Candi Dasa is the collective name of east Bali’s most popular beach resort, covering a total of three miles of golden sands and comprising a series of small coastal villages: Candi Dasa, Senkidu, Mendira, Buitan and Manggis. It is here, not far from the beach in the direction of the hills, that lies Tenganan Aga, a traditional artisan’s village that has changed little in centuries.
It has such a unique architecture and is so well-known for the locals weavings skills, as well as boasting a breathtaking array of artisan goods, that it is part of most day tours to the east of Bali.
We arrived in Tenganan on a summer morning, and were immediately taken by its strategical location, in a valley surrounded by a range of hills and forests. We were asked to make a donation before entering the village (calculate 15,000-30,000 IDR – or € 1-2 per person), funds that we were assured are injected back to the community, and joined the rest of visitors on the walking tour, supervised by a knowledgeable local guide. Guides and web-sites state that Tenganan is “one of the most secluded, isolated and conservative villages on the island of Bali”. Well, I can agree with the term conservative perhaps, but visitors were aplenty and the handicraft/souvenir stores and stalls abounded.
The first thing we noticed were the high solid walls that surround the entire Tenganan (initially intended to keep outsiders away), only broken by means of four gates facing the four cardinal points. We entered the village through the gate on the southern end, sided by two small temples.
We were told that the village is set up in a system of levels: the further you venture forth, the higher you climb. Who lives on what level depends on age: at the bottom are the youngest families and the artisans houses and stalls, while the eldest in the village live in the top level.
As we walked along the small stone-paved streets, trying to temporarily avoid looking at the several little stalls selling masks, flags, hats, wood carving, weaving etc, we concentrated on the interesting set up of the village: down the little lanes lie several very similar houses, built on either side of the north to the south concourse, with their doors opening on to it.
Further along, in the middle of the concourse, is a 20 meters long strongly-built wooden balé (gazebo), a kind of council house where administrative decisions are made, and next to it is the drum tower, which is beaten 21 times each morning at the start of the day. Not far up the center are a series of balé banjar, communal pavilions for public use which serve for formal and informal meetings and ceremonial gatherings. The village main temple, the Pura Puseh or ‘temple of origin’ is situated at the northern end. Here and there are huge frangipani and banyan trees, all surrounded by low walls of uncut stones.
Hungry for cultural information, we broke off from the rest of visitors and sat for a break, dipping onto the pages of a guidebook…
The fascinating history of Tenganan dates back to around 200 BC and it is linked to the Bali Aga, the original Balinese people. Little is really known about Tenganan, but there are a few versions that are worth reading about. Some claim that the word Tenganan derives from the word ‘tengah’ which means ‘to move to an inner area’; this would prove that seafarers at some point decided to move inland to a rural area, hence establishing the village. Another version reveals that the area around Tenganan was donated to Ki Patih Tunjung Biru, the King of Bedahulu (on the hills in Gianyar Regency) right hand, when he found the King’s lost horse (albeit dead). And finally, a legend according to which the area had been ruled by unjust and cruel King Maya Denawa, who forbade Balinese to perform religious rituals. King Maya Denawa was eventually beaten and destroyed through fierce fighting by warlords lifted by god Indra (the god of war), and the people of Tenganan were selected to administer the territory and to use every means to keep it pure and clean in accordance with a divine plan to make it a microcosm of the world. Tenganan villagers in fact believed God Indra is the god of all gods.
This village was closed to the outside world until the 1970s and was known by anthropologists to be one of the most secluded societies of the archipelago, so much that even Balinese from other villages could not enter it. However, rapid changes occurred after that, with the development of local communications by the central government, the breaking of the endogamic rules and the opening Tenganan up to outsiders in the late 1980s.
TENGANAN WAY OF LIFE
Tenganan unique way of life is really different from the rest of Bali: protected by a strict code of isolationism, it has its own own rules and regulations retained over the centuries. The locals’ customs and way of life reign the village and are passed from one generation to the next. The villagers are completely self sufficient and share all income as communal which is then shared according to needs. These are people proud of their living conditions, their crafts and customs; the community is important, and the village leaders are elected in a democratic fashion, and the individuals are as equally important as the community. Outsiders are still not allowed to dwell within the village, according to strict rules that state that only those born here can become full members of the community.
Individual ownership of property is not recognized. Tenganan retains the original mapping of agrarian village in the traditional structural Bali and owns enormous tracts of fertile and well-cultivated lands, with some of the villagers working in the agricultural fields, producing enough to fill every need of the village. The villagers’ ancestors knew the importance of a forest for their sustainable life and has well-maintained their forest and all its contents for centuries.
So, where do these people come from?
THE BALI AGA PEOPLE
The people of Tenganan are called Bali Aga – the ‘original Balinese’ who descend from the unique ethnic group that at one time occupied Bali, people of the kingdom of Pegeng. They lived in small communities isolated and independent in the mountains where they found refuge from imperialistic invaders, and worshipped the powerful forces of nature and of their ancestors. Hidden in the hills, these people filed and blackened their teeth, buried their dead in the jungle to be carried away by the spirits and, by means of sacrifice, brought their ancestral spirits down to Earth to protect them.
Hidden in the hills of East Bali, it is right in Tenganan where the the most conservative of the Bali Aga preserve the old traditions with the greatest zeal. Tenganan people are tall and slender, have white skin and refined manners, and most of the men still wear their hair long. The strict protocol and rules only allowing marriages amongst the kin groups ensure the genetics of the Tenganese stay pure.
These are amazingly welcoming people; still, during your visit you may feel the uncomfortable feeling of being intruding.
ART AND CRAFTS
I finally decided to stand up and walk through the village, getting glimpses of what life in Tenganan is all about: small houses with terracotta tiled roofs, people attending to temples, women carrying fruit and vegetable on baskets balancing on their heads, weavers cottages where womenfolk engage in weaving and batik printing. It is a great heritage village with cobbled paths, roosters roaming around, and artisans producing a wide variety of handiwork and their family selling it. We stopped to watch a demonstration of work in progress: bamboo drawings, baskets making, and the one thing Tenganan is really famous for: the intricate weaving of the double-ikat Geringsing cloth. Tenganan is one of only 3 places in the world to produce/weave Geringsing (the other two places are Gujarat in India and Okinawa in Japan), the rarest technique of ikat weaving in the world today. In this unique process, both the horizontal and vertical threads are dyed in a special fashion so that when woven, designs appear in the cloth. The traditional pieces have only three colours and can take a month or longer to produce (we were told of a ikat taking eight years to complete, though this seems a bit exaggerated).
I had heard and read about people advising not to buy in Tenganan, as apparently they inflate prices. I felt no obligation to buy from anyone, and eventually I purchased a double-weaved sarong for what I considered an honest price for all the work that is put into it.
Our time at Tenganan was well-spent. You can make the visit last 10 minutes or 10 hours, it pretty much depends on what you are after. The colours, the people, the heritage are all there. I can only advise to arrange for a guide, in order to enjoy the historic importance of the sites and learn about the culture and practices of the village. Getting there early, say at around 9am, would save you from the crowds and allow for better pictures.
Tenganan is best visited during an event happening in yearly in June and called Perang Pandan, or Pandan War, or Mekaré-kare. The celebrations and offering ceremonies in honor of Lord Indra include a blood-shedding fight of pandanus leaves in which all the men of the village prove their manhood.
Tenganan is only a few kilometers uphill from the beach resort of Candi Dasa. If you happen to be in the area, do not miss it!
Wikipedia has one page dedicated to Tenganan: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenganan
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