Cockfights, ceremony and celebration on Nusa Penida, Indonesia

Nusa Penida is a part of the magic land, the 17 000 plus islands of the Indonesian Archipelago. The so-called black magic island is a spiritual and superstitious place with a rich Animistic Hindu culture that every Balinese wishes to visit at least once in their lifetime.

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It boasts little in the way of shopping, hot showers or Internet outlets so if that is what you are seeking, stay on Bali. However if you are looking for an authentic experience of Indonesian village life, for peace and quiet disturbed only by the constant crowing of cocks, for deliciously simple meals between $2-4 USD a pop, for motorbike adventures on quiet but dangerously potholed roads or an insight into richness of ancient religious practices as yet untainted by the tourist dollar, Nusa Penida is your place.
Like many parts of Indonesia, tribal lore still reigns there. Every individual and family ascribes to customs and requirements of their village including regular temple visits, performing and participating in ceremony and owning fighting cocks, more acceptably known to us as roosters.

Whilst secular cockfighting is outlawed in Indonesia, cock fighting as a religious practice is protected. Cockfighting is an important part of worship and devotion as part of a purification ritual to expel evil spirits through the offering of animal sacrifices.

Hence the practice is part and parcel of every ceremony and temple festival on Nusa Penida. Each family must contribute a cock to the cockfights and the associated gambling surrounding these events goes late into the night.

It seems the locals take their protection for “religious gambling” very seriously with boys and men’s circles also set up outside temples before, during and after actual ceremonies (the cockfighting is usually on a different day) with various forms of bets laid down and the cash re-allocated based on the roll of a di. It isn’t clear if these bets are placed on a past or future cockfight or just another chance to gamble under the pardon of religion.

I found the process of ceremony fascinating however after being dismissed from the temple on our first night when we naively tried to enter without proper invitation, I was anxious about returning.

Despite this ambivalence, a few more days into our stay we were properly invited by a local friend of another Australian lady and given the accompanying instructions on dress, pre temple purifications and how to act once inside.

The temple visit was preceded by a chance to watch the local women’s dance practice at a derelict, no longer used temple in the village. The dance practice involved a 12-year-old girl (who had come of age) passing on the Legong dance to a chosen younger girl to continue the tradition.

The following night we attended the temple ceremony, an experience in suspending time.

Slowly people piled in, the men all in white and the women in a beautiful array of coloured sarongs taking seat on the floor or on the steps. We were the only non-locals in sight and while some people looked at us and smiled, most were deeply engrossed in their own process and couldn’t care less about our presence.

Roving priests blessed each person with holy water and incense and the sounds of Gamelan, composed of metallophones and hand drums filled the air. This combined with chanting from the temple priest created a strange, levitating ambience.

We could not see the priest from the front, but his presence was commanding, seated high in a richly adorned alter covered in golden chains with a tall black top hat. His vocal chants incited waves of prayerful silence throughout the space.

Women with elaborately decorated fruit offerings on their heads walked into the centre of the temple and placed these in a pile to be blessed while costumed children danced in the sacred centre of the temple, which we were not privy to.

Then of course, the full moon began to rise over the horizon and I had to pinch myself. It was no longer certain we were in 2014 for the whole experience had a timeless sense about it, whether it was the music, the chanting, the smells, wind, prayer or the combination of them all.

The ceremonial part lasted for about an hour after which families left the temple, taking with them their blessed food to consume at home before returning later on in the night for continuation of celebrations, with dancing, village deliberations and the ever present gambling outside.

The dancing went on late into the night, with each dance representing stories for the spirits and gods. Many of the dances centred around the idea of good vs. evil with the Barong dance in particular represented by a Lion, the magical protector of the villages and lord of the forest fighting off his evil arch nemesis Rangdha, a demon queen.

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We didn’t know what was going on with most of the dances but were enthralled by the strange beauty of the costumes, the intensity of the music and the subtle but effective bird like movements of the dancers. The child dancers in particular struck us with the maturity they possessed in performance.

Women from the village started trance dancing at one point and one came over and stuck out her large, shaking tongue right in front of our local friend. It was a strange experience for we weren’t sure at the time if that meant a good or evil blessing from the spirits. Turns out it was good.

After leaving the temple that night I understood more fully why it was so important for the locals to defiantly protect their temple rituals. In Bali tourists are often invited to an abridged form of temple ceremony and dancing which makes it more paid spectacle than spiritual undertaking.

In Nusa Penida we were able to experience ceremony in its truest sense, not something to be paid for but something to be felt.

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It was a taste of life without all the pressures of modernity. Where community, custom and ceremony rule daily life and every action is carried out according to the ever present will of spirit.

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