In Days of Yore, People Were Sacrificed in Bali, Too

SEMINYAK/DENPASAR ~ People were sacrificed as part of elaborate cremation ceremonies in Bali as recently as the turn of the last century, according to an eminent Irish historian and author researching the topic for a forthcoming book and writing in The Bali Times this week.

By William J. Furney
Managing Editor
The Bali Times
With staff reporter Rian Dewanto

And according to Dr. Ronnie Anderson, the macabre practice that endured for centuries and consumed up to dozens of victims – always women – at a time may even continue today, surreptitiously.

Dr. Anderson, whose article appears on page seven of this edition, said there were some indications those intended for sacrifice were drugged before they ended their lives in the flames that are an intrinsic part a Hindu funeral.

“There is evidence that some of the female victims were drugged or rather intoxicated prior to the actual sacrifice,” he told The Times in an interview.

“Jan Oosterwijck, a witness to the sacrifice of 20 slaves in 1633, wrote that beforehand ‘in order for them not to think about death or to fear death, they are given drinks which render them half drunk and senseless.’ But it must be remembered that by then the slaves had already volunteered to die for their master or mistress.”

The practice of self-immolation is not uncommon in today’s world. In some parts of India, it is the norm for a wife to follow her deceased husband to the afterlife in which Hindus believe, resulting in reincarnation.

Dr. Anderson said his interest in human sacrifice in Bali was piqued when researching the island’s cultural and political history during a trip.

“It was one of those moments when you were merely expecting one traditional answer – in this case about Balinese ceremonial rituals – when suddenly something totally unexpected happened,” he said.

“I was reading an early 19th century Siamese account of Bali when the author, Chinkak, a Chinese merchant from Siam, described the custom of immolation on Bali. Needless to say, as an ever-curious historian, I pursued the subject, and suddenly far from simple immolation, I found there was the larger, if more morbid subject: human sacrifice and brutal execution on a sometimes massive scale.”

A Balinese priest The Times spoke to this week, Ida Pedanda Gede Putra Bajing of Denpasar, voiced his support of human sacrifices, saying it was a form of “devotion.”

“The ceremony is done willingly and voluntarily. Nowadays, people are more attached to their wealth instead of their spiritual sense,” which is why such ceremonies are no longer around, said the 64-year-old priest.

Dr. Anderson, who lives in Bali for part of the year, has been commissioned by HarperCollins to write a political and cultural history of the region and is working on a BBC documentary to be screened later this year, said his connection with Bali went back some 30 years ago, during his days at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, when he joined the Bali Society.

He said the most startling aspect of human sacrifice on the island was the expanse of time it lasted – and that the victims were so willing to give up their lives and die an excruciating death.

“What probably amazed me most as I researched more and more into the pretty horrible subject was how long it continued and just how many victims were caught up in it.

“Although there is evidence that some of the victims tried to back out at the last minute, the extraordinary thing is they really were the exception. Why someone, usually very young women, volunteered to accept such a horrible death defies explanation. But they did so, and therefore there must be a powerful explanation behind it.

“I truly believe one must almost reconstruct one’s mindset when trying to understand the sacrificial phenomenon in Bali. Quite probably, in my humble opinion, the victims did not perceive themselves as such. It was an honor, and moreover, it would guarantee their respective family’s spiritual and temporal welfare for ever more. We must not forget that the supremacy of ancestral worship is an incredibly powerful force in Balinese culture and religion,” he said.

The end of self-immolation may have come about because of Dutch colonial rule, he conjectures.

“Before colonization and given how entrenched the tradition was, the rich and powerful, I believe, had simply the monopoly of means and power, underwritten by precedence, to allow its continuance. Certainly, it can be no coincidence that the colonization of the island corresponds with the beginning of its gradual demise. One must remember that the Dutch Christians, with their missionary zeal, did not approve of such ‘native’ practices.”

I Gede Sura, a lecturer on ancient Javanese language and a Sanskrit teacher at the Hindu University of Indonesia in Denpasar, told The Times that although humans were sacrificed in Bali, the practice went against the prevailing Hindu religion, and that it was generally reserved for royal families.

“It was not in accordance with Hindu teachings, because the religion forbids suicide,” said the 67-year-old.

“It was done out of a desire by the rulers back then – an emotional desire for them to be honored by the death of their people.”

Apart from India, elsewhere in the world there are parallels with Balinese human sacrifice, according to Dr. Anderson.

“For example, the Celts were infamous practitioners of human sacrifice, but unlike the Balinese their methods differed according to which of the many Gods they worshipped.

“As the Celts were well known for their love of alcoholic beverages, it should come as no surprise to learn that as a sacrifice for one God in particular, Teutates, sometimes spelled, Toutates, the victim was forced to drown in a vat of ale.

The Vikings, on the other hand, saw power or social rank as no barrier to sacrifice. After successive crop failures, they sacrificed their hapless King Domalde in hope of greater prosperity in the future.

“But for sheer numbers of sacrificial victims on a scale unimaginable today, nothing can compare to Pre-Columbian civilizations of Mesoamerica and particularly the Aztecs. To please the Gods at the dedication of the great temple of Tenochitlán in 1325 A.D., some 84,000 victims were sacrificed.”

During research in Bali, Dr. Anderson said he had spoken to the Balinese about the practice known locally as mesatia, and that some said they were aware of it – and at least one had seen such a ceremony.

“Indeed, one old village elder to whom I spoke, via an interpreter, when asked if he had ever witnessed a mesatia, said he had seen it twice. When I asked the interpreter to ask his age, his reply was he thought he was 82 or maybe 86. When I asked him to describe what he saw, he simply shook his head and refused to answer. That really made me wonder just how long the practice continued, perhaps in secret after 1903. Truthfully, however, I have simply no idea.”

Dr. Anderson said the image of a people-sacrificing island was at odds with its people’s renowned warmth and beauty.

“For me the most intriguing aspect of the Balinese people is how they have managed to create this image of a beautiful, harmonious culture. Of course, in most ways it really is just that, but always lurking beneath this veneer of sorts, is a Bali most outsiders and certainly tourists would simply fail to recognize.

“The more I research the more I uncover. In this new era of freedom and democracy in Indonesia as a whole, I believe the time is right to reexamine aspects of the past to ensure, if anything, it will never happen again. The Balinese have fought hard for their freedom and they, of all people, deserve as much,” he said.


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