Indonesian culture is founded on basic etiquette principles that inform many traditional rituals. Hierarchical relationships are respected and maintained, with those showing status, power and age preserving superiority in this hierarchy.
From digging up loved ones’ corpses to piercing tongues with hot knives, here is a glimpse at some of the strangest, yet most fascinating, rituals in Indonesian culture.
Indonesia: a brief history of ethnic diversity
Indonesia was influenced by Indian culture for centuries, carrying Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam by the 13th century. In the early 17th century, the Dutch began colonising Indonesia. Fast forward a couple of hundred years, and Japan instigated occupation of the Islands from 1942 to 1945. As a result, the island country is home to a diverse demographic range with over 1300 ethnic groups; the vast majority belonging to Austronesian groups.
1. Rambu Solo and the Makula: party for the dead
Rambu Solo is a farewell ceremony carried out by the Torajan people of South Sulawesi. For Torajan’s, death is not life’s grim finale. Instead, it is an integral part of an ongoing spiritual journey. In Toraja society, the ritual aims to honour the deceased and deliver their souls to the spiritual realm. In other words, it reconnects them to an eternity with their ancestors in a magical resting place known as ‘Puyo.’
Before Rambu Solo
The ceremony provides insight into how Torajan people define death. For them, dying does not necessarily mean goodbye because a person is not considered dead if Rambu Solo has not taken place. Before the ceremony, a resting corpse withered to the bone is not dead but rather sick or sleeping (or ‘makula’ in local tongue). Suppose Rambu Solo has not yet taken place. In this case, it is common for family members to continue care and grooming, often bringing their loved one’s bodies to lunch.
During Rambu Solo
There are two processions during Rambu Solo. Firstly, the burial session (Rante), and secondly, the parade and art performances (Ma’Palao). The two events complement each other in sequence, and the ceremony must always follow these two phases.
Rante is conducted in front of a traditional ancestral house (Tongkonan). It involves wrapping the corpse (Ma’Tudan Mebalun) and decorating the coffin with gold and silver fabrics.
The second phase (Ma’Palao) entails the transportation of the body to the burial site. Once completed, family and friends gather to enjoy art performances. This final stage bursts with dance and colour; it is a concluding tribute to the deceased person. For Torajans, the scale of Rambu Solo is an indicator of social status; the bigger the party, the better.
2. Tiwah: grave-digging for good luck
For Dayak people, a transition of the soul from this world to the next is only possible after Tiwah is conducted. The ritual helps deliver the soul towards the afterlife by unearthing the body’s skeletal remains and transporting them to a sacred site known as Sandung; it is effectively a second funeral.
The strange practice is believed to deter bad luck and display the utmost respect and affection to the deceased’s ancestors. On the contrary, if Tiwah is conducted improperly, locals believe that the spirit of the dead will cement a curse on the family and fix eternal misfortune for its members.
3. Debus: ancient martial art
Debus is a traditional martial art exclusively practised by Bantenese people in West Java. The art form involves a fusion of skills that require super-human inner strength, for example, skewering the body with metal spikes and walking on hot coal. Consequently, it is believed that those undertaking these acts are imbued with supernatural powers. The idea is that if you have complete faith in God, your life will not be harmed.
The bizarre act displays competitive prowess. Against a background of music and dance, performers pierce sharp nails and knives through their tongues, cheeks and other body parts. Subsequently, the person’s body is believed to be immune to fire and sharp object attacks.
Where did Debus originate?
The term Debus is derived from the Arab word ‘dablus’ – a sharp iron weapon that has a round handle at its base. This is the object most commonly used in gruelling martial arts performances.
It is believed the extraordinary art developed in the 16th century during the reign of the first sultan of Banten. Debus was employed during this time as a method of animating the spirit of resistance against Dutch colonial powers.
4. Nyobeng: skull bathing ritual
The word nyobeng originates from ‘nibakng’ – the thanksgiving ritual held after abundant harvests.
Nyobeng is an ancient Dayak headhunting ritual that is performed to express gratitude for peace and good harvests. It involves cleansing and bathing the sacrificed humans’ skulls from headhunting rituals called Mengayau. In West Kalimantan, dried human skulls are believed to possess intense supernatural powers. Freshly severed heads are praised for their potential to rescue a village from illness and disease.
Why the bathing ritual?
In Dayak culture, skulls are believed to summon rainfall. As a result, gathering cleaned-out skulls increases harvests and wards off evil spirits. As dried skull collections accumulate, their supernatural powers amass into a great spiritual force. Consequently, it is common for skulls to be collected and piled on top of one another in a huge bathing ritual.
Headhunting (Mengayau) has now been prohibited by the government. Still, the Nyobeng ritual continues as a way to express gratitude for good harvests.
5. Fahombo: stone jumping ritual
The stone jumping tradition is performed only by young people or men. Beginning at a young age, the person practices jumping over a rope. As they age each year, the rope height simultaneously increases until, eventually, they must jump over a two-metre-high rock without touching its surface.
You can watch a video of the jump in action here.
Origins of the Fahombo ritual
Fahombo emerged during violent tribal wars where stone jumping was an invasion tactic. Nias soldiers were expected to leap over defence forts to attack their enemies’ villages.
Ongoing significance of the Fahombo ritual
Today, there are no tribal wars, and Nias soldiers live peacefully in their communities. However, the jumping ritual has become embedded in local traditions of manhood and remains a fundamental passage into adulthood. Young men must now prove their strength by leaping over a two-metre stone wall; if they successfully land, they are physically and mentally mature. The ritual is an important step that must be completed before men can marry and defend their own village.
The Fahombo ritual maintains its significance in Indonesian culture, most evidently represented by the government’s imprinting of the practice on the Indonesian 1000-rupiah banknote in 1992.
6. Tawur Nasi: a ritualistic rice war
Tawar Nasi is a ritual used by the Rembangese to express their gratitude for a plentiful harvest. Villagers gather huge bowls of rice and load it onto a tarp. Following the village leaders’ series of prayers and words of gratitude, people reach into the rice mountain and clench their fists around as many grains as possible – the rice war begins.
After the rice war, scattered rice is collected by the villagers and fed to the livestock.
7. Kerik Gigi: teeth-sharpening ritual for women
Kerik Gigi is a ritual performed by the Mentawai Tribe. It involves sharpening women’s teeth into Dracula-like pointed shards. In addition, it is believed to be a signifier of a woman’s maturity and beauty.
The village chief uses a sharpened steel or wooden rod to carve the woman’s teeth. This painful process can take hours. But on the bright side, beauty is pain. From the locals’ perspective, a sharp-toothed woman is more likely to remain content for the rest of her life than those with regular, square teeth. While pain is temporary, happiness lasts for eternity.
8. Ma’nene: reconnecting with corpses
For the Torajan people, a funeral is rarely the last time they see their deceased loved ones.
Interestingly, Torajans proudly exhibit their lifeless relatives after digging them up, cleaning and reclothing them in an ancient ritual of ancestor worship (Ma’nene). The ceremonial procedure, which translates to ‘the ceremony of cleaning corpses’, aims to show respect for their loved ones’ souls. In addition, some communities also showcase their loved ones by hanging their coffins on cliffs, forever in sight.
How are the bodies cared for?
When a person dies, the body is embalmed with natural ingredients and cloaked in layers of cloth before being buried in rock tombs to slow decomposition. This mummification process allows people to exhume their loved ones’ bodies, revisiting them from time to time.
The non-finality of death
Like the Rambu Solo ceremony, the Ma’nene ritual understands death as part of a broader spiritual process. In other words, exhuming bodies from their tombs represents a way to connect with death and transcend it by keeping the body’s soul alive. In this way, death is not something to be grieved or feared, but rather, celebrated and prolonged.
9. Pasola: blood sport tradition
In this ritualised contest, there are two groups each consisting of around 25 men. The contestants mount horses and stage a mock war, propelling spears towards their opponents. Initially, the aim of Pasol was to spill blood onto the ground as a sacrifice to the ancestors in the hopes of ensuring a prosperous rice harvest. From a less spiritual perspective, it was also believed that blood would fertilise the land and promise a flourishing tangible return. However, over time, the ritual has transformed into more of a mock battle.
10. Kebo-Keboan: buffalo possession ritual
Kebo-Keboan (meaning ‘impersonating a water buffalo) is a unique way of offering devotion to the Gods in exchange for protection and rainfall for crops. For the Banyuangi people, water buffalos are considered the most sacred and powerful animal due to their resourcefulness in farming. Currently, however, only two villages in Banyuwangi celebrate Kebo-keboan: Aliyan and Alasmalang.
On every Suro month of the Javanese calendar, humans dressed as water buffaloes wander the village streets of Aliyan and Alasmalang. In the Aliyan village, ancestral spirits select the buffalo man. While in Alasmalang, the village’s Indigenous leaders decide who becomes the buffalo man.
11. Ikipalin: finger cutting ritual
For most of us, grieving the loss of a loved one usually takes the form of tearing tsunamis. However, dwelling in the town of Wamena of the Jayawijaya Regency in Indonesia, the Dani tribe grieve gruesomely by chopping off their fingers.
Ikipalin has been banned by the Indonesian government. However, there are speculations that the ritual lingers in secret.
Mainly practised by older women, the Dani tribe amputated their fingers to express the emotional pain of mourning. It was believed that ikipalin would deter the deceased’s restless spirit and reduce misfortunes carried by the dead. Additionally, the practice has been understood as a sacrifice to satisfy the spirits. The amputation was done with stone blades or by cutting off circulation to the finger using a string. Shockingly, there have been stories of mothers biting off their babies’ tiny fingers as part of the ritual.
Why the fingers?
For the Dani people, fingers represent harmony and unity. Despite their varying lengths, the small limbs work together to successfully perform tasks. In this way, Dani culture understood the hand as a belief system that functioned like a family. As such, removing a finger can eradicate the misfortune of a family member’s death.
The significance of Indonesian rituals in cultural anthropology
These seemingly bizarre rituals are normal aspects of everyday life for Indonesian people. Each practice reveals an intense spiritual framework that guides many communities and their values, binding individuals to their societies with a sense of shared cultural belonging and understanding.
Above all, it is important to delve beneath the strange imagery that such practices elicit for the Western reader. Many of these rituals contradict Western belief systems, so we may not understand them at first! Torajan funeral rituals, for example, indicate an entirely different conceptualisation of death when compared with Western society’s perception of death as a painful finality. More than just a show or strange behavior, these cultural rituals provide a window into the historical stories that bind these communities together. Most importantly, they elucidate a framework for how human behaviors and culture evolve over time. In this way, they provide an eternal linkage between the past and the present.