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An audience with a Manggarai chief


Sipping on a mug of strong, sweetened local coffee, we sat cross-legged on a mat, across from the village chief as he smiled and folded betel leaves, his dark teeth showing between red-stained gums. Behind him was the tiang tengah, the central pillar marking the spiritual heart of the house, where ceremonial sacrifices to the ancestors were made. Fashioned from a single tree trunk, it was hung with drums, deer antlers, and a gourd for holding tuak, liquor made from the fermented juice of sugar palm.

Bama, Dino and I were guests in the chief’s traditional rumah gendang, the Manggarai ‘drum house’, in the village of Ruteng Pu’u. Around us the walls were proudly adorned with family photos – some taken as they wore traditional costumes inside a church – and a decorative cloth from a grandchild in Australia. At one end a TV beamed the latest programmes from Jakarta, while a shrine to the Virgin Mary stood in the corner, in front of an image of Jesus Christ. I noticed that the front door was painted with small white crosses, a series of blessings from the priest, as Dino told us how animistic beliefs and Catholicism were practiced side-by-side. “Mereka jalan bersama-sama”, he elaborated. They walk together.

Soon the chief turned and fixed his gaze upon me. “It’s good that you speak Bahasa Indonesia,” he said, still folding betel leaves. “Otherwise I would only be able to say hello… I don’t know how to say anything else [in English].” At this, he bowed a little and waved as though greeting a foreigner.


Totem atop the rumah gendang, literally ‘drum house’


Ruteng Pu’u and its central megalithic altar or tomb


Drum houses of Ruteng Pu’u


Spider web rice fields, Cancar


Crop circles


A tin-roofed drum house, still used for ceremonial purposes


Spot the farmer


Patterns of the land

Spurred on by Dino, our host took on the role of a storyteller, and I listened attentively, understanding half of his words until Bama stepped in to translate. It became clear that the power of adat – of long-practiced customs and traditions – still held sway in Ruteng Pu’u. The chief said that without a proper ceremony for the ancestors before a festival, food in the storehouse would mysteriously disappear or go rotten, and guests would not turn up.

We learned how the connection to the Manggarai house is cemented at birth, when the umbilical cord is cut and buried in front of the doorway. The strict adherence to adat continues even in death, when the body is buried beneath the megalithic structure at the centre of Ruteng Pu’u. Even if someone died in Jakarta, the chief said, the body was required to return to the village, or the family would face sickness and misfortune.

The next morning we stood on a hilltop in nearby Cancar, overlooking a valley of rice paddies that stretched across the landscape in a series of spider webs. Dino had explained that without visiting the rumah gendang of Ruteng Pu’u, we would not understand the logic behind these curious features known as lingko. Its communal centre, where offerings and sacrifices are made before planting and prior to harvest, mirrored the tiang tengah. Radiating out from the centre were plots belonging to each member of the family – their outlines like the rafters supporting the roof of a Manggarai house.


Rice terraces at Kilolima, near Ruteng


A highland village


Land of abundance


Sculpted contours


Morning fields


A bamboo arch

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. Those spider web rice fields are wonderful – never seen anything like that. Beautiful photos James, and how lucky for you to be able to visit with the chief.

    August 13, 2014
    • Thank you Alison. Another blog described them as ‘alien landing pads’, and I can see why! I regret not taking a photo of the chief in his home – but at the same time we didn’t want to make him feel like a tourist attraction. I think you would have better luck if you went. 🙂

      August 13, 2014
  2. I remember Dino’s disappointment when he thought that the chief was not at home, because he really wanted us to see the interior of Manggarai drum house before seeing the spider web rice fields so we would understand the philosophy behind the fields. Luckily he was there. I can’t forget how good the coffee was, and you know that I’m actually more of a tea person. As for the rice terraces of Kilolima, they completely blew me away! I’m glad Dino took us there early in the morning. Great shots, James!

    August 13, 2014
    • Ah yes, the coffee tasted so good it was almost like hot chocolate! Jatiluwih was quite a disappointment after seeing the terraces at Kilolima – it just wasn’t the same. Thanks Bama, I’m looking forward to seeing your own photos and your account of Ruteng!

      August 13, 2014
  3. What a lovely country side and a very interesting culture. I wish I could go there.

    August 13, 2014
    • Flores is an astonishing island. I would highly recommend it for the nature and the sheer variety of ethnic groups and cultures!

      August 13, 2014
      • Maybe some day we will go.

        August 13, 2014
  4. What a beautiful experience! Thanks for sharing 🙂 Out of curiosity: How did you garner an audience with the chief?

    August 13, 2014
    • You’re welcome, Erica. 🙂 Oh it was simple – our guide Dino knew the chief from many previous visits.

      August 13, 2014
      • I love it when you have cool guides who love showing people around those pieces of life… much unlike the random guy who tried to tell us he was a guide in Nicaragua…. I should write a blog post about that. ha!

        August 14, 2014
  5. bohoclub #

    Reblogged this on White Lies and commented:
    What an awesome experience!

    August 13, 2014
  6. what an interesting experience! thanks for sharing! by the way, those sceneries look the same in Vietnam, my country 😀

    August 13, 2014
    • Oh, I’ve heard quite a bit about the rice terraces of Sapa… that’s definitely on my wish list!

      August 14, 2014
      • welcome to Vietnam!

        August 14, 2014
  7. What an incredible experience. I love the way your photos of the area make me want to jump into them!

    August 13, 2014
    • Thanks for that. 🙂 It went completely beyond my expectations – I couldn’t have asked for a better guide!

      August 14, 2014
  8. Ah, James, Flores now … I’m enjoying this and am thankful for the insights you’ve gained through Dino’s local knowledge, and Bama’s translations.

    August 30, 2014
    • Glad to hear it, Meredith. I too am thankful for Dino and Bama… both were instrumental on the trip. 🙂

      August 30, 2014

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  1. Ruteng Pu’u Village – Flores Plus

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