Prepared: Caci dancers ready to fight in a traditional war dance of West Manggarai, East Nusa Tenggara.
Apart from the famed Komodo dragons on the islands of Komodo and Rinca, West Manggarai in East Nusa Tenggara also has the traditional caci dance, with Japanese samurai-like masks, rattan whips and shields.
The caci war dance features two masked male dancers who fight with whips and shields. Caci comes from the word ca, meaning one, and ci, meaning trial, thus implying one pitted against another to prove who is right and powerful.
Ornate: Caci dancers wear traditional dress, including small bells
It was a foggy, chilly, drizzly day when a number of community figures welcomed a group from the Indonesian Tourism Service Association in Liang Ndara, Mbeliling district, recently. “We are happy and honored to have you visit,” said dance studio chairman Riang Tana Tiwa and communal leader Kristofarus Nison.
It takes around 45 minutes by motor vehicle to reach Liang Ndara, a village 20 kilometers from the regency capital of Labuan Bajo and the gate to Mbeliling, a forest rich in flora and fauna.
Following a procession to greet the guests, caci dancers clad in traditional dress wielded their arms, ready to spar.
Nine others dressed in white shirts emerged to encourage the fighters by performing Manggarai’s danding dance as an opening attraction. Women beat drums and gongs to accompany the performance.
Kristofarus described the dance as being full of symbolism, with reference to buffalos, believed to be the strongest and wildest animal in Manggarai. The whips represent a father’s strength, masculinity, the phallus and the sky. A shield denotes the mother, femininity, the womb and the world. When a dancer lashes and the whip strikes another’s shield, a union takes place.
Harmony: Caci dancers perform in a tradition that symbolizes heroism, masculinity and love.
“In this war dance, there’s no revenge. Caci at the same time serves as a medium to prove the strength of Manggarai men. Injuries resulting from flogging are admired as a symbol of masculinity,” he explained.
The dancers are bare-chested and wear pants covered by sarung songke, Manggarai’s embroidered sarongs. Their lower backs are adorned with small jingling bells.
The masks are made of buffalo hide wrapped in colorful cloths, with horn-like headgear meant to protect the fighter dancers from flogging, along with head-cloths worn over the face.
According to Kristofarus, the chest, back and arms are the legitimate targets of beating, excepting the part from the waist down marked by a hanging cloth.
Everybody hurts: Injuries and bruises due to flogging are sustained by caci dancers and are considered a symbol of pride.
The dancers are divided into two groups that alter their positions as offense and defense.
Caci is always played by the host group (ata one) and a challenger group from another village (ata pe’ang or meka landang). Caci dancers also sing and exchange quatrains while flogging each other. The dance is usually performed in the yard of a communal house.
“Injuries are common for us. Treated with lime, the hurt skin will heal in two to three days,” said one caci participant. They believe that if the back of the body gets whipped, there will be a good harvest. The blood oozing from the wound constitutes an offering to ancestors for soil fertility.
West Manggarai communal elder Lambertus Jeharu said the caci dance originated in local folklore, saying that in the remote past there were two brothers who owned a buffalo. When the younger brother fell into a deep hole, the older brother had to slaughter the buffalo to get the skin as an aid for his sibling.
The local community celebrated the day by creating the caci dance as an expression of love.
— Photos By JP/Indra Harsaputra