Tenganan is a traditional ‘Bali Aga Village’.
Inhabited solely by the original Balinese pre-Hindu settlers, run in accordance with traditional customs and untainted by any other outside influence, it remained essentially isolated until the 1970’s. Since then, tourists have begun arriving in increasing numbers to observe their many unique festivals, ceremonies and handicrafts. The men of the village are traditionally skilled in making etched drawings on dried bark and parchment; the women are even more proficient at ‘geringsing double Ikat weaving’. Whilst some of the most restrictive ancient practices have been relaxed, this is still (just) a community run along extremely traditional lines. Strict rules on marriage, for example, still mean that should a villager marry an outsider, they must leave the village for good. These same rules, however, have for centuries prevented problems of interbreeding and have maintained a somewhat diverse gene pool. With a population of some 500 families and the lure of modern society, how much longer this can be maintained is questionable.
As we arrived, a pig was being slaughtered in the main street for that night’s festival and there was a busy and excited air about the place. Crafts were on display and for sale everywhere and I was curious as to how an essentially rural community could afford to spend so much time and energy on craft production and ceremonial observance. How did they feed themselves for instance?
Our guide provided part of the answer with a mythical story…..”Based on folklore, once upon a time, a Bedahulu King lost one of his favourite horses. The people looked for it to the east and the horse was finally found dead by Ki Patih Tunjung Biru, the King’s right hand. For his loyalty, the King finally gave Ki Patih Tunjung Biru an authority to govern the land as far as the aroma of the carrion of the horse can be smelled. Ki Patih was an intelligent person, so he cut the carrion into pieces and spread it as far as he could. Thus he received a quite large area.”……The Tenganan are wealthy land owners!!! To this day, they rent out areas of the surrounding land to the poorer immigrant societies of Bali and exact a price of a portion of their produce in return. Later in the day we were to hike the surrounding hills and see this modern medieval practice in action. With their food needs satisfied by their land tenants, the Tenganan could divert their energies to more cerebral activities.
The lady in the photograph was born in the village and had already reached teenage years before the village started to ‘open up’. She must have seen enormous changes in her lifetime, but seemed completely unphased by them; the fact that she spoke English as at least one of her foreign languages (even Bali Aga language is different to Balinese, or Indonesian) was a total non-issue for her. Her skill was the gerinsing double Ikat weaving and what a skill this is. All the cotton is grown locally (by the land tenants obviously) and each strand is individually hand dyed to a pre-planned pattern using natural colours (red being the hardest and most costly to master) To avoid colours mixing at this stage, each colour is applied separately, with the strands identified for other colours being covered by a kind of tape. Just to reach this stage in the process takes about a month. At the bottom left of the photo is the cotton at this stage of production (the colours are those of the tape, not the underlying dyed, or un-dyed cotton) The weaving of the geringsing double ikat cloth is done entirely by hand on a basic wooden loom as you see in the photo. The level of skill, patience and experience required to produce a first-class piece is staggering. Depending on the final size of the piece, this stage can take between one and three months and we calculated that a month’s worth of dying and weaving would produce in the order of US$100-200. This may be a significant income for this generation of villagers, but we were not surprised to hear from this woman that neither of her daughters had continued the tradition – they had neither the patience to learn the skill, nor the desire to reap their relatively meagre returns. It is certainly difficult to imagine this skill and tradition being retained for more than a few generations into the future, but for the meantime, these cloths continue to be sought after for their beauty and sacred and magical qualities; the cloths are used at all significant rituals in an individuals life and are thought to offer protection against danger, impurities and ‘baleful influences’.
Captivated by the village, the traditions, the beauty of the textiles and the character of the woman herself, we bought ourselves a small piece of this potentially vanishing culture and it now hangs in our home. Has our purchase helped preserve a culture, or did our mere presence help destroy it? I’m not sure what is the true answer.