Life, News, Photography and Reviews from Ubud: The Apple of Bali's Eye

The Ubud Handbook « The Heads of Trunyan

MAYBE I SHOULD HAVE TAKEN Lonely Planet's guide to Bali and Lombok more seriously. Three times they warn the unwary: 'Don't go'. I'm stopped at this remote village's edge by a tough-looking man in his twenties who wants me to change a twenty-dollar bill for Indonesian rupiah. ('And don't worry about the exchange rate.') On his black T-shirt are near-foot-high, white letters that read:


Welcome to Trunyan, one of the oldest villages in Bali.

It's easy to see why the Trunyanese are so defensive of their well-worn patch. The view across Lake Batur beats any northern Italian backdrop. The locals call their caldera's lake 'the sea': at more than a thousand metres above sea-level, small, wind-whipped waves cut across the deeply turquoise water. Opposite the thousand-year-old-plus village, pistes of dark-grey lava from previous eruptions – the last in 1994 – drip down the slopes of the still-active Mount Batur.

Trunyan has never been high on the visitors' list. Like a handful of other villages scattered around the volcanic uplands of Bali, Trunyan is inhabited by the Bali Mula – the so-called 'original Balinese people' – a once rabidly isolationist ethnic group that makes up nearly three percent of the island's population.

But the people of Trunyan are beginning to feel a little too isolated.

While Lonely Planet extols their ethnic cousins' double-ikat weaving in the more accessible Bali Mula village of nearby Tenganan ('Peculiar! Old-fashioned! A real village, not a creation for tourists!'), the more remote Trunyan was largely cut off until its first tarmac road to the world was laid in 2006. Its primary school – there is no secondary school – was built in 1975.

Agricultural, and unpractised in the dark art of handling international tourists, the aristocratic farmer-people of Trunyan have acquired a damaging reputation for aggression. Their unique tourist draw – a jungle-cemetery where bodies are left in the open to disintegrate underneath a magical banyan tree – is regularly shunned by travellers on the time-sensitive tourist circuit.

The black-and-white-T-shirted Nyoman, 26, has decided I'm worth showing around ('You didn't argue about the exchange rate', he grins). We arrange a day's guide-fee of Rp.200,000 and push off in a shaky canoe to the lakeside cemetery.

– "This lady was a neighbour of mine," says Nyoman. "She died about six months ago."

Under the shadow of the great banyan tree, Nyoman points to a corpse draped in salmon-pink and ice-white shawls, protected from wild dogs by a triangular bamboo cage. At the foot of the cage is a small woven basket containing a collection of possessions that will accompany the dead into her afterlife: a comb; a pair of new flip-flops; a plastic eating bowl; a single clove cigarette.

When a fresh body arrives, the oldest body is removed – its sun-dried skull and femurs placed on an elevated stone altar a few feet away. Only those who have been married, died from natural causes and show no obvious physical marks earn the exalted position with the lake view. Villagers who have remained single, died from disease, committed suicide or been murdered are relegated to nondescript, rocky ground to the south.

Further away still is a third, tiny cemetery tucked tightly under the caldera's cliff - reserved for infants under five. These last two groups, Nyoman explains, are buried and covered with rocks to 'prevent their unhappy souls from roving and disturbing the living'.

It's disconcerting. Even up close there is no smell of decomposition: only the steady, fresh breeze that bounces off the lake, scented by the parched undergrowth and brittle leaves around us.

Nyoman unravels the cemetery's secret.

He tells of the village goddess, Dewa Pancering ('panchering') Jagat, who married a Javanese prince. Their union, it is said, was true happiness: but every time the goddess gave birth, her baby died. Some claimed it was a natural perfume emanating from the goddess's skin that was killing the newborn.

Desperate for offspring, the Javanese prince ordered the village's dead to be left under a nearby banyan tree so that the stench of flesh would negate the fatal scent of his wife. It worked. Heirs were produced and the village survived. Indebted, the goddess possessed the banyan – called the Taru Menyan, or 'sweet-smelling tree', and after which the village was named – allowing Trunyan's dead to lie in peace, without odour, as a return gift from the goddess.

Like many graveyards, it's a restful place: until a motorboat of Javanese tourists arrive at the water's edge and disembark. Skulls are picked up and posed with, femurs are held aloft. Groups arrange themselves for snaps on collective camera-phones. A Rp. 100,000 note is left in the woven basket for the half-dozen guides who hang languidly around the tree. The tourist band disappears back into the flapping green-and-white waves of the lake as if they had never been.

It's difficult to see how the Bali Mula of Trunyan can't make more of their lakeside idyll and plentiful history without relying solely on a curiosity that some may find anthropologically fascinating, others macabre and distasteful.

The lakeside temple is beautiful, its unique ceremonies distinct from the rest of Hindu Bali. A walk through the narrow village walkways is eye-opening and humbling. The 45-minute hike to the tip of the crater hovering above Trunyan for a misty, ethereal dawn-break is stunning. More micro-pockets of Bali Mula people, guarded by family dogs, live on the crater shoulder cultivating corn and tending cows. You may be given a gritty black coffee to wake you up at the top. And the only people you will meet on the way down are knots of children and old women carrying 10-20 kilo parcels of firewood on their heads to be used for cooking-fires in the village below.

That the Bali Mula people – along with the rest of the island's 3.5 million Balinese – have successfully stuck to age-old customs and upheld their culture is exactly the reason most tourists continue to come to this island. One only has to step into the chasm of Kuta on the south coast – once a quiet fishing village, now complete with foam parties, 'Blow Me' cocktails and police patrolling the latest dance heavens with automatic rifles – to see how it can all go wrong.

To blacklist a village for its aggression – read real financial desperation combined with poor standards of education, natural mountain bluntness and a healthy distrust of potentially destructive outside forces – is economic damnation indeed. And if a visitor feels shunned or unimportant when straying into remote Bali Mula territory – rare if you are polite – it is historical, and nothing new.

The people of Trunyan – like the Bali Mula of Bayunggede, Tenganan, Pedewa, Bungaya, Asak and Sembiran – have all had plenty of practise at rejecting imperialist advances. Miguel Covarrubias, the Thirties' Mexican painter and author of the landmark guidebook 'Island of Bali', chose the 'rabidly isolated' Bali Mula village of Tenganan as somewhere special...

'...shut off from the world by a solid wall. Such is the obsession for isolation that there is an official appointed to sweep the village after the visits of strangers to obliterate their footprints...'

Known until recently as the Bali Aga – a derisive term denoting backward hill-people – the Bali Mula retreated to the volcanic uplands, escaping the remains of the once-powerful Hindu Majapahit kingdom that evacuated from nearby Java to Bali as Islam spread across the archipelago. The Bali Mula were already content with their version of Buddhist-Animism, painted with the veneer of Hinduism previously brought to the island by seventh-century Javanese traders.

There is a surefire, deliberate, step-at-a-time slowness in the Trunyan routine: from the housewife stoking a firewood stove to the arranging of offerings during a village ceremony. Many of the oldest in Trunyan reach far into their eighties; one woman is a healthy 102-year-old in a country where life-expectancy rarely tops 65. Layers of Australian Aborigine, Chinese, Malay, Polynesian, Arabic, Melanesian, Mongol and Indian create a look among the Trunyanese that the painter Covarrubias sketched as 'ghostly, slender, aristocratic'.

All Balinese share similar racial roots at this convenient crossroads of historical shipping-routes. It isn't that the Bali Mula are any more indigenous than their counterparts on the island; they have simply held on to their particular mix of religious culture for longer. Unlike mainstream Balinese Hinduism, no caste system exists within the Bali Mula; and the Trunyanese burial method is closer to the pre-Hindu Neolithic Agama Bayu sect who worshipped the stars, the wind and their ancestors.

In this remote community, sexual licence on the part of a boy or a girl is a crime against the village and is proportionately punished. The seka truna (virgin boys) and seka daha (virgin girls) have special rites to perform in the village magic, such as maintaining the statue of the village's goddess Dewa Pancering Jagat, hidden in the temple from all but the purest-hearted. The statue itself is believed to be located underground beneath the temple's largest pagoda and is said to grow by several centimetres a year.

She is the centre of all village ceremonies.

May I see the statue, I ask Nyoman?

– "I'm sorry, but that's off-limits to you."

Not everything is for sale in Bali.

I ask the deputy-chief of the village, I. Ketut Jaksa, why his community clings so fiercely to tradition while other parts of Bali are hungrily reshaping to swallow the annual island-invasion of nearly three million visitors. After all, I suggest, the Bali Mula of nearby Sembiran village abandoned their age-old custom of leaving their dead to the jungle in the 1960s?

– "Please know that we wholeheartedly welcome tourists to our village", says Jaksa. "But you must also understand that if they, or we, flaunt the most minor law here it will cause irreparable damage to us and bring trouble. No-one is allowed to disrespect their ancestors. We must protect our laws to safeguard our future."

However changes do occur, even in a Bali Mula village, and all may not spell trouble. Over a bowl of barbecued mujair lake-fish, I quiz the village chief, I. Ketut Sutapa, about the future of a village that has lain in its cultural time-warp for well over a millennium.

– "Before our road was completed in 2006," the chief says, "women who were about to give birth had to take a canoe across the lake and then hire a car to go to the clinic. Some gave birth on the lake. My wife's first baby began to come out while she was still in the car - his leg came out first so we pulled. My son's crippled now.

"Education has changed too. We've only got a primary school in Trunyan, and a lot of our children were tired of canoeing across the lake every day to continue their studies. With the new road, it's much better. More finish secondary school, and some now go to university. Who knows – perhaps we'll even get someone who graduates from tourism school and then we'll find out how they make their money in the south..."

As we talk inside the coffee shop a tanned white couple arrives on a motorbike. An elderly woman rushes forward to tie an offering of flowers to the 'bike's handlebars, hovering for a donation. Nyoman moves in next, this time waving a redundant Australian $10 note.

The two newest visitors to this ancient village panic, pull a swift U-turn and disappear up the barely navigable hairpin road, back through the potholes and dogs and puddles to the relative safety of civilisation.

Perhaps the oldest ways are the hardest to beat.

The Ubud Handbook

The Ubud Handbook

THE UBUD HANDBOOK ~ Your guide to living in Ubud and Bali in an online nutshell.


Culture Bites

An American Calonarang

Cinema Paradiso

Ubud 'Art Attack

Reading Matters

Dinosaur Talk

Getting Around

It's Silly Season Again

The Other Side of the Coin

Surviving Bali on a 'Bike

A Walk in the Park

Personal Stories

Diary of a Market Girl

A Trip to Deer Island

Tourism & Self-Enrichment

Eat, Pray, Self-Love

The Land of Self-Healing and Snake Oil

The Eternal Wash Cycle

Odd Man Out

A Dutchman Goes to a Gypsy Fortune-Teller

From Ubud With Love

Hints & Tips

Let's Get Wet: The Rainy Season on Bali

A Lot of Hot Air

No Butt-Cheeks Please, We're Balinese

It Wasn't Me, Guv... Crime and Punishment on Bali

In Sickness and in Death

Soul Feet

Photographing Bali

The King of Stink

Dengue Fever Roolz

Things that Bite and Sting: The Insect Kingdom vs. You

Snakes Alive!

Once Bitten Twice Shy: Dogs on Bali

Monkey Talk

Holidays from the Jungle

The Heads of Trunyan

A Beggar's Banquet

The White Herons of Petulu

A Line in the Sand