A Bloody War Rite in Tranquil Bali

Putu Sayoga/Getty Images

Photos by Putu Sayoga/Getty Images

Text by Ye Charlotte Ming 

 

The ancient village of Tenganan is one of the most secluded communities in the Indonesian archipelago. Set against a backdrop of lush hills in eastern Bali, it is a tranquil home to about 700 residents. 


However, once a year, crowds of spectators descend on the village to observe the celebration of “Usaba Sambah,” a Hindu festival spanning the entire fifth month of the local calendar.

 
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Two Tengananese men fight each other using thorny pandanus leaves on June 25, 2013 in Tenganan, Karangasem, Bali, Indonesia.
 

The celebration includes a combat ritual called “Makare-Kare,” or “Pandan War,” where bare chested men in headdresses and colorful sarongs attack one another using thorny pandan leaves as weapons and woven rattan as shields.

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PUTU SAYOGA/GETTY IMAGES
A Tengananese man carries thorny pandanus leaves during a pandanus war ritual. 
PUTU SAYOGA/GETTY IMAGES
Scattered thorny pandanus leaves and rattan shields lie on the ground after the pandanus war ritual. 
 

The “war” has no age limit, with men in their 60s and children as young as 7 coming to test their strength. The goal is to draw blood, and any area of exposed skin is fair game. But as fierce as it gets, once the battle is over, fighters come together to heal each other’s wounds, applying a yellow medicine made of turmeric and vinegar.

 
PUTU SAYOGA/GETTY IMAGES
Two Tengananese men fight each other using thorny pandanus leaves on June 25, 2013 in Tenganan. 
 
PUTU SAYOGA/GETTY IMAGES
A Tenganananese man carries traditional potion made of turmeric and vinegar to heal the wounds of the fighters during the Pandanus War ritual. 
PUTU SAYOGA/GETTY IMAGES
Tengananese men use a traditional potion made of turmeric and vinegar to heal the wounds. 
 

As men proudly partake in this bloody duel to prove their masculinity, unmarried women in the village gather to observe the spectacle from the seats of a revolving wooden Ferris wheel, powered by foot peddles.

 
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Tengananese girls play on a traditional Ferris wheel before the ritual. 
 

Descendants of the island’s first settlers, the Bali Aga, the Tengananese practice the ritual to pay tribute to the Hindu god of war, Indra, and to honor their ancestors.

 
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Tengananese girls play on a traditional ferris wheel before the Pandanus War ritual begins. 
PUTU SAYOGA/GETTY IMAGES
Tengananese women rest after fetching holy water from the springs before the pandanus war ritual begins. 
 

The Tengananese believe themselves to be the deity’s chosen people and therefore observe a distinctive set of cultural practices. For example, the village has had strict rules about who earns membership into their community. A person has to be born in the village to be considered a Tengananese, and those who move away or marry outsiders have been banished. Still, villagers are beginning to interpret the rules more loosely as the community has not seen significant population growth in years.

 
PUTU SAYOGA/GETTY IMAGES
Tengananese adolescents fetch holy water from the springs before the pandanus war ritual begins. 
 
PUTU SAYOGA/GETTY IMAGES
Tengananese men prepare food offerings before the Pandanus War ritual begins. 
PUTU SAYOGA/GETTY IMAGES
Tengananese girls make a traditional potion from turmeric and vinegar to cure the wounds. 
 

Although Tenganan has embraced tourism since the ’70s like other Balinese villages, there are no hotels or commercial homestays inside the community’s walls. Visitors are not permitted to stay in the village overnight. But many Tengananese are still happy to share insights on their way of life and will warmly lead visitors into their homes, where they make traditional crafts such as geringsing — a double ikat textile among the rarest in Bali, which only the Tengananese know how to knit.

 
PUTU SAYOGA/GETTY IMAGES
Tengananese adolescents fetch holy water from the springs before the pandanus war ritual. 
 

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