The eyes of the man facing me opened wide, revealing a fathomless black depth ringed by his sparkling brown iris. The world around me was silent, as if the thirty men on the platform with me, the hundreds of spectators, and the carnival that filled the village of Tenganan had simply evaporated. I was alone suspended in the blackness. Time had taken a rest from its eternal and steady march forward, leaving me to drift free from the anchors of light and sound, suspended upon the delicate thread of now. With nowhere to go, nothing to see or hear, what had formerly been confined to “me” expanded to become “we”, reveling in the glory of connection.
And then with the sensation of falling up from the bottom of an inky black well, I crashed back onto the bamboo and rattan platform. My glasses were knocked from my face and the music of the carnival, the murmurs and shouts of the spectators, and the breathing and heartbeats of the men around me flowed back into the world; and I found myself beneath a large man clothed only in a loincloth wielding a shield and a spiked weapon.
I had walked into the ancient and walled village of Tenganan on the eastern side of the island of Bali, Indonesia in 1996 wearing flip flops, shorts and a light shirt. On my back was a small daypack containing a water bottle, a Bali guidebook, a sarong, and the almost golden ceremonial sarong overwrap I had been drawn to purchase a few days earlier. At my side was my new friend, traveling companion and eventual girlfriend, Tracy.
Our heads were both filled with an excited energy fed by the stories we had heard and read in preparing to visit Bali. We shared a certain nervousness about what we were there to see. It was the second and most important day in the Usaba Sambah festival in this ancient, extraordinary village. A day when three ancient rituals all occur to ensure or celebrate the rebirth of the village for another year.
As we entered the main gate to the village, the press of people, the din of the carnival-like atmosphere, the heat and humidity all beat down upon us. A quick circuit of the central area of the village revealed many of the same blaring boom boxes, clothing and jewelry vendors, food stalls and happily running children that I had come to expect in Mexico, but was surprised to find in Indonesia. The Meayunan ferris wheel made completely of wood was being readied for use and the bamboo platform for the Mekare-Kare was just beginning to draw a crowd. We stopped to rest for a little while, to drink some water, discuss what we had seen already, and ready ourselves for what we expected to see.
On a winter evening in Colorado before we left for Bali, Tracy and I had listened to a lecture that explored the island of Bali and its art, related fantastic experiences, and described in fascinating and gory detail the Mekare-Kare ritual and the village of Tenganan. The lecturer told of how the residents of the ancient village practiced a form of animistic religion that advocated blood-letting to honor and appease the gods. They practiced this blood-letting during the Mekare-Kare, a ritualized combat that pits two men against each other, each wielding bundles of thorny Pandumus leaves bound into a spiked club.
Although the stylized combat appears to be violent and bloody, the goal is not to win, but to shed each other’s blood to honor the gods. Each combatant rakes and pummels his opponent across the back. The sharp thorns of the Pandanus rip and tear at the flesh, spilling blood not in hate, but in love. When the Mekare-Kare ends, a village elder applies a native ointment made from tumeric, galangal and vinegar to the combatants’ wounds. And then all the men sit down and share a meal together.
The primitive and distant horror of this ritual seemed so alien and fascinating that we could hardly believe it really happened. So much of what the lecturer told us seemed from another time, the stuff of fiction or dusty ethnography textbooks. The lecturer had gone on to explain that the village is walled in, both in its physical layout, as well as in its rules and traditions. Only members of the village can marry and live in the village; and the villagers live by a strict set of social rules that dictates their specific form of endogamy. The villagers of Tenganan are artists and the lines between art, social structure and religion are very blurry.
What we consider to be unthinkable or impossible are the facts of life in Tenganan. People enter trances and stab themselves with kris daggers, but don’t puncture the skin. Ointment heals slashing wounds overnight. Women weave intricately patterned double ikat fabric by tie-dying one long thread that makes up both the warp and weft; a fabric jigsaw puzzle woven from a single strand.
As we sat under a scorching sun, discussing whether we were ready to watch men bloody each other, a young man came up to us. We started up a conversation, with him speaking in broken English and Tracy and I speaking broken Bahasa Indonesia; and we soon accepted our new friend’s offer to give us a personal tour of the village. We walked through the back passages and dark corners of the village, happy for the connection, fascinated by what we saw and learned. We shared a little lunch together and told stories of where we live; we laughed about his misunderstanding of snow and glowed with his generosity.
Our young guide asked us what we thought of the Mekare-Kare that was just starting and revealed that this would be his first opportunity to participate. With equal parts shock, horror and fascination, we asked whether he was scared. Stoic before his new friends, he replied that he wasn’t, that it was something to which he was looking forward. He explained it was an important turning point in his life in the village. With wide eyes and big grins, we congratulated him and told him we were excited to watch him.
With pride and a radiating smile, he turned to look me directly in the eye and asked if I would like to participate.
Despite the look of shock and horror in Tracy’s eyes and all my previous repulsion I said, “Yes!” At that moment, I stood teetering on the edge of something of which I really had no comprehension. After all, I came from a world of digital clocks, airplanes, carbon fiber and television. I was entering into a world of blood spirits, combat and totems.
Still unbelieving that I had just been invited to join in a pre-history ritual that, to my understanding, no one outside the village had ever participated in, I asked if it was really okay. Perhaps as a way of retracting an offer he didn’t really have the permission to extend, he asked if I had the necessary sarong to participate. I responded by opening up my daypack and pulling out both a sarong and the formal overwrap. I quickly stripped off my shirt and put on the sarong and overwrap, using the technique I had learned a few days earlier.
A little surprised and pleased with what he saw, and with a minor tweak of my sarong, he led me to the edge of the bamboo platform that now held all the men of the village already engaged in the Mekare-Kare. He got the attention of one of the men on the platform who bent down to speak with the young man. A few gestures and quick glances in my direction resulted not in a frown and a shake of the head as I expected, but rather a couple sets of hands reaching down to lift me up onto the platform.
Dressed in only a sarong, my light skin stood out from the burnt umber skin of the men around me, but I quickly bent down like the others, imitating their squatting form. I quietly watched as an elder in the middle served as the ring leader and matchmaker, pointing to each waiting man in turn to stand, receive a swig of the ceremonial Tuak, grab a rattan shield and Pandanus leaf club, and meet his opponent in grappling combat. When the wrinkled elder broke apart the two combatants they would return to squatting and the rest of the men would pick the thorns out of their backs. At the same time, two more men would rise to grapple and bleed.
While I squatted with the men of the village on a platform that rose above the heads of the hundreds of spectators surrounding us, many of the men around me gestured that they would like to be the one to pair off against me. Without much consideration, I selected one of the men who had offered his hand to lift me to the platform. And he must have signaled the elder because when the two men engaged in combat finished, the elder gestured to me that I should stand and come to the center of the platform.
I stood and received a folded banana leaf filled with a sweet tasting liquid. Drinking it felt like swallowing electricity. As I vibrated from the drink, a rattan shield with a broken handle was thrust into my left hand and a bundle of stiff leaves into my right. I looked up just in time to meet the eyes of the man standing across from me who was similarly equipped with a weapon and protection.
The sound of the crowd of men around me, the spectators, and the larger festival all clicked off as if a mute button had been pressed as he stepped forward. I raised my hands, simultaneously attempting to wrap my arm around his shield to bring my club across his back and block his attempt to do the same to me. Arm in arm, as if in a bloody bear hug, we ripped and raked and pushed. My eyes rose to meet his, which peered at me, just inches from my face. Off-balance from leaning too far, I tumbled headlong past the perfect brown ring of his iris into the black expanse of his pupil, free from the chains of time.
It is tempting to equate this experience with the divine. Many would have called the sensation a brush with god. For me it was a moment of clarity revealing the connectedness of the universe. Stripped of any reference of space or time, the universe appeared simultaneously both infinitely large and small. I found within the black circle of the pupil of a man with whom I was locked in combat, the total expanse of the universe.
Then I was ripped back into space, sound and time as my glasses were knocked askew and the reality of my opponent landed flat on my chest.
The rest of the men on the platform smiled at me and picked the thorns out of my back as I knelt back down beside them. With smiles and sparkling eyes they asked if I had had enough, if I was done. With a burning desire to return to the infinite black of now and a total disregard for the burning pain across my back, I said, “Again!” They cheered and laughed and grabbed my arms in excitement. Having seen my lousy technique they all wanted to pair off with me for the next round.
A little more careful the second time, I selected a partner I felt would be a better match. A short while later it was my turn again and I stood. This time I was ready to receive the drink, the shield, and the club and had a much better understanding of how to use them. The second time I maintained better control of the shield, was more comfortable with the grappling action, and stepped in to meet the movement of the man across from me while looking straight into his eyes. I easily resisted his push, staying on my feet and clawing his back with the thorns, drawing as much blood from his back as he drew from mine; but his pupil remained just his pupil and not the gateway my first partner’s had been.
After a few minutes, the elders separated us and I knelt back down with the others, letting them know that twice was enough. We waited as other men stood, grappled and squatted down; and each time we reached up to receive them and worked to pick the thorns out of their bloody backs. Time became a little loose and I grew a strong connection with the men with whom I knelt down, our bodies touching, our blood and sweat shimmering on our skin.
Eventually the ritual finished and we stood as a group and descended in a line from the bamboo platform. But we then turned to climb the steep rock steps of the temple adjacent to the platform. As I rose step by step, following the man before me and leading the man behind me, I could feel the breath of the man behind on my tattered back. I slowly began noticing the injuries on my back, which were like the ones I could see on the man before me and the man before him. We climbed single file up the steps where we were met by an elder and an assistant holding a small vessel.
The old man would turn and reach into the bowl that looked like half a coconut shell and scoop out a thick yellowish paste. As he said a few words he would apply it to the injuries of the man next in line. With an arch of his back and a wild look in his eyes, the young man would then turn and walk down the steep rock steps next to the ones we were ascending.
I reached the top and the old man put one hand on my shoulder, murmured something I didn’t understand, and quickly applied the thick, chunky paste to several points across my back. My nostrils filled with an acrid sulphur smell. My head exploded as if I had just taken a large spoonful of wasabi. A sensation like molten lava dripped down my back as I turned. I hesitated for a second, trying to control the spin in my head at the top of the steep rock steps. The man before me stepped down and the man behind me bumped into me, forcing me to take the first step, a cog on a wheel in a perfect and endless machine.
Under a tree on the grass by the temple we sat together and shared a simple meal of fruits and rice eaten with our hands. We laughed and joked and related our experiences, sharing in the fear and power we had all felt as individuals. We finished the meal and several men invited me to come with them. We walked to several homes where I met their wives and families. In the cool of one home, I talked and played with a little girl of about four or five years old. Laughing and smiling, I admired her beautiful double ikat, the gold on her fingers, around her neck and in her hair. We traveled through back alleyways and into countless courtyards, laughing and smiling and recounting stories along the way.
Eventually we climbed a staircase to an outside shrine where men and women were gathering. They sat down in a group facing a few that were already standing; I joined them on the cool ground as the sun moved to the edge of the horizon. The people who were standing had the thin, powerful bodies of farmers. They would start to speak and shake and enter into a trance. Grasping their kris, they would plunge the blade into their bellies or chests, the muscles in their arms rippling from the effort. Although the blade of the kris appeared sharp and their effort powerful, their skin would resist puncture. In their state of trance they would be unharmed by the fierce weapons. The trance would break and they would fall into the arms of two waiting supporters who would help them to rejoin the sitting group.
I sat quietly with a few of the men from the platform and we watched until late afternoon. We arose and descended to join the rest of the village, my mind awash in a universe that had just jumped the fence of any previous understanding. At the bottom of the stairs to the temple, Tracy tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was okay. I looked up at her face to see her grimace as she examined my back and told her I was fine. When I turned back to the rest of the men, they were speaking a language I no longer understood. I had returned to being an outsider.
A few minutes later I sat on the bus to Ubud, stunned by the turn of events. A few tourists approached Tracy and I to try to look at my back, ask if I was okay, what it had been like, and why I had been allowed to participate. I tried to tell them I was allright, that I was struggling to comprehend what I had just experienced, and that I didn’t have any answers about why they let me up on the platform. I put my head down on the back of the seat in front of me and Tracy waved off the approach of subsequent gawkers.
Walking from the bus station back to our room we met a gamelan orchestra walking down the middle of the street toward us. Normally they perform seated and their amazing music is mesmerizing and challenging to listen to with western ears. To see them performing in the middle of the street in Ubud in my already rattled state was too much. I sat down on the edge of the road and began to cry.
The next day I awoke early and, feeling fresh, gingerly reached back to feel the previous day’s damage. But I wasn’t greeted by the scabs or blood I was expecting. Instead my fingers felt smooth skin. There were scabs and some obvious scratches in my armpit and on my left nipple, the products of my inexperienced work in the first grappling, but I couldn’t feel the same damage on my back where most of the action had taken place. In the bathroom, I tried to view the real state of my back, but the combination of twisting my head around and the very old mirror left me with more questions than answers.
When Tracy awoke and came to my room I had her examine my back for the damage, but all she could find were the injuries that I had already seen on my chest and under my arm. Though my back healed overnight, my mind still bears the clear marks of my time in Tenganan.