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Kemal Jufri /Corbis Sygma for TIME
NATURAL MANDATE: The Badui live close to nature, using no electricity, fertilizer or irrigation techniques in their farming.

Sacred People
Eschewing the allure of the modern world, the Badui cling to their spiritual way of life

Looking for a New Path: Jakarta, Indonesia

There is a holy place in indonesia you will never see. Its exact location has not been revealed, but it is rumored to be on the western slope of Mount Kendeng in western Java. The Badui, a tribe that lives nearby, call it the Arca Domas, and for them it is the navel of the world: the first point of contact between humankind and the realm of the spirits. Each year, the senior priests of the Badui make a pilgrimage there to meditate among huge megaliths. They do so for the welfare of the entire planet. If they didn't, who knows what disasters would occur?

Only the Badui (who are also known as the Kanekes) can accomplish this rite because they live as close to the spirit world as is humanly possible. Their code of life, handed down through the centuries, is strict and beautifully articulated. "The mountains may not be destroyed, the valleys may not be damaged... What is long may not be cut short, what is short may not be lengthened... The ancestral injunctions may not be changed." The Badui can't use electricity or modern products—including nails, shoes and soap—and they don't believe in schooling. Irrigation is forbidden because it interferes with rivers. The rice the Badui live on is planted on dry land in the hope that rains will perform their natural function—an agricultural technique abandoned by the rest of the human race thousands of years ago. Their anachronisms have an essentially spiritual function: they are told "to live like the sun that lights everything." In other words, their way of living is not for themselves alone, but also for us.

Astonishingly, the Badui maintain their magically primitive existence without the isolation of an island or an inaccessible valley. The tribe, numbering nearly 8,000, live on 5,000 hectares of hilly forest area just 120 km from Jakarta, Indonesia's megalopolis of high-rises and fast cars. Visitors from the modern world come and go, although they can stay no longer than three nights. (And they must be Indonesian: with the exception of one anthropologist four decades ago, no Westerner has penetrated the Badui's core villages, where the holiest of the population live.) Many of the Badui roam freely. Karmain, an outspoken man by Badui standards, has been to Jakarta hundreds of times. The barefoot journey takes three days, for the Badui cannot use any other form of transportation. Karmain doesn't mind. "There's plenty of food to eat and water to drink along the way," he says.

There used to be a dozen communities dedicated to the same cosmology scattered across Java. After centuries of decline, the Badui are all that remain. They don't have a unique language or dialect; like other people in their region, they speak Sundanese. Dutch colonizers gave them the name Badui, taken from a local mountain and river, and that is how they're known to most Indonesians. The modern world has managed to bend a few of the Badui's rules. They practice circumcision, for example, an Islamic influence. They no longer wear tree bark, as dictated in the ancient manuscripts. For several decades, they have grown vegetables to sell outside their villages, and they use money to buy such staples as dried fish, salt and yarn. "That part of modern life was just too difficult for them to avoid," says Ukke Rukmini Kosasih, an anthropologist at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta. The 32-year reign of former President Suharto threatened to do away with the Badui's way of life entirely. The land they controlled shrank, and the pro-development government wanted to set up schools for Badui children. The tribe sent an emissary to Suharto, who was known for his interest in Javanese mysticism. Suharto interceded—he even gave the Badui 500 poles to mark their borders—and they've lived relatively undisturbed ever since.

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Their beliefs are a blend of Hinduism and animism known as Sunda Wiwitan. The Badui believe in an "upper world" of deities and ancestors and an "underworld," the earth, which originally took shape around a sacred pillar. That is the Arca Domas, where the Badui elders pray once a year. The community of villages in which they live are considered mandalas, derived from the Hindu/Buddhist concept but referring in the Indonesian context to places where religion is the central aspect of life. Academics have dated the religion to the 12th century and have found some manuscripts that detail the dos, and particularly the don'ts, of the Badui. They were not supposed to be conceited, wear jewelry made from gold or gemstones, kill pets or farm animals, have more than one wife, or sell anything from their farms. The Sundanese and Javanese kingdoms that rose and fell over the centuries are nothing but dead temples now. Amazingly, the traditions of the Badui, with barely a written scripture to follow, live on.

The Badui are scattered in about 40 villages—it can take a five-hour walk through the forest to get from one to another—organized in two bands. Some 37 villages are considered "outer": their residents aren't as orthodox, and one of their functions is to act as a buffer between the outside world and the "inner" villages. There are three of those, each with its own pu'un, or spiritual leader. In the inner villages, home to 800 people, the commandments are strictly followed. Houses are constructed from forest materials. Kitchen utensils are made of wood. Life consists of simple farming, gathering firewood and carrying out ceremonies to keep the place pure. Occasionally the young gather to learn the ancestors' teachings. Land can be farmed for only four years; then it has to be left fallow for a period. The Badui cannot drink alcohol. They subsist on yams, rice and animals such as mouse deer, squirrels, turtles and fish. Marriage must take place within the community. When someone from an inner village breaks a rule, he has to go through a cleansing ceremony, after which he is banished permanently to one of the outer villages.

Java's medieval kingdoms, the Dutch, the Japanese, the modern Indonesian government—all have left the Badui alone. "Being totally spiritual, apolitical and showing no interest in territorial hegemony, they posed no threat," says Siswoyo Adi, a Jakarta-based archaeologist. That has made them unique as a people: living for the sole purpose of their beliefs. "Religion is their identity," says anthropologist Kosasih. "Without it they are nothing and they know it." The Badui live and pray for the rest of the world their whole lives. They ask only one thing in return: to be allowed to keep doing so.

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