In traditional communities all across Indonesia, epidemics or disasters are seen as an imbalance of life on the earth and entail an obligation to respond by preforming the proper ceremonies. Such ceremonies rebalance, strengthen, and purify the land and its people, but also bring consciousness to people’s actions and grant space for a community to review the ways it is living on the land and organizing its society. In the Pentiek Benayu ceremony of the Dayak Desa people in West Kalimantan, the Peneduh Jagat ritual of the Balinese, and the Hanik Malala rite of the Atoni peoples of Timor, we see examples of these practices.
According to Lius Thallus, our field staff in Sintang, West Kalimantan, April 2020 saw most of the Dayak Desa villages holding a Pentiek Benayu ceremony to address the outbreak of Covid-19. Offerings were prepared by clan elders for the upper and lower realms of the world. Seven offerings of betel nut, rice, coconut, bananas, various seeds, and traditional cakes along with the meat of pigs and chicken upon a leaf platter were prepared. Six of these are placed face up to the powers of the upper world and to evoke strength from the forest. These are positioned in the direction of the temawai central pillar of the traditional house and evoke Pulang Gana, who is the ruler of the land and the sun. The seventh offering is laid face down in front of shrine that holds the skulls of the ancestors and evokes the powers of the underworld.
A Pentiek is a wooden effigy carved in the likeness of a human, complete with a head, body, hands, and feet, is essential to this Pentiek Benayu ceremony. The wood used must be especially strong and may be one of the “king woods” such as ironwood (Eusideroxylon zwageri) or kumpang wood (Horsfieldia crassifolia). These woods represent Pulang Gana who will prevent disease from entering the human body and renew a spirit that is affected by disease.
The Pentiek symbols are processed around the village and ultimately planted on the village boundaries to repel all negative energy. All members of the community are then purified with holy water and given red cotton thread bracelets to tie around their wrists as protection.
When the Covid-19 outbreak first threatened the island of Bali back in March, a ceremony called Peneduh Jagat, literally to cool or shade the earth, was performed in every household and every village. Traditional plants such as chili, red scallion, ginger, and pandanus, along with Chinese coins and black, red, and white cotton yarn twinned into bracelets were used in offerings to repel the disease. These offerings were placed on the front gate of each house. The metal of the Chinese coins strengthened the inner realms of the earth and the twinned bracelet bound and re-strengthened the world.
As part of the Peneduh Jagat rite, the Balinese make a human likeness from rice. Called a wong wongan, this offering is placed in front of every house to evoke the protection of Siva.
Speaking to our Timorese fieldstaff, Yansen and Willi, a similar ceremony was held in every village on Timor. Called Hanik Pah, the ritual asked for protection from Covid and purified the land and people. This ceremony is usually performed before a new planting season, somewhere between October and January, to purify the land of any negative forces arising from people’s use of the land during the last agricultural cycle. But with the fear of Covid 19 affecting everyone, and with a cultural memory of performing this ritual to counter plagues in the past, Hanik Pah was this year performed in April.
In April, the Hanik Pah ritual of the Atoni people on Timor involved the placement of offerings of betel nut and chicken or pig meat in front of the hau teas ritual shrine that stands before every traditional house. The blood of sacrificed animals was smeared on the hau teas to evoke the protection of Uis Pah, the protector of the earth. One week before this event, traditional elders collected water from seven springs. At the Hanik Pah this holy water was sprinkled over the community as a blessing and to protect them from Covid. The word Malala means heat and a Hanik is a blessing to get rid of such heat.
The continuity of ceremonial response to pandemics across these examples from Bali, Kalimantan and Timor is striking. The plants used in the offerings, the representations of the human form, the use of holy water indicate the underlying cultural continuity. Even the words used in the different languages seem to connect: as office manager Tutut reflected on the Atoni use of the word malala, in Bali dangerous things are considered to be hot and are called mala.
Written with material by Lius Thallus in Kalimantan, Willi Daos Kadati in Timor, and Yansen Tuan, Ni Made Desa Perwani (Tutut), and I Made Maduarta (Pung) in Bali