14 January, 2019

For two days every year, within the walled stronghold of Tenganan, a large crowd gathers to cheer on the ritual ‘mekare-kare’…

Tenganan is one of Bali’s original pre-Hindu settlements; a unique, 700-year-old village, hidden in the hills three kilometres north of Candi Dasa in East Bali. Here, the residents – the Bali Aga people – practise a time-honoured lifestyle based around ritual and ceremony, bound by strict ‘adat’ (customary law) practices to maintain purity.

The mekare-kare is an annual theatrical fight between the young men of the village, utilising prickly pandanus leaf whips! Each dual is staged to the intense martial sounds of ‘gamelan selonding’ music, and lasts only a few seconds, accompanied by much merriment and laughter. The attacks are warded off with tightly woven ‘ata’ vine shields; there are no winners and no losers because the objective is to draw blood as an offering to the gods. After the battles, the combatants’ wounds are treated with a stinging mixture of alcohol and turmeric, leaving no scars.

During festivals such as this, the women of the village wear the famous hand-woven double ikat textiles, known as ‘Geringsing’. Tenganan is the only place in Indonesia where this double weaving technique is practised and the ritually significant, magic cloth has the power to protect the wearer from sickness and evil vibrations. On the first day of the mekare-kare, the unmarried maidens of the village ride creaky wooden ferris wheels, which are manually operated by the men. The turning symbolises the descent of the sun to the earth.

Mekare-kare takes place in Tenganan every year in June or July as part of the Usaba Sambah festival. Visitors, however, are welcomed to the fortress-like village at anytime of year during daylight hours; many of the houses function as shops and workshops where expert craftsmen and women perform their centuries-old skills. This living museum is well worth a visit.