In death we are all equal. But there is a place in northern Bali where what follows sets it apart from the world. A dark place, home to an ancient people with an equally dark reputation, where you can literally stare death in the face.
In Trunyan there is neither burial nor cremation. The dead are taken from the village by boat to a small clearing around the cove. Bodies are partially covered with a thin white cloth, placed under a fragile bamboo cage and simply left. The cadaver is at the mercy of nature and the elements. It is ravaged, rots and decomposes until just the skeleton remains.
Only 11 bodies can lay there. When the space is needed skulls are removed and placed trophy-like on stone shelves. The rest of the bones are discarded, often just casually tossed on the fringes of the clearing. To the Bali Aga, or Original Balinese, all that matters is the soul and that has long since departed.
The people are the aborigines of Bali. Now they account for only two percent of the population. They were usurped by the Hindu-Javanese who came to the island in the 13th century and flourished. The Bali Aga retreated physically and mentally into isolated communities and remain a breed apart.
Trunyan itself sits on the eastern side of a mighty crater lake across from Mount Batur, an active volcano. A rock wall rises sheer behind the village. Beyond that is Mount Agung, Bali’s highest mountain and a home to the Gods.
The Batur caldera is understandably popular with tourists but only a sparse few venture around the lake to Trunyan. The village’s contradiction is to have an ugly reputation while all around is great natural beauty.
Until compartively recently the only way in was to hire oarsmen to row you across the lake. There are legendary tales of the boatmen stopping half way and threatening startled tourists if they didn’t pay a hugely inflated price. For those that made it to Trunyan they were often confronted by aggressive begging, exorbitant prices and an intimidating atmosphere.
A couple of years ago a narrow, potholed and twisting road was opened around the lake. The Bali Aga asked the Indonesian tourism authorities for help in promoting the village to tourists. Strict promises to change their ways were demanded in return. Prices were to be fixed and transparent and visitors were not to be harmed.
So it was I rode my motorbike along the “road” to the village and met Daro, a young man with good English and a desperate desire to promote his birthplace. He explained that Trunyan actually has three cemeteries. The first, Sema Bantas, is for people who died unnatural deaths. Here, bodies are buried in unmarked shallow graves but without ceremony. The second was the “baby cemetery”, Sema Nguda. A place for the young and the unmarried of any age. Finally, Sema Wayah, the cemetery for which Trunyan is known.
I am shown the price list for the boat to the main cemetery, proof that everything is now open and above board. At more than $20 it is very expensive for Bali. I pay and am immediately told I must now make a “donation” for the cemetery. There is no option. The oarsman set off on a quiet journey and soon point out the path leading into dense growth, darkness and my date with the dead.
The cemetery is in a small clearing, quietness is all pervasive. I am alone and take a few reverential paces towards the bamboo tombs. I peer cautiously inside the first and there above a decaying tangle of cloth is a skull. It lies mouth wide open in a kind of petrified trance. No other bones are visible. There is a similar sight in the next couple of bamboo chambers. But at the far end is the latest body. It has been there three months. Time has already taken its toll. The flesh has mercifully gone. Only a few parts of the skeleton are visible and nearest to me the sandals that once were on feet.
Mounds of rubbish lie on the fringes of the main cemetery and here and there a bone or two. It sounds unsettling but for the Bali Aga the body is nothing. Sentimentality is for the soul.
For all the expectation of what the cemetery experience would be like the anticipation was more disturbing than the reality. I have a surprisingly odd feeling of almost indifference. This may be down to an acceptance of the villagers’ belief in animism.
The absence of a new corpse with flesh also helped. As did the remarkable fact that the cemetery never has the smell of death. A giant Taru Menyan tree, from which the village takes its name, stands in the corner, its sweet fragrance and its thick, spreading roots are believed to counter the odours. Around the cove the “baby cemetery” is not blessed with a similar tree. I am told I cannot see it.”We do not go ourselves except to take bodies,” Daro had told me. “The smell is terrible. It is too much”.
After 15 minutes I am rowed back to the village and I begin to comprehend my ambiguity. The Bali Aga in their understandable wish to earn the tourist dollar are clumsily trying to create what marketeers would call “an experience”.
The old rickety cemetery landing stage has been replaced by a new structure which includes a toilet block and a couple of other rooms. As I am being rowed in, on cue, a villager began playing some traditional but bizzarely upbeat music. At the cemetery skulls had been placed on either side of the entrance and for some unfathomable reason cigarettes placed around them. And while bones are discarded with rubbish around the edges of the graveyard the most prominent are a pair of femurs nicely laid out so tourists can’t miss them.
Trunyan is a fascinating place and the Bali Aga are truly different. But I’m left with a sense that their ancient culture is now being melded into the early makings of a tourist show. The villagers of Trunyan have realised that their traditions play directly to our Western fears of death and the macabre. They know we are fearful yet intrigued. But in their naivety there is a danger that they will turn Trunyan into a kind of Disney of death.