Three Weeks in Bali: Tenganan Village and Ancient Traditions

You can read the first five chapters of Three Weeks in Bali here (Chapter One), here (Chapter Two), here (Chapter Three), here (Chapter Four) and here (Chapter Five).

Chapter 6: Tenganan Village

The entire group crowded into two minivans for a short drive south to Tenganan village. Tenganan is home to the Bali Aga people, descendants of the original inhabitants of Bali. Some sources trace their lineage to the 13th and 14th centuries while others go back to the 9th century.

The village is surrounded by a stone wall and has one narrow entrance flanked by sturdy stone pillars on the South side. A guard stationed at the entrance watched the visitors with a benign expression on his face.

Guard at Tenganan entrance

Guard at Tenganan entrance

Anya and Meera filed through the opening in the wall and found themselves on a broad dirt road lined by market stalls, houses and other structures on either side.

Main road

Main road

Many of the structures sported roofs thatched with a black material resembling horse hair. Anya found out later that it was a fibrous material collected from palm trees. She wondered whether the black color wouldn’t heat up the structure underneath by intensifying the tropical sun. If nothing else, the black roofs created a stern, almost mournful, mood for her.

Black thatched building

Black thatched building

They followed their tour guide, Janna, to a simple wooden table covered with intricate drawings in black ink. Janna introduced Ketut Murti as a master lontar leaf artist. Ketut sat behind his table and was working on a drawing, his hands smeared with black ink which he had made from burnt candle nut. The cream-colored paper (or “lontar”) was made from dried palm leaves. The process of preparing the paper takes a year. After that, lontar can last for centuries. There are lontar manuscripts in Bali that are 500 to 600 years old. Many families hold these treasured books as a family heirloom, even if they can no longer read the ancient script.

Ketut was a handsome man with pronounced cheek bones, intelligent eyes, and an endearing smile. His English was quite good and he showed the group a newspaper clipping of his drawings exhibited at a Bali culture event in California. Janna explained that most of his drawings related to stories from the Ramayana, Hindu holy scriptures. While Anya was able to recognize Ganesh, the Elephant God and Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge, she wished she knew more about these stories to fully appreciate the drawings.

Some of the group members bargained for their favorite drawings while Anya and Meera continued walking. Meera elbowed Anya and whispered, “He is soo handsome, don’t you think.”

Anya chuckled and told her: “I just read that the people of Tenganan can only marry someone from their village. If they marry an outsider, they have to leave.” Meera laughed: “That wouldn’t be a problem, I’d take him to California with me.”

Anya remarked to Meera that Indonesian men looked really good in their “longis,” even manly somehow, while the European and Australian men they had seen in these outfits looked plain ridiculous, like drag queens. Meera thought about her comment for a while and then declared that it was a matter of style and attitude. Men in Bali wore traditional clothing to important events involving ceremony and cultural pride; foreign men wore “skirts” as a costume, something that was required of them to show cultural respect but which had no other emotional connotation except perhaps a sense of awkwardness.

Wandering through the streets of this ancient village, they saw a small group of men and women carrying parts of woven fences on their heads, water buffalos resting in the shade of trees and chewing their cud, woven baskets holding roosters captive, one of them dyed bright pink, a group of geese picking around a heap of old coconuts, bird cages hanging from the eaves. An older man held a young child by the hand as they walked ahead of the group, seemingly oblivious to the foreigners and their ever-present cameras; two little girls skipped along the road, giggling like best friends anywhere.

Discreetly peering through some of the open house doors, it appeared that there was often a court yard on the inside with more doors leading deeper into each individual compound. Anya wondered what the inside looked like, who lived there, and what life was like in such a small community where traditions ruled even more strongly than elsewhere.

Strolling through the cobble-stoned streets of this village felt like a portal to a distant past that she knew very little about. Anya liked the uneven feel of cobblestones and had walked on many similar streets in Europe. Chickens wandered freely. Only the electric lines above the roofs, an occasional motor scooter and the bright blue plastic pipes attached to the water spigots on a stone pillar hydrant reminded them that they were still in the modern age.

side street

Janna gathered up the group and led them to the house of an old man who was a master in copying scriptural texts onto narrow strips of palm leaf. These were bundled and tied together and placed in ornately carved and painted boxes. He sang for the group while cameras were clicking and flashing away.

Laurel commented to the group later that it had felt intrusive and almost disrespectful that everyone, including herself, was taking pictures while this man gifted them with his deeply sacred act of singing holy songs. She didn’t blame, just pointed out how their habitual response of capturing everything with a camera might not have been the most appreciative response.

Anya felt a bit embarrassed listening to Laurel. She agreed with her and, yet, the old man’s singing had been so unfamiliar and outside her ability to understand that reaching for the camera was perhaps an awkward attempt to connect. She found herself wishing that she could have met this man alone, with just a translator present. She imagined sitting in front of him, non-verbally communicating her appreciation and wonder, asking questions through the translator and then listening with her heart when he was singing. Sadly, that experience was lost to the needs of accommodating the whole group.

That evening in their cottage, Anya and her roommate Marla were awakened by a strange sound that seemed to originate from within their room. It was a sharp, clacking, woodpecker-like noise, very loud and disturbing. Marla sat upright in her bed, all color drained from her face, and was afraid to use the bathroom. Anya walked around the room shining a flashlight up the walls, into the closet, and around the open-air bathroom but couldn’t find anything. The noise had stopped after they turned on the lights. Anya thought that it might have been one of the gecko-lizards she had seen on the outside walls of their bungalow. But she couldn’t be sure; she had never heard a lizard make any noise at all.

In a slightly mocking tone, she told Marla, that as far as she knew, there were no dangerous animals on Bali that might jump on them in their sleep and suck blood from their veins. Marla looked at her sharply, then shuffled into the bathroom, leaving the door slightly ajar.

Note: This is a semi-fictional travel memoir based on an actual visit to Bali. All names of individuals have been changed. Some of the characters are composites and certain events have been slightly fictionalized.

About Beauty Along the Road

A blog about discovering beauty in all its ordinary and extraordinary manifestations.
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13 Responses to Three Weeks in Bali: Tenganan Village and Ancient Traditions

  1. Lovely scenes. MM 🍀


  2. ianbcross says:

    I don’t know if you will be able to access my photos of Bali from 2013, posted on Fotopedia as Whistlestop Bali 1 & 2. I enjoyed reading your fictionalised account of Tenganan.


  3. Annette, this is the most beautiful post! Was this a recent visit in Bali? Bali is one of the journeys on my list. Thank you for sharing.


  4. The lontar drawings are so delicate. Amazing experiences captures in this post. And your statement about photography intruding into sacred moments … reminds me of the conflicting feelings I had snapping a few photos during the changing of the guard at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery.


    • Yes, taking photographs can be very intrusive at times. I talked in one of the earlier Bali chapters about choosing not to take any photographs in a delicate situation to avoid appearing rude (but still lusting after the THOUGHT of the photograph).


  5. What a wonderful way to capture the experience of your travels. I love the photos and Anya’s narration capturing the wonder and questions we often have when visiting another culture.


  6. Pingback: Doorways of Bali | The Beauty Along the Road

  7. Pingback: Sustainable Forest Management – The Case of Tenganan Village | Sustainable Environmental Management

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