Coming of Age in Tenganan

While our remaining travelers were making their way to Lotus Bungalows in Candidasa today, Laurie, who arrived last night, and I headed to Tenganan Village to witness the Mekare-Kare Pandan Wars, an annual ritual for the boys and men of the village.

Three hundred people live in Tenganan Village. They are an original aboriginal village, descendants of the original residents of Bali before the large-scale migration to the island. Everyone who lives in Tenganan is intermarried to protect the purity of their blood; you can get cast out of the village for marrying someone from the outside. Also, for having more than one wife. Although the laws of Indonesia allow for polygamy, this village is monogamous. Those who are born physically or mentally disabled are not considered full members of the village, though they are taken care of by their families.

On the way, the road was filled with scooters carrying Balinese decked out in their finery. Joy and celebration was in the air. Old women sat by the side of the road, chatting and making offerings together. Small warungs sold scooter fuel and other essentials. To my left, there was a baren, clear-cut field with stacks of freshly cut firewood in front of it.

When we arrived at Tenganon, there were cars and scooters parked everywhere. We passed through the entry and signed into a register, made a donation, and were greeted by a Balinese man who spoke perfect American English.

Inside its walls, Tenganon village has beautifully cobbled streets. Chickens were everywhere: brightly dyed yellow and pink chickens in upside down wicker cages. Chickens that would be eaten, roosters to have their day in the cockfighting ring. Throughout the village, loose chickens and new chicks ran everywhere.

More and more people kept filing into the village. As we waited on a platform in the shade, women walked by carrying huge platters of fruit on their heads, preparing for the post-ritual feast. We spent a few minutes observing a gambling game that seemed to be garnering a lot of interest and laughter.

It is believed that the Tenganan villagers settled in this village as early as the 9th to 11th century AD. Surya believes they are the descendants of the ancient Balinese kings. The villagers of Tenganan conduct completely different rituals than the rest of Bali, and the one we saw today was one of them. A rite of passage ritual for the boys, this mecaré caré ritual is their way to prove their masculinity and readiness to be part of the community.

Pairs of boys, young men and grown men step out onto a platform to fight each other with pandanus leaves. The pandanus plant looks a lot like aloe vera, but it’s longer and thinner and has spines, much like a pineapple plant.

The boys and men come out in pairs, usually having chosen their own partner. In one hand they hold a special shield. And in the other hand they hold a bunch of pandanus leaves tied together to make a kind of green whip. The goal of their combat: to scrape and hit and scratch at the back of their opponent with the thorny leaves until they draw blood.

Laurie and I were stood in the heat for a long time to get a front row standing spot. Throngs of people packed in behind us. It looked like there were more cameras than people, and it wasn’t just tourists who were taking pictures; the Balinese had cameras poised and ready. Everyone was taking pictures.

The boys and men who were ready to fight stood above us on a platform with their chests and backs bare. Many had small ceremonial swords or knives tucked in their waistbands. One guy had a pack of cigarettes wedged in the back of his. Another had his cell phone.

Standing there with my small notebook, pen, and cell phone camera, sweat pooled down the small of back and dripped down my sides. My turquoise dress from REI was plastered to my skin. After a lot of waiting, a procession circled the village and women in trance began dancing directly to the left of me.

Then there was another long wait in the heat for the ritual to begin.

Finally, a special kind of gamelan, unique to Tenganan, started to play. Some older teenagers and young men came out with banana leaves, and using palm wine, made offering to the spirits. And then the music grew more intense, and the youngest boys came out to spar in pairs. Their contests were short and closely supervised—four or five seconds at the most. These young kids (they appeared as young as seven—I saw one with his two front teeth missing) really grappled with each other and tried to saw the thorny leaves on each other’s backs, but rarely drew blood.

Then older combatants took the stage. The crowd was loud: laughing, jeering and cheering. The older kids and adults clearly relished the fighting; they were good-humored and good-natured about the whole thing. They laughed and congratulated each other as they compared injuries. They had definitely drawn blood and then stood, picking thorns out of each other’s backs.

After the ceremony was over, all the fighters will be taken to the temple to be treated with a special salve for their wounds to prevent infection. Later today, at the end of the two-day ceremony, the whole community celebrates with a feast.

After half an hour watching the combat, Laurie and I left early, pressing our way out through the crowd. It was hot and we’d had enough—but were so grateful (and amazed) at the opportunity to witness a ceremony so foreign to our western minds.

Be sure to turn up your audio for the videos!

PS. Rather than try to answer the specific questions I’ve posed earlier in this Virtual Vacation blog, I’ve decided to share some interesting fact about Bali every day. Here’s one for today:

Even though rents and housing prices are going up on the island because of foreign investors, it doesn’t impact the Balinese. Surya explained, “The Balinese never move because their ancestor shrines are an essential part of their compounds and will never abandon their ancestors.”

Scroll to Top