Original Balinese remain true to their own

Ketut Merta is an extraordinary man in his own right. It is not the color of his skin that sets him apart from other Balinese, but his lineage, revealed in his sturdy build and facial features. 

He is a member of the Bali Aga clan that for centuries has been settled in remote Tenganan village in Karangasem regency, East Bali. 

The clan, which currently consists of about 2,000 families, settled here long before most Hindu Balinese had crossed over from Java. 

Since the 11th century, the Bali Aga, who claim to be the "original Balinese", have lived in this ancient village, making a living as farmers, traders, government clerks or - like Ketut Merta - selling their skills making engravings on lontar (dried palmyra leaves). 

Tourists who choose to spend their holiday in Candidasa and its surrounding areas will be sure not to miss the chance to visit Tenganan and buy a bundle of lontar with their etchings of wayang figures. 

Ketut Merta, one of those at work with a sharp cutting tool, says, "I have been doing this work for eight years, and am familiar with the Hindu legends as I have heard them told over and over again, since I was a child." 

Tourists can place an order for a particular episode that tells of the struggle to uphold a given virtue or choose one from a collection. Those who decide to commission an episode must wait about two weeks for the order to be delivered, at a price of about Rp 400,000 (US$35). 

It is easy to carry a bundle of lontar for they are held, like pages in a book, between a hard cover made of two flattened pieces of bamboo. 

The final step in making the illustrated book from lontar leaves is to rub candle nut over the surface, to ensure they last. 

Members of the Bali Aga clan are proud of their own cultural heritage with its roots in animism. Being a hospitable and tolerant people, they are open to new trends, such as those imported by the people who crossed from Java in the 17th century. 

Although they have adopted some traits of the Hindu religion, they retain the specifics of their own original culture. They allow the women in their clan to marry outsiders from the Brahma, Ksatrya and Vaisya classes - whom they regard as achievers - but strongly discourage them from marrying a member of the lowest classes. Nevertheless, they strongly defend their egalitarian burial system. 

Although they show some leniency in marriage arrangements, there is a clear preference for marriage among clan members. As Ketut Merta says, with conviction, "the tradition ensures harmonious relations in the family". 

While acknowledging the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, they give prominence to Shiva and worship him under the name of Isywara. 

And unlike the Hindu Balinese who cremate their dead, often after a lapse of time, members of the Bali Aga clan in Tenganan insist on burial within 12 hours of death. 

Tenganan is known as the oldest Bali Aga village; similar groups in Trunyan may have different burial rites. 

Through their shrewd and selective adoption of new trends, their culture and religion was able to carry them into the 21st century, ensuring they could prosper along with the majority of Hindu Balinese, be it as farmers, artists or government clerks, without losing their own cultural identity

Source: Retno K. Djojo , Contributor , Tenganan, Bali | Thu, 02/19/2009 2:11 PM | Lifestyle