20 Jun Flores: Ancient Rituals

Labuan Bajo is the gateway to Komodo Island, and the entry point for many visitors to Flores. Its unique culture and rich history can be attributed to waves of immigrants. Early settlers from Sulawesi brought animism, the Bugis and Bajo sea gypsies of South East Asia brought spices, gold, and Islam; Portuguese explorers mapped the coastline, and Dutch missionaries converted many to Catholicism. While the majority of the island’s inhabitants are now Catholic, the preservation of ethnic traditions and culture is often deemed more important than religious differences, and Islam, Catholicism and Animism are practiced harmoniously side by side. The practice of adat (customary law) is particularly strong, and incorporates ancient blood fertility rites and ritualistic animal sacrifice.

A lone peak

Labuan Bajo is located in the Manggarai region, which is home to Caci, an intriguing and rather violent warrior dance unique to Flores. Also known as the whip dance, it gives males a chance to prove their sexual virility and attractiveness to the women. Opponents wear horned wooden masks, grass skirts and ankle bells, and attempt to whip each other with kalus, (whips of buffalo tail leather,) while fortifying themselves with gulps of tuak (palm wine.) The ritual bursts with symbolism. Whips are made from rattan with a leather-covered handle – phallic in nature, it symbolises the masculine, the father, and the sky. Bamboo shields covered with buffalo hide represent the feminine, the womb, and the earth. As whip meets shield the male and female elements are united, symbolising the giving of life itself. Onlookers cheer gleefully when whips strike flesh – the drops of blood are believed to fertilise the ground, and appease the ancestral spirits. Traditionally Caci is performed to celebrate special occasions such as weddings, the inauguration of traditional houses and Independence Day. It is also an important aspect of Penti, an ancient ritual that gives thanksgiving for a successful harvest, along with prayers for an abundant new harvest. While practiced to some extent across the region, the village of Wae Rebo is known for its elaborate annual celebrations.

The ceremony, which lasts at least 24 hours, starts with offerings carried to the courtyard of the rumah gedang (main community house,) accompanied by the resounding percussion of gongs and drums. The spirits are called upon to join the celebration and each house sacrifices a pig – offering its blood as thanks to mother earth. One of the most important rituals is the wajo menuk, whereby a cock belonging to a village elder is sacrificed and the fortune of the village revealed by reading its heart. Caci is performed to symbolically fertilise the land for the coming harvest. The practice of Sanda commences at midnight and continues non-stop until morning, honouring the ancestral spirits with music-less chanting.

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At the core of traditional beliefs in Flores is the concept of duality, and the necessity of complimentary opposites to complete the circle of life: darkness and light, sun and moon, good and evil. Ancestor worship is strong, and the spirits of the dead have an integral part to play in this circle of life, which is upheld with rituals and ceremonies. Some spirits are deemed friendly and offer protection, other are evil and interfering, causing death and malady. For the Ngada who reside in the mountainous Bajawa region, a premature death signifies evil forces are at play. While the deceased will get a full Catholic burial, the ancestors will be attended to as well – it is believed that for some reason they allowed evil to enter the village, so they must be appeased through blood sacrifice. Buffalos are the most prestigious of sacrifices, as the animal’s black blood symbolises nobility. The slaughter takes place in the village square, where ancestors are believed to reside. Small huts (bhaga) represent female spirits and the ngadhu stone pillars represent male spirits, and are smeared with blood after the sacrifice.

It is possible to visit some of the Ngada villages such as Bena, set in the shadow of a volcano. Houses with high thatched roofs sit in two rows; most are adorned with buffalo horns, skulls and jaw bones. The more horns, the more powerful and wealthy the family. The older women are beautiful with hair piled high on their heads and sensuous blood red lips stained from the chewing of betel nuts. It’s hard to believe that villages like this still exist, but inhospitable terrain kept much of the island’s ethnic communities totally isolated until very recently, so tribal lore remains strong, and an ancient way of life continues.