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In honour of the ancestors

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10 kilometres south of Bajawa, the near-perfect cone of Inerie stands tall over Ngada territory. The verdant highlands around the volcano are dotted with many ancient villages, of which Bena is the most famous, perched on a lip of land rearing up over the adjacent valley. Here, the houses of wood, bamboo and alang-alang grass line a series of interlocking terraces populated with megalithic structures, culminating in a shaded lookout and a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Catholicism had arrived in Bajawa only in 1978, and beneath the thin veneer of this new religion, ancestor worship was clearly alive and well.

In Bena there were constant reminders of the village forebears. Soon after we arrived, Dino pointed out three kinds of totems whose numbers corresponded to the founding group of settlers. The umbrella-shaped ngadhu represented male ancestors, depicting warriors clothed in alang-alang with a ribbon tied around the head, their wiry arms brandishing a spear and knife. Miniature houses, known as bhaga, stood for female ancestors, and these were of special significance in matrilineal Ngada society. Between the structures, small standing stones pierced the ground, each one symbolising a child within the founding group.

Dino was quick to add that the totems were not limited to the central communal area. Each house in Bena belonged to a separate clan, and those descended from the original ancestors displayed a miniature house or a warrior on the ridge of their roof, signifying their position as a men’s or women’s clan.

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Ngada houses at the village of Wogo

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In Wogo, the houses and ceremonial structures are only decorated for the New Year

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A row of ngadhu and several standing stones

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After the mist

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On the village’s sole footpath

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An afternoon volleyball match

Before Flores, I had mixed feelings about going to see ancestral villages. Reports of aggressive vendors had dissuaded us from visiting Tenganan in Bali and Sade in Lombok, both known for their culture and vernacular architecture. But Bena was different. Here, no one was trying to make a hard sell. There were no souvenir stalls peddling “I Love Flores” T-shirts, and no murmuring children with baskets of trinkets strung across their shoulders. The lack of commercialism made Bama and I acutely aware that above all, this was home to a tightly-knit community. As strangers we were initially hesitant to take photos and venture beyond the first level, but the gracious residents were largely unaffected by our presence.

Now, as I sit in the material comfort of a city, I wonder: why are we attracted to the idea of seeing a traditional village? Is it borne out of a fundamental desire to experience a place vastly different from our own? Or an opportunity to learn from individuals who subscribe to other ways of living? On a deeper level, it may reflect a search for the simplicity that was once ours – before the age of smartphones, social media, and the internet; before we developed an increasingly hectic lifestyle of consumerism and convenience.

It’s certain that Bena was plugged into the electrical grid, but I have doubts whether a TV was present in several households, or even in any at all. For its villagers had gathered outside, in the communal living room, where young men – all of them trim and athletic – were fully engaged in a volleyball match, while children laughed and ran on the sidelines. Meanwhile, older residents watched from the shade of their verandahs, exchanging smiles and a gentle selamat sore (“good afternoon”) as we walked past.

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Arrival in Bena

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Rooftop totem for a women’s clan

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A miniature warrior figure

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House of a men’s clan

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A dog rests in front of three bhaga

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Taking it easy

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The top of a ngadhu

Just as we were preparing to leave, a jovial village leader who had greeted us at the entrance gripped Dino’s shoulder and signalled us to follow. It came as a surprise. The other residents had understandably kept us at arm’s length – after all, we were just strangers passing through. But our host was adamant. “You can’t just walk around the village and understand it,” the old chief said, “If you come into the house things will become more clear.”

The floorboards of his windowless rumah adat creaked with every step. Its outer room was threadbare, with little more than mats of cacao beans laid out to dry, and we soon found ourselves ducking through the small, half-open door into the inner chamber.

I felt every bit the awkward, oversized foreigner, as my head hit the doorframe and my body proved almost too large to squeeze through. But I was filled with the sense that we had been granted a privilege rarely shared with outsiders. In the warm glow of a small bulb, which I almost mistook for candlelight, our long shadows fell across the wall, and the chief’s expressions grew livelier still as the contours of his weathered face were thrown into sharp relief.

In awed silence we stood eye-to-eye with three items marking the spiritual centre of the rumah adat. Mounted on the wall were a bamboo pole and a pouch of animal skin for palm liquor, a ceremonial knife used for sacrifices – usually a pig, dog or water buffalo – and above it a formidable spear for ritual dances around the bhaga. In one corner a rudimentary kitchen was laid out over a raised bed of earth, and I noticed that the wooden boards were arranged in odd numbers, as Dino had mentioned it was lucky in the animist tradition.

Before we left the inner chamber, my eyes turned upwards, following the beams – all joined without nails – until they came to rest on the darkened space between the rafters. The Ngada construct their houses with soaring, steeply-pitched roofs, for they believe that it is the ancestors who dwell within.

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In the heat of the game

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Decorative carvings and odd-numbered boards

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Megaliths now used as courts of arbitration

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Shrine to the Virgin Mary

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Looking back over the village

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Mt. Inerie at close range

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Roots are important and it is important to honour them, It is interesting to see the differences and similarities, and variety of this world.

    August 1, 2014
    • Absolutely, Bente. Even on Flores alone there was an incredible amount of ethnic and cultural diversity.

      August 1, 2014
  2. I must say my expectations weren’t high either when Dino told us that we were going to visit Wogo and Bena. But, as with other things in Flores, they turned out to be quite impressive, especially Bena. The land contour on which the village was built made it even more dramatic, plus there was Mount Inerie towering over the village. It was indeed a privilege to be invited into the old man’s house and got a firsthand explanation about many aspects of Ngadanese cultures. And as always, impressive shots, James!

    August 1, 2014
    • Makasih banyak, Bama! Truth be told, I didn’t know quite what to expect when we arrived at both villages – I was quite surprised to find no one selling ikat like in Sikka. Meeting the village leader and entering his home was really the icing on the cake!

      August 1, 2014
  3. Fabulous post James. I think we must go to Flores. It’s likely we’ll be in Indonesia next year, and this makes me want to go even more. I too love to visit traditional villages – it’s an abiding curiosity. I’m fascinated by all the endlessly different ways in which people do life. I’m fascinated by the creativity of human beings, how they take their circumstances and environment and discover ways to make it work for them, both individually and in groups. People are so inventive, and it’s this inventiveness that I find enlivening. I also sense their deep connection with spirit and with the land. By western standards they may look poor on the surface, but are they really? Maybe there’s a richness that perhaps we don’t, or can’t understand.
    Alison

    August 1, 2014
    • I think I have said this before, but I’m sure that you and Don will enjoy Flores as much as we did. We are fascinated by many of the same things, and the points you wrote about so elaborately truly resonate with me. I think you’re right about that richness – as far as I could tell, none of the villagers seemed to be in want of anything. We were told the thatched roofs are incredibly expensive (those who can’t afford it use tin sheets), and even more so as they are rebuilt every 10 years.
      James

      August 1, 2014
  4. mysweatyshirt #

    Like any avid reader waiting for an update, I am thrilled you’re w new post! 😛 Rarely been on WP for months and yours are among that I always waited for. I’m taking a virtual trip through your post and hell, I’m a tad bit jealous of the places you’ve been to. I gotta start planning my own after this.

    Minus the fact that I’ve been to Entikong, Kalbar (for a very brief trip as it near the border) and pass through Brunei to get to Sabah without stopping, I’m in a way never been out of my country. It’s so cool that you got the chance to visit Bena. Diverse culture always intrigued me and ancestral traditions are what my people still holding to much like Ngadanese. It’s great that their traditions still going strong and I particularly like their house. Trust me, I would love living there with the magnificent view of the mountain rather than in the city. It’s heaven and to wake up with a lungful of fresh air everyday, who would want to leave. I’m so not a city dweller. Who knows, I might going there soon. Thanks to you. 🙂 🙂

    The mountain is so tempting for a hike!!! Great shots.

    August 1, 2014
    • Wow, thank you for writing me such a lovely comment!

      I assume you must be living in or near Kuching? My father used to go there quite often for work, and he raves about the historical buildings and the riverfront. Still others talk about the food, and the rainforests. I have never been to Borneo myself, which is a shame as it’s not all that far away from Hong Kong!

      And yes, you were right about the fresh mountain air. Hopefully you too will get to Flores quite soon! 🙂

      August 1, 2014
      • mysweatyshirt #

        I’m from Bintulu, industrial town 12 hours bus ride from Kuching. Orang minyak, they said (oil and gas industry) 🙂 Currently in Sipitang, Sabah and previously in Kuching for my study. You should take a trip to Borneo. Sarawak is a big state and much different than West Malaysia, there are lots to see.
        If you enjoy a road trip, you could go through Sarawak-Kalimantan-Brunei-Sabah. Sarawak and Kalimantan especially has lots of different tribe. I’m an Iban, Rajang Ibans specifically, and there are other groups of Iban in Sarawak and throughout Kalimantan. That’s for Iban only, and there are others like the Kayans, Bidayuh, Kenyah. 🙂 🙂

        August 5, 2014
      • Thank you for the recommendations – when I do come to Sarawak and Sabah it sounds like I should stay as long as I can (maybe a month?). The combination of incredible rainforests and all the different tribes is something I would love to experience firsthand. 🙂

        August 6, 2014
  5. What an experience, especially to be invited into the old man’s hut. The photos of the rooftops are astounding.

    August 1, 2014
    • Thanks Sue – it went far beyond my expectations for this trip!

      August 1, 2014
  6. My only experiences with kinds of villages in Indonesia were with Tana Toraja in Sulawesi, and a much more ‘close-knit’ experience at Renah Kemumu deep within Kerinci Seblat NP over in Sumatra. These experiences, which I tag as “Community” over on my site, are some of the best parts of travelling to me. Wogo and Bena look amazing, and so relatively close to a main town too (not like trekking 2 days through the jungle haha). And I cannot believe they play volleyball here! Hope you joined in! 😉 As always, a great read, James, and some amazing photos! 🙂

    August 1, 2014
    • Thanks Lee! Sounds like I should check out your posts on Tana Toraja and Kerinci Seblat; both are on my wish list for Indonesia. 🙂 There was zero trekking involved to get to Wogo and Bena – they are just two of many villages on Flores that are completely accessible by car. I was definitely tempted to join the volleyball game, but then again I didn’t want to intrude… plus the fact that volleyball is not my strongest sport!

      August 1, 2014

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