November 29, 2008

Secluded Indonesian Tribe Unaffected By Global Crisis

An animistic tribe dwelling high in the abundant hills of western Java lives oblivious to the world economic crisis. Estimated to include somewhere between 5,000-8,000 people, the Baduy are an anomaly. While their tribal lands are located only 75 miles from the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, the Baduy live in almost total seclusion from the modern world, observing customs that forbid soap, wearing shoes and driving vehicles.

Villagers stare blankly when asked about world events. 

"I don't understand about any crisis," a young mother named Salina told Reuters, when asked about the economic turmoil that has caused the rupiah to lose nearly a quarter of its value this year.

Within a 20 square mile area in the shadow of Mt. Kendeng, the Baduy people cling to their reclusive lifestyle despite the temptations of the modern world that so closely surrounds them.

Although their origin is unknown, some anthropologists believe the Baduy are descendents of the West Java Hindu kingdom of Pajajaran, and fled to the limestone hills where they now live after resisting conversion to Islam in the 16th century.

The Baduy, along with many others in western Java, speak an archaic version of Sudanese. Their beliefs are a blend of ancient Hinduism and animism. The tribe believes their homeland of Pancer Bumi is the center of the world, and that they were the first people on the planet who must follow stringent rules to prevent disaster from striking.

Renowned for their mystical powers, Baduy leaders, known as pu'un, conduct rituals in a clandestine place called Arca Domas.  The secret spot is surrounded by megaliths to please ancestral spirits and gods.

While their way of life appears primitive, experts who have studied the tribe's farming methods say they are well adjusted to their environment. For instance, metal hoes are forbidden when cultivating rice in order to prevent soil erosion.

Nevertheless, the strict rules under which the Baduy live often seem to make their lives hard.  Among the things forbidden are glass, alcohol, footwear, formal education, diverting water and rearing four-legged animals.

"There is no education. Going to the field is an education for them," said University of Indonesia anthropologist Boedhihartono, who has studied the Baduy for years.

Their society is divided into an outer zone of villages and an inner area of just three villages. Those who break the rules are banished to the outer region and must wear black, while the roughly 40 families in the sacred inner zone dress in white and follow the Baduy traditions much more strictly.

Reaching the Baduy requires hard trekking along slippery routes in plunging valleys.  Foreigners are permitted to visit the outer zone for up to a few nights, and must sleep on bamboo mats in villages pitch black at night due to a lack of power.  It is close to impossible for non-Indonesians to visit the inner villages.

The outer area acts as a buffer zone, with inner zone leaders sometimes paying surprise visits to ensure their outer zone compatriots are not breaking the rules. Radios and other items deemed as modern world pollutants are sometimes confiscated.

The villages are tranquil habitats, suffering none of the noise and pollution from motorbikes and buses common in most parts of Indonesia.

However, it is difficult to maintain isolation from the modern world, and the use of forbidden money has sometimes replaced bartering with the outside world.

Baduy in the outer zone sell sarongs and also travel to neighboring towns to sell honey and palm sugar. The cash is then used to purchase salted fish and other items the Baduy can't make themselves.

"Even in the center they already know money," said Boedhihartono, who has developed a friendship with the tribe over the years.

He keeps a room free at his Jakarta home for occasions when the Baduy, who are forbidden from using transport, make unannounced visits after a three-day bare-foot trek.

Boedhihartono said the Baduy do not have much knowledge of the outside world, "except if they come to my house they watch the TV."

Although the Baduy are supposed to shun modern medicine, Boedhihartono said antibiotics had helped sharply increase the number of Baduy.

The main threats the tribe faces are from outsiders trying to plunder their land, he said, and proselytizing by some Muslim groups.

The Baduy have not been immune to all outside influences, such as circumcision, which is in keeping with local Muslim practices.

Historically, the Baduy have been left to their own devices by colonizers from the Dutch to the Japanese, although authorities have at times tried to include the tribe in mainstream society.

When Indonesia's long-time powerful president Suharto tried to impose development on the Baduy during the 1980s, the tribe sent an emissary to plead to be left alone.  A deeply superstitious man with a weakness for Javanese mysticism, Suharto conceded and made arrangements for the Baduy to establish their own territory to protect them from outside influence.

Image Courtesy The Embassy of The Republic of Indonesia