Today, we discovered yet another facet. We drove from Ubud up to the village of Kintamani, which sits on the edge of the crater of Mount Batur. Batur was formerly the largest of all Bali’s volcanoes but the peak was destroyed in two massive eruptions long ago, before recorded time.
The lava and lahars flowed down its lower flanks and on to the coastal plain, creating the familiar fertile ridges and canyons that feed the local people and entrance visitors. Batur today is a massive crater featuring a huge 90m deep lake and the cone of a new volcano rising from the crater floor. Another, newer volcano, Mount Abang, rises from the east side of the crater wall and is now Bali’s third highest mountain.
We drove down the side of the crater and along the side of the lake to the furthest village to the northeast, Trunyan, passing fish farms and vegetable plots on the way. Trunyan is named after a unique fragrant banyan tree Taru Menyan, that is the centrepiece of the village cemetery, which was the focus of our visit. Trunyan has been dated by archaeologists at 1600 years old, making it one of the oldest continuously occupied villages in Bali. The villagers are Bali Aga, the guardians of the mountains, tribal peoples who were already living in Bali before the Hindu Majapahit arrived 400 years or so ago, bringing their culture with them and pushing the Bali Aga to the fringes of society.
The Trunyan Bali Aga have clung on to many aspects of their culture. For instance, their temples to do not face Agung; their senior deities and ancestors do not dwell on Agung but live instead on top of the Batur cone and in the lake. But, as with other cultures in Indonesia, their death rituals are the most curious of the ancient customs that remain. The Trunyan Bali Aga do not cremate their dead, instead they lay them out in bamboo cages underneath the Taru Menyan. A fat major root extends from the tree and snakes under the cages, like a trunk line drawing power from the dead.
The villagers clean and dress the bodies in fine clothes for the next world before placing them in the cages. They also surround them with useful items such as new shoes, pots, pans and other utensils. There are 11 plots. When someone dies, the family of the person whose body has been there longest clears the cage for the new occupant. They take the skull and place it on a stone altar under the tree. The remaining bones and artefacts are cast in a pile for burning later.
This small but absolutely unique cemetery lies at the bottom of a steep, heavily forested section of crater wall. Access is by water, 20 minutes paddle in a small, covered boat. It is a hugely important place. After all, the tree gives the village its name. But it is not a restricted place. Visitors are welcome and there is no question of photographs and close looks at the cages and the skulls disrespecting the dead. As our guide, Yansu, Trunyan born and bred, explained, “the spirits are the important part of our ancestors. These bodies are just the things they left behind.”