In honour of the ancestors
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.
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.
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. ◊