pandan War), held in the Village of Tenganan on Fifth Sasih which falls around June-July, is intended as a tribute to the god Indra who is regarded as a god of war. Traditionally, the Pandan War (or Mekare-kare in local language) is practised as a ceremonial war game to keep one’s warrior spirit ablaze in the body.
The primary weapon used here is a sharp, thorny pandan (pandanus or wild screwpine) leaves bunched into a club, about 40-centimetres long. These are plucked from the woods around the village. A peresai or woven bamboo shield is also used to parry the blow, but in the actual game the peresai is largely abandoned by the majority of participants—they just let the pandan club hit their bare bodies hard until blood flows freely from their bodies.
Anyone may participate in this war game; parents, teenagers or children of primary school age come all. Even foreign tourists frequently participate in the rite. Balinese geguron music reverberates before the war begins. This specialised music composition is considered sacred and only played on certain days. A melodious gamelan tune then follows and, to add courage, participants drink tuak (palm wine) on leaf glasses before the cue is given to start attacking each other.
Once the cue is given, the fighters without fear or hesitation jump at each other, whipping the pandan club as hard as they could toward each other. A vigorous battle ensues. Sometimes the warriors wrestle on the ground, the pandan club squeezed in between their bodies and the ground as they roll around. Blood begins to sprout here and there and the audience subconsciously wince, imagining the intense stings the participants must have been feeling. But strangely, these brave warriors instead laughed ecstatically as they keep hugging and rubbing each other’s backs with the pandan club. Mekare-kare is really not quite a fencing match; no one wins or loses. It is rather a point of certain pride for the participant who manages to collect the most wounds. Clearly, this is not a spectacle for the weak of hearts.
After the fight, thorns that were stuck to the bodies were removed and wounds treated with a herbal mixture that makes the pain even worse, i.e. turmeric, vinegar and ginger. After, the warriors sit together to eat a variety of Balinese snacks. They all look happy, sharing jokes and laughter, just as if they had finished a jovial party. And this may have well just been the case, as in their minds, the god Indra, watching them from above, was smiling looking at his loyal “warriors”.
Presean or stick fighting has no fixed schedule. Like a firecracker show in the culture of the Betawi people, the Presean is held in every big event. I came in as the community was celebrating one of Lombok’s grandest rituals, Bau Nyale, or the worm festival.
Bau Nyale, for the people of Lombok, means “to catch the worms”. The festival usually takes place at the beginning of the year with thousands of people gathering on the southern beaches to celebrate the event. The festival commemorates the legend of Princess Mandalika, an extremely beautiful princess of a large kingdom who committed suicide by jumping off a cliff to prevent all-out war. The colourful worms are said to be the reincarnation of the princess.
Participants in the Presean are bare-chested, wearing only sarongs wrapped around their waists. Their right hands hold the stick and left hold the shield. Anyone may participate, even the audience, although one condition applies: bravery. The swift, forceful strike of the rattan on the body will positively leave it battered and bruised for days on end. Typical Lombok gamelan accompany the dynamics of two men hitting and parrying each other with rattan sticks and shields as hard as they could, but their movements were no less graceful. Sometimes, in the midst of battle, the participants danced. The atmosphere was nothing less than lively.
Presean, unlike other war games however, is not a loose free-for-all smack down event. There are strict rules to follow, such as fallen fighters should not be attacked and the lower bodies should not be stroked. It also recognises a clear winner and loser. The winners are those who got in the most successful hits into the opponents’ bodies—much like boxing. But the prize does not amount to much. In the event that I watched, the winner only got a sarong. Not quite comparable with the stinging pain from the rattan strikes, but perhaps the materialistic reward is nothing compared to the satisfaction from bravely undertaking such rite of passage.
Source: Garuda Indonesia Inflight Magazine
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