23 September 2009

Ngada Villages: A Discussion of Bones, Horns and Gourds

Bena village.

On our loooong journey from Labuan Bajo to Kelimutu S and I stopped for a night in the lovely hill station town of Bajawa. We arranged a trip the next morning to two of the nearby Ngada hilltribe villages.

The Ngada people of central Flores are, like most indigenous tribes in Asia, the product of a long and convoluted history involving colonialism, subjugation and migration. Their strange funeral customs and animal sacrifices link them to tribes in Sulawesi, Malaku and Sumatra – and even as far away as China, Laos and Burma – yet here they are plunked down in the centre of Indonesia's most Catholic island.

Pig jawbones. Someone is loaded around here....

The Dutch missionaries moved into Flores in the 1920s and converted the Ngada people enmasse, enforcing a rigid caste system and banning marriage between Ngada and other locals. While ostensibly a Catholic people, the Ngada's fierce animism has never been abandoned or even toned down. Therefore, images of Jesus and Mary with their eyes rolled skyward mingle with buffalo horns and pig jaws (a symbol of wealth) and effigies of ancestors.

Did someone get hit on the head around here?

Our first stop was Luba, a small village of about 20 thatched, stilted houses set in a square configuration surrounding a central courtyard. The courtyard was filled with the the raised tombs of important ancestors and umbrella shaped straw canopies that represent the male – ngadhu. Bhaga, to represent the feminine, are mini little carved houses that sit perched atop the actual houses, along with doll-like wooden images of men and women, representing family both long dead and recently deceased.

Concentrating on her ikat.

From the porch of each house peered wrinkled men, ancient women and dirt-smeared toddlers – everyone else either working or at school. We were waved over by the toothless old village head and asked to sign the guestbook that he produced with a flourish, along with a small donation to support local causes. Once we said our “Selamats” and “Hello Misters” we wandered amongst the dwelings looking at the beautiful ikat, colourful woven tapestries and sarongs.

Graves and piles of rocks and crosses and effigies.

The village of Bena was twice the size of Luba and built in the more traditional style of two rows of houses facing one another. Like in Luba, the space in between the parallel rows was filled with the familiar variety of totems, grave mounds and ngadhu.

She is deep in thought trying to decide what to charge us. Note her indigo dyed blue feet.

The cackling old ladies that sat on each stoop were beautiful in their strange appearance, their teeth streaked with blood-red betel nut juice, feet blueberry coloured from the indigo dyes of their ikat, long grey hair twirled up into buns and affixed with shiny decorated sticks.

As we spoke to them in our broken (very broken) Bahasa they lifted their heads and cackled, more betel flying out from their creased mouths. We bought a few lovely pieces of weaving, and as I tried mine on as a scarf the woman began to howl with laughter and shaking her head, gesturing that it should be worn as a wide sash. I obliged her, and didn't even barter....too much.

Lookin' good, Uncle Peter.

At the far side of the village there was a Virgin Mary shrine atop a small hill overlooking the nearby smoking volcano peak of Wawo Muda and the deep ravine below. The view, of both the village and the mountain, was breathtaking.

Bhaga. Are they feminine because we're always lettin' people in to walk all over us? Zing!

“I can see the fascination people have with sort of thing,” I said to S, “ I can see why someone would want to be a cultural anthropologist and live and study here on an Indonesian island.” He nodded.
“It definitely has similarities to Tana Toraja. That would be interesting to study.”
“And think about Papua – over 250 languages spoken on the Indonesian side alone. Think about all of those villages! And tribes! And penis gourds! Let's go there too!” He sighed.
“One day, dear. One day....”

Little kitty asleep below the ikat.

Big bone-y (and horn-y) display of wealth.


*jean* said...

ooo i love the weaving photos! beautiful!

what interesting places...

Ben said...

I visited that same village a couple of years ago. What an amazing place! Ended up joining the locals for stewed pig, got some photos here: http://www.backpackerben.co.uk/travel-photos/index/album/72157622320115701/bajawa-ngada-hilltribe-villages.html

Violet Dear said...

@Ben - Great photos! It looks like you made it to the hotsprings as well - they look cool...