A month-long ceremony unique to Bali’s ancient village of Tenganan, Perang Pandan (in English, Pandan Wars) is a coming-of-age ritual carried out to honour Dewa Indra, the Hindu God of War.
Five kilometres inland from Candidasa, the quiet hamlet of Tenganan Dauh Tukad is home to a community of around 800 Bali Aga, the island’s original people. Family compounds line either side of a wide, pedestrian-only avenue and community meetings are called by banging a kul-kul (hollowed out bamboo bell).
Meaning and magic permeate daily life here. Just-mature girls ride hand-crafted Ferris wheels to echo the ups and downs of life, native geringsing fabrics keep villagers safe, and every building is laid out to respect century-old beliefs.
Curious to experience one of village’s most iconic ceremonies, Perang Pandan (Pandan Wars), Potato Head ventured out to Karangasem – here’s our story.
“Fuelled by tuak (local palm liquor) and adrenaline, bare-chested Balinese warriors armed with spiky pandan leaf clubs and homemade rattan shields thrash each other atop a makeshift stage”
Behind the high stone walls of Tenganan Dauh Tukad, the almost burnt husks of coconuts send out a sweet, lingering fragrance into the early morning air. Homemade penjor (decorative bamboo poles) flank the cobbled streets, gloriously made up for the day’s occasion. Beyond lie palm jungles, sun-baked hills and indigo-blue skies.
At the bale banjar (central pavilions), the build-up has already begun. Children bet their pocket money on big plastic animal mats, with ancient cross-legged croupiers cackling and egging them on. Men fold coconut leaves around hundreds of plegantung (sticky rice and palm sugar snacks), and great pyramids of orange-and-apple-stacked gebogan glide by, bundled upon the heads of colourfully adorned women.
Creaky Ferris wheels, wooden and man-powered, carry beautiful young girls, dressed in their ceremonial best. The looped electronic melody of an ice-cream vendor is the only audible reminder of modern life.
Honouring Bali’s Warrior God
Perang Pandan (Pandan Wars) are part of a month-long ceremony called Usabah Sambah which is unique to Tenganan. Fuelled by tuak (local palm liquor) and adrenalin, bare-chested Balinese warriors armed with spiky pandan leaf clubs and homemade rattan shields thrash each other atop a makeshift stage.
Known locally as mekare-kare, the mass coming of age ritual is carried out to honour Dewa Indra, the Hindu god of war and the Tengananese people’s primary deity. Spilling sacrificial blood is the main goal and almost every male in the village, as young as eight and as old as 80, puts themselves forward to fight.
By lunchtime, crowds of people – local photographers, curious Balinese and bewildered tourists – have appeared and gather around the ring. Referees, weapons and warriors stand by as the native Selonding gamelan percussion begins. Hypnotic, metallic crescendos soundtrack each duel, directing the choreography of the fighters.
Each bout lasts minutes with techniques varying between swinging and scratching but always accompanied by mass whooping and yelping from fighters and their fans. Footing is lost. Men stagger backwards into the mob. Thorny weapons are flung up into the air, coming apart on their journey down.
Up in the stands, beautiful virgin girls wearing golden crowns look on like princesses watching a duel. Teruna (pubescent boys) with scarlet lips, painted eyebrows and brightly hued eyelids, perch opposite, as if part of some strange pantomime.
Ancient traditions in modern Bali
Tenganan’s symmetrical layout, meaningful old architecture and car-free dirt paths offer an insight into an old Bali that stands in blunt contrast with the choked up streets and teeming nightlife of the island’s tourist drags. Many, including Katamama’s architect Andra Matin, have been charmed by the simplicity of life, adherence to traditions and warmth of the people living in Bali’s most ancient thoroughfares.
But despite its rawness, the community of Tenganan is not as secluded as it once was. In the past thirty years, influences from the outside world have started to touch the area. Tourism has opened up and people are now permitted to marry outside of their own society. English is spoken by a few of the inhabitants who have taken jobs as villa hosts, ojek (motorbike taxi) drivers or mountain guides in Ubud, Candidasa or Denpasar. Young people have iPhones, snapping ceremony selfies to post on their Facebook pages (the village itself even has a Facebook page – run by a Dutch lady known as Ibu Ana by the locals). But let us hope that while the people of Tenganan remain curious and gracious when it comes to outside visitors and their cultures, their own ancient crafts, spectacles and ceremonies, like Perang Pandan, live on.