Reciprocity, death and the regeneration of life & plants in Nusa Penida (Giambelli, 2002)

Anthropologist Rodolfo R. Giambelli in 2002 published an article on the reciprocity between people and plants in the realm of a religious (Hindu) context in Nusa Penida. This article is probably based on his PhD thesis "Reciprocating with Ibu Pretiwi, Social Organisation and the importance of Plants, Land and the Ancestors in Nusa Penida, unpublished PhD Thesis, dept. of Anthropology, R.S.P.A.S., Australian National University, Canberra, 1995".

giambelli thepotentdead cover'This article explores the relationship between the people of Nusa Penida, a small island near Bali, and their environment, ancestors, and gods, from the perspective of the human-plant relationship. On the basis of fieldwork conducted between 1989 and 1992, it first discusses myths and ideas related to the growth of plants, thought to have originated from the sacrificed body and blood of a young woman or child, and then moves on to a discussion of the interrelations of death, corpses, fertility, earth (conceived as the Hindu goddess Ibu Pretiwi) and plant growth. In Nusa Penida, the treatment of a dead person occurs in three phases: corpse preparation and burial ('mendem' or 'nanem sawa'); a liminal period; exhumation ('ngebét') and cremation rituals (ngabén). Relations between humans and their environment are based on a model of reciprocity which includes all living creatures. The relation between humans, person, and plants is worked out in a reproductive cycle in which the earth, personified as Ibu Pertiwi, provides food for humans through plants and cultigens which spring from her body, and humans reciprocate by feeding her the flesh and blood of their dead bodies. The author argues that too much emphasis has often been placed on cremation alone as the quintessence of Balinese rituals, causing it to be (erroneously) view as detached from the larger ritual complex. Cremation merely constitutes the final phase of the process, refining the bones by transforming them into the first stage of a purified ancestor. Cremation merely constitutes one step in the complex process of the creation of purified, god-like ancestors, which culminates a deification ceremony ('nganteg linggih') after which the newly purified ancestor is placed inside the ancestors' shrine ('sanggah kemulan'). The author questions the validity of analysing Balinese culture as a unique and culturally isolated Hindu enclave. Like many Eastern Indonesian cultures, the Nusa Penida variety of Balinese culture retains strong affinities with an Austronesian culture based on reciprocal obligations the fertilizing role of ancestors, and the crucial importance of plant cultivation.' (KITLV)

Page numbers of the original article are mentioned, as well as references to footnotes. Additional comments by Godi Dijkman are given in square brackets.

Reciprocity, death and the regeneration of life and plants in Nusa Penida (Bali)

giambelli reciprocity 2002 cover(p.48) The events surrounding death and the role of the ancestors in Nusa Penida are deeply interwoven into the issue of reciprocity, for reciprocity encompasses cycle of complementary obligations not only between humans, but also among humans, the natural environment, their ancestors and the gods. Reciprocity between these agents relies heavily on issues associated with death and regeneration of life, as in this society the death of human beings is related to the growth of plants and produce as well as to social reproduction and the establishment of divine ancestorship. Central to these themes is the local perception of wild plants and cultigens, as in this agricultural society these items are essential for material reproduction and for human and natural fertility. In the context of the large corpus of writings dealing with Balinese anthropology, none of which has seriously dealt with Nusa Penida, the emergence of this set of themes outlines the presence of a Balinese culture distant from Brahmanical issues and more attuned to the cultural issues central to Austronesian cultures.

Nusa Penida lies in the Lombok Strait between Bali and Lombok (Map 2). The island was traditionally used as a place of confinement by all Balinese rajas before the Dutch conquest. Nusa Penida is inhabited by about 46,000 persons (1990), the majority of whom are subsistence farmers growing maize and cassava as their staple foods, and only marginally dry rice, which is mainly reserved for ritual purposes. Locals consider themselves to be common Balinese (sudra) outside the three traditional Balinese estates (triwangsa). In the island there is no significant presence of high-caste Balinese; nor of Balinese (Bali Aga) who ascribe to themselves an origin and an identity rooted in Bali and different from those descending from the Javanese conquerors of Bali. The language spoken is Balinese with some local variations; high Balinese is rarely spoken. In some central areas of the island Brahmana priests (pedandas) are forbidden to officiate, and (p.49) major emphasis is place on village ritual specialists (pemangku). In Balinese lore the island is considered to be a source of evil, dangers and illnesses, for on the north coast of Nusa Penida lies the temple of Ratu Gede Macaling, the great fanged god of whom eastern Balinese impute the coming to Bali of cholera.

In the perception of the people of Nusa Penida the natural and social orders are linked, as both are part of a single continuous domain where a feature peculiar to the former becomes a metaphor for the latter, and vice versa. This assumption appears consistent with Ingold's (1992) suggestion that humans and non-humans form a single social world, as well as Rival's (1993) argument that human beings and natural objects form a single social field. This chapter explores these issues from the perspective of the human-plant relationships and the role plants have in Nusa Penida.

According to the people of Nusa Penida, life-giving processes, such as those involving the growth of plants and cultigens, cannot be left to chance and must be constantly encouraged and regulated. These processes carry strong associations with particular aspects of death ceremonies which are transformed into life-promoting ones. The issue evokes Hertz's analysis of the double-burial practice and the subsequent investigation of these themes by Huntington and Metcalf (1979) and Bloch and Parry (1982). My approach diverges form the more recent authors, as I argue that the sexual aspects involved in the reproductive cycle must be understood with reference to the local cultural context and not merely to biological reproduction.

giambelli reciprocity 49 map

Image left: Map2 Bali administrative divisions (Kabupaten): Nusa Penida is enclosed within Kabupaten Klungkung, p.43

I examine the belief that cultigens sprang from the dead body of a young (p.50) woman, form the yearly agricultural cycle in the village of Sakti, and the role that corpse exhumation, flesh and bones, fertility and ancestors play in the regeneration of plants and cultigens. All are part of an exchange circuit based on a paradigm in which the idiom of flesh and bones is used to express different types of fertility concerns. Finally, I reflect on the transformation of ancestors and ancestor worship at village level.


Myths and ideas related to the growth of trees and cultigens

As Stöhr and Zoetmulder (1986:182) have pointed out in a myth they called 'the appearance of useful plants and of death' (after Jensen 1948, 1963: Jensen & Niggemeyer 1939), the growth of domestic plants throughout large parts of Indonesia is held to have originated from the violent death of a human being. More precisely, plants and cultigens used for everyday consumption are believed to have arisen from the sacrificed body and blood of a young woman, or of a child. The myth with its variation is well-known in Indonesia, and could be considered a common theme in most eastern Indonesian cultures. (1)

Footnote 1) Similar myths are reported in Evans (1953:15-16), Fox (1993:78), Jensen and Niggemeyer (1939), Jensen (1948, 1963:166ff), Boulan (1988:31ff), Schulte Nordholt (1971:271). For its importance in the western and central Austronesian context and its relation to other common myths in the same linguistic area, see Ottino (1986:62ff). For a variation of this myth is which the sacrificial victim is a male burned ancestor, see Friedberg (1989:552).

In Bali and Nusa Penida a variation of this myth concerns the appearance of rice, as I was told in Sakti. The story runs as follows: "A kingdom of old was affected by a sustained drought that dried up all its rivers, springs and wells, desiccated forests and cultivated land and led animals as well as humans to the verge of starvation. The raja of the realm was unable to deal with the problem. He therefore decided to ask the gods and his ancestors for advice. He was told that the drought ought to be attributed to his subjects as they had misbehaved towards the gods and their ancestors. As a condition for ending the drought the gods required the sacrifice of a human being, for only the blood of a human sacrifice shed on earth would end the drought. The raja brought the news to his people only to realize that that no one was willing to be sacrificed for the sake of the kingdom. Sri, one of the raja's daughters, heard about this and offered herself as the sacrificial victim. The father did not welcome the news. Nonetheless he was compelled to accept it because of the gravity of the situation. It is said that the young lady walked to her death with a smile on her lips. She was sacrificed in a public place. Her blood, which was then shed on the earth is said to have been sweet-smelling. Immediately after her death the sky became dark and heavy rain set in. It rained all the night and the water replenished the rivers and wells. the next day, after the rain had stopped, the raja visited the grave of his daughter and there he found that on the grave a green plant had grown, bearing small golden grains. This was the rice plant. People believe that the soul of the princess is reincarnated in the plant. She became the goddess Sri (Dewi Sri), the symbol of rice, prosperity and of floral as well as human fertility. (2)

Footnote 2) For other versions of the myth of Dewi Sri, see Sukawati (1924, 1926), Schaareman (1986:58), Wurtz (1927), Wessing (1990) stresses the Western-Indian-link of Sri through its associations with Rama and its epic in Java. However, as the evidence of eastern Indonesia suggests (see note 1), I suspect that the mythological theme of the sacrifice of a young woman and the appearance of plants is older than the Hindu influence in western Indonesia.

This myth focuses on rice. However, one of the elements that it brings to the foe, and which it has in common with all other myths of this type, is the (p.51) emphasis on the fertilising nature of a dead body from which cultigens are obtained to feed other humans. In the myth a startling inversion of the meaning of death occurs. What appears to be a useless body becomes, in reality, the primaeval source of fertility and food for humanity.

Dry and wet seasons: death and the agricultural cycle

Although rice is no longer cultivated in Sakti, because the decrease in rainfall has shifted the main subsistence crop to maize, this myth is still believed and recognised as relevant to the growth of maize and other crops. In the perception of people from Nusa Penida, in the first phase of death rituals death, corpses, fertility, earth (conceived as Ibu Pretiwi, the Hindu goddess representing mother earth) and plant growth are all interrelated.

The relationship between plant reproduction and human death begins with the understanding of the different emphasis locals place on the division of the year into two halves, the hot season (masan panes) and the rainy season (masan ujan). The hot season is held to run from the March to the September equinox. This period is marked by the end of the harvesting season and a post-harvest feast (in Sakti called Maprani), by the beginning of the new year and by the performance of death rituals. The wet season runs from the September to the March equinox (3) and is characterised by agricultural work, from land preparation and sowing to the harvesting season.

Footnote 3) Due to global warming and the induced climatic changes, the arrival of rain in Nusa Penida is no longer so predictable and the two reasons are not so sharply distinguished by the two equinoxes. However, for the Balinese ritual and festival calendar, the March equinox remains crucial as it is related to the beginning of the new year and its rituals.

For the whole of the desa Sakti the agricultural season is focused on maize cultivation, with the ripening time of between three and four months; in the centre of Nusa Penida dry rice is still grown, with a maturation period of between six and seven months. In both cases, however, only a single crop per year is grown and harvested; in the island maize or dry rice culture there are no cases of multiple annual crops as in Balinese wet rice culture. Dry rice and maize agricultural cycles, although they may differ in length, are completed within a rainy season. On the full moon of the tenth Balinese lunar month, the thanksgiving festival Maprani is held in Sakti. It announces the end of the corn agricultural season. During the feast, which is centred on a collective meal held by the men in the village communal pavilion (balé banjar), thanks and offerings are given to Ibu Pretiwi for the crop she has bestowed on the people, and then to the ancestors who have helped the community sustain the growth of the crops from sowing to harvest (4).

Footnote 4) For further details on Maprani, see Giambelli (1995: ch.XII).

It is said that all major life crisis rituals (e.g. tooth-filing or death rituals) should be concentrated during the dry season, while during the wet season attention is devoted principally to agricultural work. Thus the growth of plants and cultigens is preceded by, and stand in complementary oppositions to, life crisis and funerary ceremonies. Just as one section of the year is distinguished by its association with green, moisture and growth, the other is marked by its association with dryness, rest and death.

Ngebét: flesh, bones, fertility and plant reproduction

Just as the dry season precedes the wet, death rituals prepare the way for the agricultural season and, in the perception of the locals, are directly related to the growth of trees and cultigens.

In Nusa Penida most people bury their dead while waiting for the time of cremation. We are thus, even though with long delays, dealing with a secondary treatment of the corpse. Burial and subsequent cremation are also common in Bali, According to Hertz (1960), death rituals among Proto-Malay and Austronesian peoples are conceived in a tripartite structure of a preliminary burial, a liminal period and a final ceremony, all marked by the care given to the corpse from the moment of death to its final disposal. In order to appreciate the development between the primary and secondary treatment it is important to analyse the events that take place in the liminal phase, as this represents the core of the whole process. Hertz perceives the fate of the corpse as a paradigm for the fate of the soul. Thus, in the liminal period, while the corpse tots until the flesh is definitely separated from the bones, the soul wanders restlessly in the world of the living. It is only after the corpse has completely decomposed and the clean dry bones appear that the soul can be called on and the dispatched in a final ceremony.

The treatment of the corpse and the separation between flesh and bones is the key to an understanding of the whole process and is based o a fundamental fact that, while flesh is perishable, bones are not. Fox (1988a:189) maintains that Hertz's argument is constructed on the widespread view held in the Austronesian world that life results from the union of blood and semen, is shared in Nusa Penida, where a human being is assumed to be made up of the union of white male semen (kama petak) and a red female semen (kama bang). The female semen is associated with blood, as menstruation is understood to be the loss of the blood contained in the broken female semen. However, I have not found a simple, direct causal link between the origin of bones and kama petak, and the origin of flesh and kama bang. In Balinese thought these elements are part of large exegetic schemes that interpret creation as a cosmogenic effort brought about by the male and female union, which is held to be analogous to the union of the gods Ratih and Asmara. All the elements of the body of a growing foetus (thus, not only blood and bones), as they are thought to reproduce the creation of the whole world, are associated in complex schemes with Hindu gods, demons, spirits, cardinal directions, colours, natural features and moral qualities. (5)

Footnote 5) On the subject, see (1986) and Hooykaas (1974).

In Nusa Penida very few people are immediately cremated, and the treatment of a dead person involves a tripartite structure similar to that outline by Hertz: corpse preparations and burial; liminal period; exhumation and subsequent cremations rituals.

(p.53) I argue here that in the perception of local people: 1) Relations between humans and their environment at large are base on a model of reciprocity than includes all living creatures, plants as well as human beings; 2) 'The growth of plants - as an expression of agricultural fertility - depends on the gods as well as human beings, and is understood to be analogous to human growth and fertility; 3) Plant growth (as a food source and thus material reproduction) and ancestor worship (as a guarantee of the origins of the group and thus a source of social reproduction) are built on and depend on a number of symbolic relations that are also worked out in this context, and which are particularly evident during the exhumation of corpses which precedes all cremations rituals; 4) The process of burial and exhumation is the common way to deal with human death and, with the exception of cremation, is seen as the preconditioning for the creations of properly purified ancestors.

In developing this argument I do not deal explicitly with cremation, as it relates only marginally to this context. Cremation (ngabén) has been held by a number of anthropologists as the quintessence of Balinese rituals and one of the keys for the assertion of political power (e.g. Geertz 1980:117), mainly because of its spectacular, elaborate setting when performed for a king or a high-caste Balinese. While its use as a symbolic means to claim and maintain status is indisputable, I contend that focusing on cremation alone and its spectacular events has been done at the expense of understanding it and has made it a unique event detached from a whole ritual complex when it is clearly not so. Cremation merely ends the work that began with exhumation (ngebét), for it refines the bones by transforming them - as a corpse - into the first stage of a purified ancestor. Thus is logically follows on the work that began with the separation of flesh and bones. Cremation does not change the issue at stake - the cremation of purified ancestors - but extends it to a different level. Ngabén is in fact only one step in the process of creation of a purified ancestor that begins with death and ends only after the newly purified ancestor is placed among the others inside the ancestor's shrine (sanggah kemulan) with the completion of a deification ceremony (nganteg linggih), which is the last of the death rituals. The cremation of a purified god-like ancestor is a long process in which every ritual has its place, as it concluded a phase and leads to a new one.

Burial: mendem or nanem sawa

After someone dies the corpse (sawa) is washed and ritually prepared for the burial. In Sakti the burial is conducted by a special ritual specialist known as 'jero dukuh sakti', who is also in charge of all the rituals that may affect the working of the land, the clearing of the forest and the communication (p.54) with the spirits of the wild. In his role he is also able to converse with Ibu Pretiwi and all the spirits inhabiting the earth. In Sakti on this occasion, a pit is made in the graveyard (in other areas of Nusa Penida in the gardens); the corpse, wrapped in mats tied together by a bamboo frame and laid in the grave oriented towards the highest mountain of Bali, the most auspicious directions (kaja) of the Balinese compass, is then covered with earth. After the prescribed rituals have been performed the jero 'duku sakti' strikes the earth three times with his hand and, handing over the corpse to the goddess, asks her to take care of it.

giambelli reciprocity 2002 ziziphus jujuba 01giambelli reciprocity 2002 ziziphus jujuba 02Images left: Bekul tree (Ziziphus jujuba). source: Wikipedia

This ritual is called 'makingsan sawa' (literally 'to entrust with a corpse'). With this action the corpse is temporarily handed over to Ibu Pretiwi, who from then on is considered to be responsible for its fate until exhumation. The grave is then marked with three stones, one placed in the position of the head, one in the centre of the body and one on the site corresponding to the feet of the dead person. Over the grave, as protection from dogs and witches (léak), thorny branches (dui) of the bekul tree (Zuzyphus jujuba Lamk.) are laid.

The liminal period: first example of reciprocity

The events and ideas associated with the liminal period between burial and exhumation indicate that, in the perception of the people of Nusa Penida, the relations between humans and earth are built on reciprocity based on the dissolution of flesh and the growth of plants, Elsewhere I have discussed the significance of reciprocity in Nusa Penida, and its principles of inherent asymmetry (Giambelli 1995: ch.V). That discussion is extended here to matters of fertility and ancestral relations.

After a corpse has been buried it is said that a period of at least one year should elapse before it is exhumed for cremation, which is to say the combination of a full agricultural cycle and the following dry season. It is also stated that time is needed to allow the flesh to rot and dissolve properly. In a corpse considered ready for cremation the bones must be clean of all flesh (Figure 4.1). The corpse is then defined as 'tasak' (ripe). If at the time of exhumation the flesh is still clinging to the bones, the corpse is considered 'matah' (raw). If cremation is then still carried out, the bones must be cleaned and the flesh cur off. The flesh taken away is laid back in the pit, which is then closed and covered with soil. It is in fact believed that just as bones belong to the descendants of the deceased, flesh and blood belong to Ibu Pretiwi and indeed feed her. Local people plainly state that 'as Ibu Pretiwi feeds us, we feed her'. Human flesh and blood are the elements that enhance fertility and contribute to the growth of plants.

The relation between humans, earth and plants is thus worked out in a reproductive cycle as follows: as Ibu Pretiwi provides food for humans through plants and cultigens that spring from her body, so human beings must reciprocate and feed her, as they do, through the flesh and blood of their dead bodies (6).

Footnote 6) For a comparison on the fertilising nature of the 'rotting fluids of the dead' who bring life to all animals and plants, in an eastern Indonesian context, see Geirnaert (1989:447ff).

giambelli reciprocity 55 washinggiambelli reciprocity 55 outlineImages left (p.55): Figure 4.1 Collective washing of the ancestor's bones after exhumation; Pendukaha Kelod, Nusa penida, 1990; above: outline of the cycle of reciprocity between Ibu Pretiwi, plants and  human beings as understood in Sakti.

(p.56) This cycle is based on a asymmetric cycle of reciprocity in which corpses are exhumed for plants and cultigens between Ibu Pretiwi and human beings. Plants and corpses are then ideally considered similar in value. However, the fundamental principle on which this cycle is based, and which was constantly brought home to me, is that humans cannot take away crops from the earth without giving something back to Ibu Pretiwi. A sort of reciprocal balance must be maintained in these relations if crops and plants are to grow and proper on earth (7).

Footnote 7) Additionally, at different levels the whole exchange circuit could be equally interpreted as steps in the passage of 'pramana' - the life force - between plants, humans and earth. This, however, was never made explicit to me.

In this model it is Ibu Pretiwi - as simultaneously Mother Earth and Mother Goddess- who is entrusted with the ability to provide cultigens to humans. The example should not be interpreted as a denial of the previous myth explaining, although differently, how rice sprang from the dead body of Dewi Sri. The two goddesses are complementary and represent two aspects of the feminine, and as expressions of fertility and regeneration they symbolise the growth of plants on earth. The pattern of reciprocity expressed by the relationship between Ibu Pretiwi and human beings precedes and foreshadows the myth of Dewi Sri. The relationship between Ibu Pretiwi and Dewi Sri is of crucial importance and dealt with later in the context of the place sexuality, women and fertility have in Nusa Penida and Bali.

Ngebét: second example of reciprocity

Just as the corpse is entrusted to Ibu Pretiwi by striking the soil three times, the jero dukuh sakti awakens it in the same way before exhuming takes place. In the meantime the ritual specialist informs Ibu Pretiwi, the spirit who rules over the graveyard and the grave, and the Lord of the dead who dwells in the Pura Dalem (see below), that the remains of the buried person will be recovered from the earth. In this instance the jero dukuh sakti requests Ibu Pretiwi to return the remains of the deceased.

The opening of the grave is a collective task in which all the relatives of the deceased take part. After the remains have been recovered the empty pit must not be immediately filled. The corpse taken away must be replaced with something that stands for it, and that has a similar value in the eyes of the locals and Ibu Pretiwi. Balinese believe that if the exhumed remains are not replaced with something else, Ibu Pretiwi will ask for another corpse to fill the empty grave. A grave cannot be left empty or someone else will have to die in order to occupy it. To avoid this, the corpse is exchanged for certain natural elements which are thought to symbolise a human body. the replacement, which occurs during exhumation (ngebét), is called 'silur bangbang', (literally: 't exchange the grave'). After the remains have been exhumed, a sprouting coconut is laid in the place where the corpse's head formerly was, a green banana sucker is put in the spot where the feet were, and a live black chick and other offerings are placed in the centre of the grave.

What commonly happens, when the pit begins to be filled with earth, is that someone who is not a relative of the deceased jumps into the grave and (p.57) grasps the coconut, someone else takes the banana sucker, and the chick too is caught or flies away in the confusion. In the end, only the offerings (peras panyeneng), the shroud and whatever belonged to the former dead person remaining from the exhumation are covered with earth. The sprouting coconut and the banana sucker will later be planted in the garden of those who have taken them, while the chicken is generally reared. The black chicken (siap penempeh) is supposed to incarnate the soul of the deceased. it is freed before the pit is filled again and its flight enacts the liberation of the soul from the close embrace of earth.

The events surrounding ngebét further reinforce the analogy between human beings and plants, as one is substituted for the other. On the other hand, they stress the relevance of reciprocity in the relationship between human beings and Ibu Pretiwi, as whatever is taken from her must be replaced by something else of similar value (8). Relatives of the deceased may not take away the coconut, the banana or the chicken exchanged for the remains of their beloved, as this would not be interpreted as proper reciprocity, vis-à-vis Ibu Pretiwi, for her restitution of the corpse. In this respect, even though the majority of symbols exchanged for the body are seized and taken away by those present at the event, the public is allowed to do so only after the offerings have been blessed and ritually presented to the goddess.

Footnote 8) The need to replace the bones with some offerings, which included a young banana plant and a live chicken, had already been noted by Mershon (1971:215) who, however, does not report the name of the ritual or appear to have understood the full extent and significance of the reciprocal exchanges involved in 'silur bangbang'.

The regeneration of life: human and plant fertility

The death process, as it relates to the cycle of plant growth, comes to be associated with life-giving situations. As is generates new lives it denies the finality of death and reconverts it into life. The transformation of death into life is a theme common to a number of ethnographies, and this process has been associated in different ways with sexuality, women and fertility. (9)

Footnote 9) On these issues, see Bloch and Parry (1982) and Huntington and Metcalf (1979)

In the case of Nusa Penida and Bali it is argued that practices of exhumation and fertility, in its widest meaning, bear: (a) direct references to human intercourse, as the ideal model of 'natural' productiveness (which of course includes plant growth); and (b) close relationships to the theme of female sexuality, as expressed by the ideal of reproduction within the context of marriage, and by the non-ideal of sexual lust outside marriage to be overcome if proper fertility is to be achieved.

Burial and intercourse positions may indicate something about human fertility as well as soil fertility. A man in Nusa Penida is considered to have a socially higher position than a woman, and he is supposed to retain this position physically also during sexual intercourse. Man's prone position during intercourse is indicated by the term 'melingeb'. The reverse position is considered to be proper to a woman, and is defined by the term 'malumah' (from 'lumah': fragile, weak), indicating a supine posture.

In the context of natural events this relation is transposed in the relationship between Akasa, as simultaneously the sky and father, and Ibu Pretiwi, (p.58) as earth and mother. Plants, and more generally, flora are also understood to be the product of the intercourse between Akasa and Pretiwi. Water, in the form of rain, is paralleled with the male semen that fertilises earth, allowing for the growth of seeds hosted in the depths of Ibu Pretiwi.

Man and woman, Akasa and Pretiwi, are respectively associated with a number of different elements which, whenever combined, produce life. Thus, ideally, the growth of plants is made ideologically similar to the growth of a human being. Just as a human being is the product of the intercourse between a superior (malingeb) husband and his wife, in the same way plants are conceived to be the product of the intercourse between the higher Akasa (malingeb) and Pretiwi. Natural fertility is conceived of as being homologous to human fertility.

In a number of villages in Nusa Penida, such as Jungutbatu, Pundukaha and formerly Sakti, the burial position of men and women conform to the position a married couple adopt during intercourse. Thus, a man is buried is a malingeb position, while a woman is buried in a malumah position. The relationship between the symbolism associated with Akasa and Pretiwi, and the human burial postures, transform death into a direct analogy of the reproductive process.

In most parts of Nusa Penida people bury the dead in their gardens, with great emphasis being placed on the procurement of soil fertility, growth of edible cultigens and plant reproduction via ancestors' bodies. Corpses enveloped in a deathly embrace by Ibu Pretiwi become sources of fertility. Ancestors, via the association of their souls with specific plants, are believed to be reincarnated as cultigens, as is the case with rice, while plants become living symbols of their forefathers. Within this perspective ancestors fully contribute to the feeding of new generations. These perceptions, and the set of relations expressed by them, are congruent with a number of Balinese themes related to the growth of rice and the relationship rice has to farmers and their ancestors. (10)

Footnote 10) See for instance the meaning and symbolism associated with rice planting as 'pitra ketemu' in Filloux (1991:351ff). She indicates that in Piling the growth of rice can also be seen as the 'symbolic impregnation' of the field by the man acting as farmer. Although at a different level, this relation appears analogous to those found in Nusa Penida concerning the role of Akasa and Pretiwi in the growth of plants and cultigens.

Sexuality, women and fertility

In Nusa Penida and Bali the manifestation of the feminine is represented by three goddesses, which relate to different aspects of sexuality and fertility and which enshrine three prototypes of female behaviour and stages of life. The unmarried woman is represented by Dewi Sri, the married woman by Ibu Pretiwi, and the widow by Rangda. These conditions delineate three stages in the life of a woman, each characterised by different paradigms of fertility.

The condition of the unmarried woman as portrayed by Dewi Sri represents the example of the daughter. As no reproductive sex is allowed in such a context, fertility is achieved through sacrifice and the destruction of Dewi Sri, whose buried body is transformed into crops. The unmarried woman enshrines a fertility potential, as she can generate future progeny. However, (p.59) in the myth of Dewi Sri this potential is not developed, as she chooses to be sacrificed. This is a positive example of filial obedience but a negative one for fertility, as the goddess pays for it with her life. Sexuality is absent, corruption is present, and the progeny is here ideally transformed by the decay of the flesh into crops and food for the people.

The condition of Ibu Pretiwi represents the ideal of the married woman who is made fertile by her husband. It is the ideal of a marriage that produces progeny and a goddess who produces crops jointly with her husband. In this prototype sexual activities are associated with marriage. These are socially approved and emphasise the public role of the couple. Intercourse must be accomplished and its aim is procreation. Sexuality in this context is inherently positive and is embodied by the married woman, from whom at the time of her marriage fertility and progeny are desired.

The condition of the widow as personified by Rangda represents the model of untamed fertility that becomes dangerous. In this context sexual activities are associated with lust and represented by Rangda, whose unkempt hair (magambahan) indicates her wildness and her sexual drive. Rangda is the widow who, as a witch, dances over graves and feeds herself with corpses; she lives in the burial grounds and is associated with the Hindu goddess Durga. Rangda is an expression of a form of sexuality that threatens married male and female stereotypes, for Rangda's sexuality is lust - not aimed at reproduction, and associated with the degenerative process of the flesh of the corpses. Femininity is here above and beyond male control.

Just as these aspects are different facets of the feminine and the condition of womanhood, the ascetic model expressed by Dewi Sri and the wild unrestrained lust expressed by Rangda come to be encompassed and embodied in the figure of Ibu Pretiwi as Earth, wife of Akasa, and Mother Goddess. In fact, in Nusa Penida it is said that the embodiment of Rangda in the garden is precisely that of Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice and fertility. Rangda becomes fertile when she abandons her name and all associations she has with sexuality and is sacrificed as Dewi Sri.

As further evidence that these manifestations are mutually inclusive aspects of the same goddess, it should be pointed out that the wild Rangda is associated with graveyards and Dewi Sri with cultivated gardens, in most of Nusa Penida gardens and graveyards tend to coincide. Thus, both Dewi Sri and Rangda relate to death and burial. In Dewi Sri, however, fertility is the result of sacrifice - rather than sexuality - and the shedding of blood and the dissolution of flesh is the precondition for the origin of plants and cultigens. In this image the feminine role is reconfirmed as Dewi Sri - although detached from a marriage context - is subordinate to her father.

Both these forms of sexuality and fertility are present and embodied in the figure of Ibu Pretiwi, as emerges from the picture I have drawn in the context of the plant reproductive cycle. Pretiwi combines in her image the ideal of wife and mother as well as that of the dangerous lover, for she relates to Akasa as a wife, she feeds humanity as a mother, she gives rise (p.60) to plants as Dewi Sri and, last but not least, as Rangda she is a devouring lover who feeds on corpses.

Flesh and bones as plants and ancestors

The idea of fertility in Nusa Penida, as it emerges from all the relationships expressed so far, comprises human and plant fertility to an equal degree, although these aspects are based on separate grounds and through different associations. Fertility in the first of these paradigms is associated with women, and expresses concern over the material means of reproduction; in the second through the creation of the ancestors it is linked to the whole community, and addresses its concern with origin, identity and the means of social reproduction. This pattern diverges from the model put forward by Bloch and Parry (1982:18-21), with its exclusive emphasis on the tom and male bones as the primary expression of true fertility. If it is true that the dissolution of flesh is the condition for the appearance of bones and the origins of imperishable ancestors - and thus Bloch and Parry speak about the victory over flesh - it is also true that in the case of Nusa Penida flesh is not lost but believed to feed Ibu Pretiwi and thus is instrumental in creating plants and cultigens.

To return then to Hertz's assumption concerning flesh and bones, in Nusa Penida the ideas associated with these elements, as expressed through the events of ngabét and silur bangbang, and the concepts related to them via malumah and malingeb indicate, first, that body elements are made analogous to natural elements such as plants and cultigens and, second, that biological processes associated with flesh and bones stand as models for natural processes as well as social ones. Thus flesh, as the perishable element of the body, is the medium through which is expressed the cycle of production and reproduction of plants and cultigens, an in this context it becomes the source of food and material reproduction. Likewise, bones, as the imperishable elements of the body, are the matter which ancestors are understood to be made of, as during exhumation bones are used physically to re-produce the already dead, and in the subsequent funerary rituals of continuity, standing for the origin of the lineage group, and are thus the source of social reproduction.

The associations of the themes of flesh and bones with issues of gender, sexuality and reproduction, as represented by the themes linked to Ibu Pretiwi and Akasa, provide the means for the formulations of the two paradigms in which concerns of fertility are expressed in Nusa Penida. However, while flesh in this context is directly associated with women, bones and ancestors are not exclusively identified with maleness but with the whole community as composed of men and women. For, if is true that males have a dominant role in Balinese social organisations, it is also true that the shrine that stand as the abode of the ancestors in the sanggah (p.61) kemulan (see below) comprises both a male and a female figure representing the purified ancestors from which the lineage sprang, sometimes identified in their higher form as Bhatara and Bhatari guru. Male and female aspects are hierarchically related, but both are present at the same time.

The two paradigms are condensed in the following diagram.

First paradigm: Flesh is transformed into plants. The perishable elements of the body, the flesh and blood, (a) by way of Dewi Sri produce ->; (b) in the hands of Ibu Pretiwi are transformed and via a sexual union with Akasa produce -> plants and cultigens  these are: means of material reproduction; expression of femininity in Dewi Sri; associated with Ibu Pretiwi as mother and female goddess; linked to the unpurified ancestors buried in the gardens and graveyards  
Second paradigm: Bones are transformed into ancestors. The imperishable elements of the body, the bones, in the hands of the living community are transformed and via death rituals produce -> purified ancestors  these are: expression of the identity and origin of the community; means of spiritual reproduction and social order; expression of maleness when associated with Akasa as father and male god.  

Table above: Outline of two fertility paradigms

In this process flesh and bones come to symbolise two types of fertility, respectively associated with plants and ancestors. Thus natural elements become paradigmatic of social ones. Ideas related to fertility and its expression in a traditional society such as that of Nusa Penida link indissolubly the natural order to the social organisation.

The Pura Dalem, the Sanggah Kemulan and the transformation of ancestors

The transformation of ancestors is another theme of the transformation of death into life for, as flesh is made into corpse, in a similar process dead bones are made into purified ancestors.

Although in Nusa Penida and Bali ancestors can be called on in virtually any place of worship, the two main temples in which they are specifically invoked are the Pura Dalem and the sanggah kemulan. The Pura Dalem, a large temple which serves all village purposes, is generally located in the proximity of the main graveyard (sema pakingsan) and is associated with the unpurified dead. The sanggah kemulan is a small shrine erected inside (p.62) the house compound and serves exclusively the aim of the family who built it. The difference between these temples concerns both the sacred domain peculiar to each and the characteristics of the people who visit the temples to pray.

giambelli reciprocity 62 sanggahImage right: Figure 4.2 The sanggah kemulan during a family festival, at Karangdawa, Nusa Penida (p.62)

Within banjar Sakti the Pura Dalem is held to be the most important pura. Not only is it associated with the cult of the dead, but it hosts a mask of Rangda (Durga), locally called Ratu Gedé, which stand as the banjar's (p.63) most important deity. The divinity is not associated exclusively with death but also with regeneration, and has an overall protective function for the whole village. The holy water (tirta) from this temple is required for all types of rituals held in the banjar.

The sanggah kemulan is a small shrine present in each household temple (figure 4.2). The shrine, divided into three open or closed sections, is understood to be the abode of an apical pair of ancestors plus a supreme deity which dwells in the central section. While the ancestors may be referred to as Ida Yang or Ida Kompyang, the central deity can be referred to as Akasa, Bhatara Siwa, or may more simply be indicated as Bathara Guru. Both terms composing this designation are Sanskrit and can be found also in Balinese (11). In par5icular, Guru is a Sanskrit term which contemporarily refers to a venerable person, s preceptor or a teacher (12). In popular exegesis in Nusa Penida, Bhatara Guru is conceived as expressing the unifying spirits of the ancestors as ideal progenitors and lineage mentors. As an extension to this concept, thus emphasising their leading role, the whole group of deities abiding in the shrine are commonly referred to as Bhatara Guru. Occasionally the whole group can also be called Bhatara kemulan.

Footnote 11) Bhatara is a Sanskrit borrowing which, according to Zoetmulder and Robson (1982:224), refers to great lord, venerable person, gods and great god, although used alone it may refer to the highest gods, such as Siwa or Buddha; Footnote 12) On this issue, see Zoetmulder and Robson (1982: 561)

Contrary to what happens in the case of the Pura Dalem, the holy water (tirta) from the sanggah kemulan is required for all types of rituals held exclusively by the descendants of the apical pair of ancestors.

In the Pura Dalem of Sakti, all village rituals which concern the gods associated with the dead (e.g. the main temple festival odalan, the ritual associated with Durga or Rangda) or collectively propitiations in the event of pestilence, as well as rituals that immediately follow somebody's death or cremation, are performed. More generally within Sakti the lustral water from this temple is required for all collective rituals as well as all major individual rituals (13). In particular it must be used in all ceremonies concerning the dead of the relationship between the dead and the living. In contrast to the Pura Dalem, the ancestor-gods abiding in the sanggah kemulan are the object of a more domestic worshipping: they are presented with food offerings (ngejot) every day, and more elaborate offerings on particular days or ritual occasions. The holy water from this shrine is a prerequisite for the implementation of all life crisis rituals and death rituals of the members of a sanggah kemulan lineage, and will not be used by members of other lineages.

Footnote 13) This may be peculiar to Sakti, for in Bali the lustral water of the Pura Dalem has not such an extensive use.

Thus the sacred domain emphasised by the Pura Dalem, through its associations with Durga, concerns primarily death and regeneration as an individual or collective undertaking, while the sanggah kemulan, through its association with Bhatara Guru, is given a role of guidance in the sphere of the lineage and it problems.

As far as the differences of the people who visit the temples to pray are concerned, while all villagers may worship within the Pura Dalem, only those who recognise themselves as direct descendants of the apical pair of (p.64) ancestors honoured in the sanggah kemulan, as the abode of specific ancestor-gods, are willing to worship there. Furthermore, while the Pura Dalem, through its associations with superior gods, eschews ranking, and thus members of Balinese higher castes as well as inferior ones may equally pray there, the sanggah kemulan is associated with ranking for it is tied to specific lineages and thus to the individual identities of the ancestors who were founders and members of that lineage. This condition means that members of other lineages, particularly those deemed to be superior, avoid worshipping there as that would mean the lowering of their status.

The principle of the collective versus the individual equally applies to the groups (seka) that support and care for the two temples, for while members of the seka Pura Dalem are drawn from the whole village, members of any seka kemulan are drawn only the lineage that founded it. However, the distinction Pura Dalem as collective versus sanggah kemulan as lineage-oriented is principally a matter of domains, as the sanggah kemulan also represents, although in more limited terms, the collective identity if all it descendants.

The sanggah kemulan is the final abode of a purified ancestor, and while the process of transformation into purified god-like ancestors should be the outcome of the death rituals, not all the dead come to be transformed into purified ancestors. To be more specific, according to Balinese religious tenets the process of transformations must be undertaken only for the people who have died after they have lost their milk teeth. Children who die before the age of teeth change cannot be considered ancestors: they are thought to be pure, and after death are believed immediately to re-enter the process of reincarnation, without the need for any lengthy cleansing process. Crucial evidence of this status is that during Galungan, a Balinese festival celebrating the return of the ancestors that is performed every six Balinese months, the graves of the young children are not presented offerings, while graves belonging to all other dead ancestors are. This distinction in age and status is reflected in the different allocations of graveyards within the banjar area. For instance, banjar Sakti, besides its cremations ground, own tow graveyards: the first, known as 'sema cenik', is the burial ground destined to host children who have died before losing their milk teeth the second, known as sema pakingsan, is for the remaining banjar members. However, although the cleansing process enacted through the death rituals must be preformed for all persons only a few are actually cremated. Sometimes this crucial passage is relinquished altogether and substituted with other types of rituals, which are less expensive and may be equally lead to the final elevation ritual of 'nganteg linggih'.

According to Balinese thought, the main distinction tat concerns the ancestor status relates to two basic issues: namely their purified or non-purified condition, and the relative age status of an ancestor vis-à-vis other ancestors. As a Balinese death ritual is a long process of cleansing and (p.65) refinement, in popular ranking ancestors are considered as having lower status if only the immediate after-burial ceremonies have been performed for them. In such cases they are still considered as maintaining an unpurified status and are referred to by the term 'pirata'. An intermediate purification stage is represented by the process of cremation, which is understood to be the midpoint, the watershed between the status of impurity at death and the status of pure god in the sanggah kemulan. Once the bones, or the body, have been completely destroyed through cremations the ancestor is considered to be purged of his transient remains, though the soul is retained and not yet completely purified. At this stage the ancestor is called 'pitara' or 'pitra'. The whole sequence of the death ritual is called 'pitra yadnya'.

Complete purifications and higher status is achieved only with the final elevation ritual (nanteg linggih). After this ceremony the forebear is considered fully pure and made into a god. The forefathers, who have reached this superior status, according to ritual context and the social standing of their lineage, may be called Ida Yang, Ida Kompiang, as well as Dewata, Niewata or Bhatara. As indicated earlier, Balinese commoner ancestors abiding in the sanggah kemulan are generally referred to as Ida Yang, Ida Kompiang in or as a category that merges ancestors and higher gods as Bhatara Guru, while a king's ancestors who are considered superior and raised to become gods of the Balinese pantheon are called Bhatara (e.g. Bhatara Maspahit). Furthermore, in a social model that values highly positions and relative age status, the recently dead tend to have a lower status than distant ancestors, who are considered forefathers.

The transformation from the status of deceased to that of god is a lengthy undertaking and involves costly rites of which those described above are only one step. Ida Kompiang, the proper name is rarely used. An individual ancestor tends to lose specific identity once honoured and worshipped as god, fore the individual identity is dissolved into that of the previous ancestor already abiding in the sanggah kemulan. The rite of elevation to the sanggah kemulan, besides being regularly performed at the family level, in the establishment of an ancestor through the 'nganteg linggih' ceremony, was also common in the deification process of former Balinese kings. Royal ancestors were regularly worshipped in temples called Pura Penataran by their family members, as well a by their subjects.

Ancestors, particularly apical ones, are always thought of in terms of a paired married couple, for it is from a couple that the descent began. In this respect those who have not married in their lifetime, although all cleansing rituals are performed and in the same way they are brought to the status of purified ones, tend to be forgotten earlier because the responsibility for their care does not fall on identifiable and immediate progeny.

The individual identity of ancestors is in Bali a relative issue, for although someone who died recently tends to be remembered more vividly and although each family or lineage tends to keep records of the lineage (p.66) tree from the apical pair of ancestors, in the majority of cases after three or four generations ancestors' names and identities are forgotten, and all identities seem to merge with the deified ancestors whose abode is in the sanggah kemulan.

This contrasts with what happens in the Javanese context of the cult of saints and the worship of the distinguished ancestors. Balinese ideas of ancestorship deem to lack the category of a set of distinguished ancestors endowed with special powers to whom are ascribed peculiar influences on the living, like the Javanese graves of famous 'dukun, dalang', notorious criminals or prostitutes (see chapters on Java in this book, and Koentjaraningrat 1989:331~). Balinese ancestors have a generalised and wholesome bearing on the life of the living, embracing every aspect of the life of the individual and the lineage.

I believe there are at least four reasons for this difference. First, in Bali a dead person, at least in principle, should be cremated: thus a grave, as the repository of an identified dead person, is divested of any transcendent and ultimate significance as a permanent abode for the dead. Furthermore, as I have shown above, it is regarded merely as an impermanent and functional repository for the body.

Second, all recent dead, with the exception of children, are considered impure. Although the degree of impurity may vary according to whether or not someone belongs to one of the Balinese states, the status of impurity of all ancestors and their need to pass through cleansing rituals is a concept shared throughout Bali. Thus all dead are ideally placed on the same level. Brahmana may frown at this distinction and would object to it, saying that because of their inherent purer status their corpses should be considered less polluted and polluting than those of commoners. Although this is debatable and may not be recognised by some Balinese, what matters is that a Brahmana, just as any other Balinese, needs the whole sequence of acknowledgement as an ancestor-god and placed inside the family sanggah kemulan.

The third reason relates to the highly factional structure of Balinese society, which is divided into estate groups (Triwangsa) and innumerable lineage groups, tying gods to their origin groups and determining their relative importance vis-à-vis other ancestor-gods of the whole Balinese pantheon. With the exception of a king's forefathers, the ancestor-god-like status is important exclusively for the family of the deceased, as indeed it is a family commitment to undertake all cleansing rituals for their ancestors. Unpurified or purified ancestors have a bearing only on the individual who belongs to their own lineage, being considered forefathers of a specific lineage of family. In Bali no-one would venerate or make offerings to ancestors belonging to another lineage, irrespective of their pure or god-like status. the act of reverence to another lineage would amount to a statement of submission and be judged by the group as a betrayal of the origin worshipper's lineage.

As (p.67) indicated above, the classic exception to this third example refers to the Balinese kings. These were considered as living gods, and royal ancestors were believed to be of higher standing than common ones. Thus, without losing their proper lineage identity, subjects could pray to and honour their royal forefathers who equally represented the founders and the paramount ancestors of the whole kingdom. Moreover, as a political statement of supremacy, a subject was requested to help in rituals involving the worship of royal ancestors and pay homage to them. Until recently royal forefathers were considered to stand above all living subjects and their ancestors. Finally, Balinese gods do not abide in their temple permanently but visit it from time to time. This is a very different concept from that of the Muslim grave.

Although there may be some exceptions, in Bali generally there is no individual recognition of supremacy similar to the sainthood accorded in a monotheistic belief system such as Islam or Christianity. The recognition of an individuality after death, as an identity detached from lineage membership, is rarely conceived. Instead, of sainthood, ancestors are raised to god status, where they tend to lose their original identity. The only generalised recognition of superiority is given to former kings, who however are never worshipped as such but as gods (e.g. Bhatara Maspahit). The tendency is to shift from a recognisable identity to a god status, distinguished by its attributes (e.g. fertility) and not by its former individuality. The reason for this shift seems to be that gods are 'superpartes' beings and available to all those willing to worship them, while distinguished ancestors, although purified and powerful, cannot be 'superpartes' as they belong to a given lineage and tend to be evoked almost exclusively by the members of that lineage or, occasionally, by members of lineages that are considered inferior and have a relation of dependency on them. Members of equal or superior lineages would never accept to worship them.


This chapter has delineated issues central to the relationship between the people of Nusa Penida, their environment, ancestors and gods. These reciprocal relations in Nusa Penida show parallels with a number of Indonesian societies, which are organised around similar concerns. My analysis outlines the logic of the relationships between humans and plants in the specific context of Nusa Penida, but focuses on three issues of general anthropological relevance, and one peculiar to Balinese anthropology:

1. In traditional societies, such as Nusa Penida, there is no apparent separation between humans and their natural environment, as we are dealing with a holistic view that sees human beings, their gods and ancestors as an essential part of that environment. This is confirmed by the evidence that humans can be exchanged for plants, and that both (p68) elements enter the same 'natural' cycle, as expressed by the assumed link between Ibu Pretiwi and the growth of plants. In Nusa Penida, as a society dependent on agriculture, humans and their natural environment are thought to lie on the same plane, as the former heavily depend on the latter for their survival, and each partakes of the same ideal order, because both rely on ancestors for their functioning.

2. In agricultural societies similar to Nusa Penida, the relation between the living community and its natural environment is conceived of and structured on the basis of reciprocity, which seems to conform to a more general pattern of asymmetry expressed by rules of proper behaviour among human beings and between humans and gods (14).

Footnote 14) In a different context, Guermonprez (1990:57) had already noticed that Balinese communities should be considered as a partnership between gods, ancestors and dead villagers.

3. This chapter questions the validity - common to many Balinese scholars - of continuing to analyse Balinese culture from what is essentially a Hindu perspective, complacent about the uniqueness of the island's cultural expressions standing alone between the Western Islamic threat and the vast array of the animistic religions of Indonesia. The material presented here on the birth of plants and cultigens and the nature of the reciprocity cycles that tie together the living and the dead, plants and earth links Nusa Penida to themes that are central to the cultures of Indonesia.

Nusa Penida, as an expression of Balinese culture, thus appears to retain strong affinities with eastern Indonesia, as both these societies are a manifestation of an Austronesian culture based on reciprocal obligations, still centred on the fertilising role of ancestors and dependent on the crucial importance of cultivated plants for the sustenance of human life.


This article is based on fieldwork conducted in Nusa Penida and Bali between September 1989 and January 1992 under the sponsorship of LIPI (Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia [Indonesian Institute of Sciences]) and the local supervision of the Udayana University. The research was supported by an Australian National University research School of Pacific and Asian Studies PhD scholarship. My special thanks go to the people of Nusa Penida. In particular I owe a debt of gratitude to the members of banjar and desa Sakti who hosted me during my stay in Nusa Penida.

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