The village of Tenganan

Tenganan is completely walled. It is an ancient Balinese community of about three hundred people that holds to ancient ways. For hundreds of years it has preserved the ancient customs of pre-Hindu times. Its serene conservatism was especially marked as minutes before we had been with the kris dancers. Neat, little stone and brick houses, joined together, were arranged in rows on either side of the wide, stone-paved central avenue which runs the length of the village. The avenue is terraced and graded slopes, not steps, lead to the various levels. A Buffalo grazed freely. Chickens, hens and ducks were about our feet. Fighting cocks crowed from their elegant baskets as they watched the passing parade. Remarkably plump and handsome village dogs warned of our presence.

Cokorda Mahun knew the Mayor, who was now walking towards us. I was surprised he spoke in English and when I told him so he beamed proudly, `I listen every day on my wireless to Radio Australia. I listen in to Melbourne. They teach how to speak English and I want to learn. I never miss a day!’

I Made Pasek, this English speaking Mayor of Tenganan, ushered us to a small house to see the famous cloth of Tenganan in the making. This cloth, called ‘gringsing’, the word means ‘not sick’, is said to have miraculous powers to protect its wearer and ward off sickness. Prayers chanted by the women weavers are said to be woven with the thread into the cloth.

On the loom, we saw a strip of cloth, about the size of a normal scarf. As yet it was unfinished, but it had already been seven years in making. Above, loosely knotted, hung the threads used in weaving. Each thread was dyed already in a pattern which would emerge as the intricate, exquisite, age-old gringsing design.

Mayor Pasek brought out a small wicker basket and there we saw fine examples of this almost priceless cloth. One piece as long, but not as wide as a sarong, had taken fifteen years to weave, the design was the traditional Gambar Wayang, drawn in profile in the style of the Wayang puppets, and the colours from natural dyes were black, cream and flame. I asked Mayor Pasek if I could photograph the cloth and nodding agreement he wound the sarong round his waist and with a broad smile, stepped outside into the sun.

As we walked the length of the village, Mayor Pasek accompanied us. He spoke of a Swiss Doctor now living in the village who was making a study of the low birth rate. He was sad as he told us the women were often barren and families were lucky to have two or at the most three children. `Maybe because we marry within our village. If a man marries with a woman outside he is exiled. He must go from here’, and he waved his arm in an expansive gesture, and in an afterthought added, ‘but he may return to visit’.

In a village of three hundred, isolated for hundreds of years it is obvious there has been intermarriage. This may be a reason for the small families of Tenganan, when in neighbouring villages households are bursting at the seams, and the Government, in huge posters, illustrates the benefits of small families and urges birth control for the modern family.

Mayor Pasek was generous with his time and information. He spoke of the beliefs the Tenganese held: `We don’t believe in burning the body after death. Here there is no cremation’,  he shook his head; his face brightened as he spoke of their burial after death, `the body is naked and put face down in the earth the hands like this’, and Mayor Pasek bent himself forward, hands clasped in front in an attitude of prayer. `We come into the world like this and so we must return naked to the earth. Everything must return to the earth. This is why we fold the hands, we are praying to the spirit of the earth’, and he stopped talking to point out a house where an altar had been erected near the door on the outside wall. `There is to be a burial’, he said, `an old woman has died’.

We passed a buffalo grazing in the central avenue. Our young friend ran to pat its sparsely bristled, tough, tough hide. This gave our host a further train of thought. `We have the ritual killing of the buffalo; we sacrifice its blood to the earth; it is, as you say, a symbol; that’s why we have the cock-fighting, the blood must return to the earth’, and his eyes beamed as he thought of the cock-fights, a manly diversion in Bali, a huge entertainment, but with spiritual motives.

We had arrived at Mayor Pasek’s house and inviting us inside he produced a Visitor’s Book and so we signed. Directly opposite the signature column was one which noted donation received. We dug into our pockets, something for Tenganan and something for Mayor Pasek, who was full of smiles as he waved us through the gates of walled Tenganan. Five hundred rupiahs was a small exchange for a unique experience.

We walked to Cokorda Mahun’s gleaming car, still parked in the now empty square of the village of the kris dancers. Somehow it had taken on the serenity of Tenganan. We were quite alone, but on the ground were the heaped offerings, which dogs were sniffing. The breeze ruffled the feathers of the dead chickens.


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