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'Makare-kare': A gladiator-style ritual in Tenganan village

Sharon Karyasa
Sharon Karyasa

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Thu, August 16, 2018 | 09:38 am
'Makare-kare': A gladiator-style ritual in Tenganan village

Gladiator: The fighters are mindful that there is no winner or loser and that it is necessary to fight from a place of love. (JP/Made Karyasa)

Perang Pandan, also known by locals as Makare-kare (Pandanus war), is hosted once a year in the quiet, enchanting Tenganan village in Karangasem regency, some 70 kilometers east of Denpasar, Bali.

Tenganan is known for its unique Bali Aga traditions, which predates the arrival of the military expeditions from East Java’s Majapahit kingdom in the 14th century.

The punitive expedition put most of the island under Majapahit’s influence, political as well as cultural. Villages high in the island’s mountainous area, however, resisted that influence and maintained their cultural independence. Tenganan is one of those villages.

Mekare-kare, a sacred ritual held to honor Lord Indra, the god of war, is unique to Tenganan. Nowadays, it is a major cultural event, drawing curious spectators — foreign and domestic — as well as a swelling number of amateur and professional photographers.

In the old days, Mekare-kare featured mostly adult fighters. In recent years, an increasing number of children have joined the gladiator-style battle.

Street fighting: Children in the village start practicing the ritual at an early age, emulating their family members by play-fighting in the street.Street fighting: Children in the village start practicing the ritual at an early age, emulating their family members by play-fighting in the street. (JP/Made Karyasa)

In another surprising development, the Tenganan villagers have opened up this ritual battle to participants from outside the village. This policy has greatly increased the number of gladiators.

The children started practicing the ritual early, emulating their family members by play-fighting in the streets.

Narrow, enchanting doorways lead through to private, purposefully built podiums, the perfect stage for children to rehearse their gladiator maneuvers.

But this isn’t a Hollywood set — these children are practicing to become real-life warriors from as early as 10 years old.

A seasoned Makare-kare fighter, Jro Mangku Gede proudly showed off his weapon: scores of thorny pandan leaves tied together to form a short club. He would use the club in flowing striking and slashing movements to inflict damage to his opponent’s back.

 Drawing blood is the main purpose of the ritual as blood is seen as the ultimate offering to Lord Indra.

Bloody battle: Gladiators must adhere to strict guidelines. The purpose is to draw blood to appease Indra, the god of war.Bloody battle: Gladiators must adhere to strict guidelines. The purpose is to draw blood to appease Indra, the god of war. (JP/Made Karyasa)

Dressed only in kamen (long cloths) wrapped around their waists and udeng(headgear), the adult and child gladiators gathered around the arena, waiting for their turn to display their skills. In their hands were the clubs and round shields made of woven rattan.

Gladiators must adhere to strict guidelines. They are not allowed to strike their opponents’ from the neck up and from the belly down. Most importantly, they were told not to let hatred or aggressiveness fill their hearts. It is a sacred ritual and not a brute exercise of violence. There is no winner or loser; therefore, they must fight from a place of love.

Coming of age: According to one resident, the reason there were only two girls this year was because contraception had been working well in Tenganan village.Coming of age: According to one resident, the reason there were only two girls this year was because contraception had been working well in Tenganan village. (JP/Made Karyasa)

The battle was a series of quick affairs. Two gladiators stood apart before suddenly colliding into each other. The collision often trapped the shields between their bodies, thus, leaving their backs wide open to attack. Blood was drawn, spectators screamed and fighters separated with a smile on their faces. A fresh pair of fighters entered the arena.

At the conclusion of the battle, their bloody wounds were treated with a traditional potion made of turmeric, vinegar, cucumber and antiseptic.

The fighters did not feel exhausted after the battle. Instead, they felt elated and blessed, knowing they had just honored Lord Indra.

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