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The Parade of Dead Bodies at Trunyan Cemetery, Bali

Trunyan Village is where the famous Trunyan cemetery located. It is notable for its peculiar treatments of dead bodies, in which they are placed openly on the ground, simply covered with cloth and bamboo canopies then left to decompose.

Trunyan or Terunyan is Balinese village or banjar which is located on the eastern shore of Lake Batur in Bangli regency, central Bali, Indonesia.

The village is one the most notable home of Bali Aga people. The Trunyan people, or generally considered as the Bali Aga people, the Mountain Bali people. Unlike the lowland Balinese, Bali Aga people practice ancient rituals which predate the arrival of Hinduism or Buddism.

The Bali Aga of Trunyan are noted for unique traditions even among the Bali Aga. According to copper plate inscriptions that was found in one of the shrines of the main temple of Trunyan, the temple dates back to at least to the 10th century AD (833 Saka). The temple is believed to be much older than the village.

Until today, the Bali Aga people managed to preserve their ancient customs as they fled to hard-to-reach- areas including the Trunyan village near the active volcano mount Batur when the Majapahit empire colonized Bali Island. This explains why the villagers do not worship the Hindu gods, they believe that their ancestors descended from the sky.

The name Trunyan itself refers to the tree that grows in the village area called Taru which literally means tree and Menyan (meaning fragrant), that many believed was a magic tree that spread its fragant around it. Taru Menyan is believed to be more than a thousand years old tree, has its own legendary story.

Once upon a time, a giant Taru Menyan’s fragrance was hypnotizing four siblings from the Royal Palace of Surakarta, in the land of Java. The siblings crossed the Bali Strait to find the fragrance. When they arrived at Trunyan, the eldest of the siblings fell in love with the goddess of Trunyan (some say she’s the goddess of Lake Batur, Dewi Danu).

The two pair got married which resulting in Trunyan becoming a small kingdom. The new king then ordered the Trunyan’s residents to remove the fragrance so nobody will be ever got hypnotized again. Consequently, the residents then left all dead bodies from their village on the ground to hide the tree’s organic perfume, which exists until today.

Funeral Rites

Bali has an aesthetic way of honoring life, celebrating death and embracing the afterlife. On the Island of the Gods, death is commemorated as the freedom of souls from the world’s bonds during festive occasions.

Bali has a vibrant cremation ceremony, known as Ngaben or Pelebon for the nobles and the royal family. But in the traditional Trunyan village, where the people have their own beliefs of ancient rituals there’s none of those kind of ceremony. The dead are not cremated or burned on a pyre or as in the case of Zoroastrians, hoisted up a hill to be torn apart by vultures. They are simply laid to the ground and left to rot.

Trunyan Cemetery, accessible only by boat across Lake Batur contains 11 bamboo cages built in the shape of triangular prisms to protect them from animal attack. This unique tradition is called Mepesah. When a member of the village dies, their body, wrapped in white cloth with the head exposed, is placed in one of the cages. When the cages are full, the body that has been there the longest there will be removed to make room for the new inhabitants, replaced by another new dead body.

The remains of the long time residents then are placed on a pile along with any other corpses that have been evicted by newcomers until all flesh, fat and muscles decomposed. When a corpse is fully decomposed, the skull will be placed in a stair-stone shaped altar which is located 500 meters north of the banjar Kuban, a special place that as said above, can only be reached by boat. Only the bodies of married couples are allowed to be treated this way. If the deceased was not married, then it will be buried in the cemetery.

These Trunyanese funeral rituals rites back to the Neolithic Agama Bayu sect, one of six most important religious-spiritual sects during Pre-Hindu period in Bali. The Agama Bayu worshipped the stars and the wind (angin ngelinus). Supposedly, not every dead villager can be laid down in the cemetery. The corpses must be in a undamaged condition and the person must have died from natural causes.

What happen then with the dead bodies from people who died in an accidents? Seemingly the cemetery has three catagories of graves:

  1. Baby tombs (Sema Nguda), for unmarried people
  2. Sacred tombs (Sema Ngayah), for married people who died naturally
  3. Salah pati tombs (Sema Bantas), for all people who died unnaturally like in accidents or by suicide.

The funeral processions seem quite simple, where the villager’s corpse will be taken by boat, followed by family and possibly by residents who happen to ride the boat. When a dead body is being carried, women are forbidden from going to the cemetery to avoid disaster in the village, such as a volcanic eruption!

This Trunyanese open-air cemetery will definitely give us an exceptional experience about extraordinary funerals because since the bodies are just scattered around, we don’t ever want to know what our feet trampled on. It will give us an eerie feeling but then our curiousity and sense of awe literally overcome our fear.

However, Trunyan is more than just a parade of dead bodies. As we walk down the paths of 19,3 kilometre square village, we can see that agriculture is the backbone of their economy. The villagers grow fruits such as oranges and potatoes in their garden.

In the main temple, Pura Pancering Jagat or also known as the Temple of The Navel of the World, villagers conduct a series of ceremonies which includes a dance called Barong Brutuk , an ancient Barong Dance that only exists in Trunyan which is both a performance as well as a religious ritual. Unlike the usual Barong dances, Barong Brutuk dancers wear simple outfits made from dried banana leaves, which supposedly only be picked from Pinggan Village, to the northwest of Mount Batur.

The Barong Brutuk dance masks evoke a primitive feeling as their large eyes is drawn by white or brown paint. It is performed without music, by a selected group an unmarried men who must undergo a purification ritual and isolation before the performance. During the isolation period they must sleep in temples, avoid sexual contacts and learn the prayers of the ceremony from the priest of the temple. Those dancers walk silently with a whip around the temple. Villagers believe that their dried banana leaves bring blessings and safety, while the whiplashes heal the pain of the villagers.

Watching all those customs and traditions will be surreal experience for us. However, if you are interested and want to go to Trunyan Village and have a walk to the cemetery while enjoy the other sites of the village, you must be extra care not to be fooled and have to pay over priced rates. Ask your hotel manager the best way to get there or simply book a trustworthy tour guide (local Bali one will be better) to guide you there. Do not go alone especially for Bali’s first comers.