Kemal Jufri /Corbis Sygma for TIME
MANDATE: The Badui live close to nature, using no electricity, fertilizer
or irrigation techniques in their farming.
Eschewing the allure of the modern world, the Badui cling to their spiritual
way of life
By ZAMIRA LOEBIS Kanekes
for a New Path: Jakarta, Indonesia
There is a holy place in indonesia you will never see. Its exact location
has not been revealed, but it is rumored to be on the western slope of
Mount Kendeng in western Java. The Badui, a tribe that lives nearby, call
it the Arca Domas, and for them it is the navel of the world: the first
point of contact between humankind and the realm of the spirits. Each
year, the senior priests of the Badui make a pilgrimage there to meditate
among huge megaliths. They do so for the welfare of the entire planet.
If they didn't, who knows what disasters would occur?
Only the Badui (who are also known as the Kanekes) can accomplish this
rite because they live as close to the spirit world as is humanly possible.
Their code of life, handed down through the centuries, is strict and beautifully
articulated. "The mountains may not be destroyed, the valleys may not
be damaged... What is long may not be cut short, what is short may not
be lengthened... The ancestral injunctions may not be changed." The Badui
can't use electricity or modern productsincluding nails, shoes and
soapand they don't believe in schooling. Irrigation is forbidden
because it interferes with rivers. The rice the Badui live on is planted
on dry land in the hope that rains will perform their natural functionan
agricultural technique abandoned by the rest of the human race thousands
of years ago. Their anachronisms have an essentially spiritual function:
they are told "to live like the sun that lights everything." In other
words, their way of living is not for themselves alone, but also for us.
Astonishingly, the Badui maintain their magically primitive existence
without the isolation of an island or an inaccessible valley. The tribe,
numbering nearly 8,000, live on 5,000 hectares of hilly forest area just
120 km from Jakarta, Indonesia's megalopolis of high-rises and fast cars.
Visitors from the modern world come and go, although they can stay no
longer than three nights. (And they must be Indonesian: with the exception
of one anthropologist four decades ago, no Westerner has penetrated the
Badui's core villages, where the holiest of the population live.) Many
of the Badui roam freely. Karmain, an outspoken man by Badui standards,
has been to Jakarta hundreds of times. The barefoot journey takes three
days, for the Badui cannot use any other form of transportation. Karmain
doesn't mind. "There's plenty of food to eat and water to drink along
the way," he says.
There used to be a dozen communities dedicated to the same cosmology scattered
across Java. After centuries of decline, the Badui are all that remain.
They don't have a unique language or dialect; like other people in their
region, they speak Sundanese. Dutch colonizers gave them the name Badui,
taken from a local mountain and river, and that is how they're known to
most Indonesians. The modern world has managed to bend a few of the Badui's
rules. They practice circumcision, for example, an Islamic influence.
They no longer wear tree bark, as dictated in the ancient manuscripts.
For several decades, they have grown vegetables to sell outside their
villages, and they use money to buy such staples as dried fish, salt and
yarn. "That part of modern life was just too difficult for them to avoid,"
says Ukke Rukmini Kosasih, an anthropologist at the University of Indonesia
in Jakarta. The 32-year reign of former President Suharto threatened to
do away with the Badui's way of life entirely. The land they controlled
shrank, and the pro-development government wanted to set up schools for
Badui children. The tribe sent an emissary to Suharto, who was known for
his interest in Javanese mysticism. Suharto intercededhe even gave
the Badui 500 poles to mark their bordersand they've lived relatively
undisturbed ever since.
Their beliefs are a blend of Hinduism and animism known as Sunda Wiwitan.
The Badui believe in an "upper world" of deities and ancestors and an
"underworld," the earth, which originally took shape around a sacred pillar.
That is the Arca Domas, where the Badui elders pray once a year. The community
of villages in which they live are considered mandalas, derived from the
Hindu/Buddhist concept but referring in the Indonesian context to places
where religion is the central aspect of life. Academics have dated the
religion to the 12th century and have found some manuscripts that detail
the dos, and particularly the don'ts, of the Badui. They were not supposed
to be conceited, wear jewelry made from gold or gemstones, kill pets or
farm animals, have more than one wife, or sell anything from their farms.
The Sundanese and Javanese kingdoms that rose and fell over the centuries
are nothing but dead temples now. Amazingly, the traditions of the Badui,
with barely a written scripture to follow, live on.
The Badui are scattered in about 40 villagesit can take a five-hour
walk through the forest to get from one to anotherorganized in two
bands. Some 37 villages are considered "outer": their residents aren't
as orthodox, and one of their functions is to act as a buffer between
the outside world and the "inner" villages. There are three of those,
each with its own pu'un, or spiritual leader. In the inner villages, home
to 800 people, the commandments are strictly followed. Houses are constructed
from forest materials. Kitchen utensils are made of wood. Life consists
of simple farming, gathering firewood and carrying out ceremonies to keep
the place pure. Occasionally the young gather to learn the ancestors'
teachings. Land can be farmed for only four years; then it has to be left
fallow for a period. The Badui cannot drink alcohol. They subsist on yams,
rice and animals such as mouse deer, squirrels, turtles and fish. Marriage
must take place within the community. When someone from an inner village
breaks a rule, he has to go through a cleansing ceremony, after which
he is banished permanently to one of the outer villages.
Java's medieval kingdoms, the Dutch, the Japanese, the modern Indonesian
governmentall have left the Badui alone. "Being totally spiritual,
apolitical and showing no interest in territorial hegemony, they posed
no threat," says Siswoyo Adi, a Jakarta-based archaeologist. That has
made them unique as a people: living for the sole purpose of their beliefs.
"Religion is their identity," says anthropologist Kosasih. "Without it
they are nothing and they know it." The Badui live and pray for the rest
of the world their whole lives. They ask only one thing in return: to
be allowed to keep doing so.
Write to TIME at email@example.com
From Sapporo to Surabaya Home | TIME Asia Features Home
TIME Asia home