400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part IV: The healing and survival of a society and culture after the Massacre

400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part IV: The healing and survival of a society and culture after the Massacre
The Banda volcano as seen from Sjahrir Island. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana (private collection)

IO – As explained previously in Part II, although a war dance, the cakalele has been associated with trance dancing and spirit possession as well as with ancestor worship. So, the women of Banda were not working with an empty palette when they began the struggle of healing their people from the trauma of the Massacre and decimation of the Banda islands by the VOC. There were already colours on that palette and they used them in that search for healing. In the past before psychology existed as a discipline or social science, belief systems and the creative arts were often used in trying to help people find psychological healing. To understand this in Banda, it is important to first look at a ceremony that has to be carried out before the cakalele dance maybe performed known as the upacara putar tempat sirih or the ceremony of the betel basket.

Once permission has been obtained from the mama limas or five women elders of a village, the village adat (ancient customs and traditions) council then proceeds with upacara putar tempat sirih. Although the general line of what is done is usually the same, every village in Banda has differences in how it performs its adat rituals. As I am an honorary member of the adat council of Ratu village on the island of Neira those are the rituals and dances that will be described here. In the village of Ratu the villagers weave 5 betel baskets from palm leaves. One is placed in the adat house where the adat heirlooms are kept and where the village meets to perform adat rituals and dance the first cakalele.

The mama limas and the head of the orang limas or male elders then fill the baskets under the guidance of the head mama lima. She takes each basket and fills it with betel leaves, cigarettes, wads of tobacco, minced pandanus leaves and a mixture of different flowers. From the pandanus leaves tiny boxes are made and filled with lime, betel nut, small balls of tobacco and gambier. These are placed in the baskets together with incense and then covered with banana leaves.

400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part IV: The healing and survival of a society and culture after the Massacre
tempat putar sirih or basket of offerings of Kampung Baru. Photo credit: Tamalia Alsijahbana (private collection)

One basket is placed in the adat house and four baskets are taken to places that are considered sacred by Ratu village. The head of the adat can do so or appoint runners to take the baskets to the sacred places. There is a well called Parigi Laci on the island of Neira which is considered sacred. Here one basket is brought. The runners strew flowers and burn incense here and one of them baca-baca or recites certain verses. He is in effect asking the ancestors for permission to open the village and to take holy water from the well. All over Indonesia our ancestors in the past would offer betel leaves and betel nuts, lime, tobacco and gambier to guests. So, in effect the runner is inviting the spirits of the ancestors to the village. He then takes water from the holy well and places it in a special adat bottle.

The next place that they visit is the grave of one of the most important heroes of Banda. Her name was Boi Kerang and she was a commander who saved the village of Namasawar from attack. This is a neighbouring village to Ratu and probably Ratu’s closest sibling village. At Boi Kerang the same ceremony is performed as at the Parigi Laci. Only here a little soil is taken and mixed with the holy water from Parigi Laci. This is brought back to the village to be placed in the adat house.

400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part IV: The healing and survival of a society and culture after the Massacre
The spathe of a coconut tree that has split revealing its male and female flowers is used for the tree of life. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana (private collection)

This is followed by a visit to a sacred black stone known as the Batu Masjid or Mosque Rock because its shape resembles the form of a mosque and finally, they visit another rock shaped like a chair and known as the Batu Cadera or the Chair Rock. At each of these a basket is left and the same ceremony is performed.

The next day after all the baskets have been brought to their sacred sites the Bapak Orang Tua Adat or head of the orang lima goes with a group to the forest to cut 5 young bamboo stalks. At the site he first strews flowers and recites verses to the ancestors. The leaves of the bamboos stalks that are cut may not touch the ground for they represent the body parts of the quartered and beheaded orang kaya or chieftains which were impaled on bamboos by the VOC which were not allowed to touch the ground before being washed, prayed over and buried. The bamboos are then brought to the adat house and leaned against it ready for use in a later ceremony.

Later with the village gathered around the adat house, the mama lima and the orang lima enter the room in the adat house known as the ruang pusaka or heirloom room. Once they have entered, the door is closed and the village waits outside in the  grounds of the adat house, for them. When the door is finally opened the adat elders emerge carrying the blossom of a coconut tree which looks like a small tree. On this they have tied flowers and a bird turning it into the tree of life. A beautiful green umbrella is held over the tree of life.

400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part IV: The healing and survival of a society and culture after the Massacre
The puang kelapa or tree of life of Namasawar or Negri village. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana (private collection).

Immediately, a drum is beaten three times and the sounds of the gong sembilan or nine gongs maybe heard. The village bursts into spontaneous applause and cries of joy for it signifies that the old kingdom of the orang kaya has returned. The spirits of the ancestors are with them. It means that the cakalele maybe performed again and the kora-kora or war boats taken out to sea. For the cakalele and kora-kora belong to the old kingdom.

Meanwhile, the front yard is decorated with palm fronds and the orang lima go out to the bamboos cut previously and now leaning against the adat house. They tie strips of cloth to the branches of the bamboos which represent the body parts of the orang kaya who were beheaded and quartered. The bamboos are then impaled upright into the ground in a row in front of the adat house. Next the village community is invited to enter the adat house to inspect the heirloom room where the adat heirlooms are displayed on a large table. These consist mainly of the cakalele dancers’ war implement, the ornamentation of the women dancers, the beautifully carved prouw of the kora-kora boat, the bottle with the holy water and so forth.

400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part IV: The healing and survival of a society and culture after the Massacre
The Ratu cakalele dancing a cakalele tiang bendera with a row of mama limas stading behind then wearing white kebayas and sarongs. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana (private collection)

The cakalele of Ratu is considered more refined than that of the other villages. It is of course, danced at the adat house, however, later it may also be danced outside the adat house as for example when someone asks to have it performed at their house when there is a special event or to greet or bid farewell to important personages or guests. When this happens the dancers will always be accompanied by the tree of life and someone will stand behind it carrying an umbrella which is a sign of great respect as in the past only very important people had someone following them with an umbrella held over them. Five young men will remove the 5 bamboos with strips of cloth tied to them impaled in front of the adat house and they will walk with these behind the dancer. The mai-mai or young girls who dance other adat dances will also accompany the cakalele dancers and before they dance the caklele dancers will squat facing them with their hands steepled as though in prayer. They are beri somba or giving obeisance to them as a sign of respect to the women of Banda who saved the adat after the Massacre. When the dance comes to an end the dancers place their weapons in their lefts hands leaning them against their shoulders and wave their hands.

There are several types of cakalele performed and at the adat house itself, the most important and sacred type of cakalele is danced. This is known as the caklele tiang bendera or the ‘flag pole cakalele’. In this dance the dancers dance around the bamboos that have bits of cloth tied to them and that are impaled in front of the adat house. At the start of the dance the mama lima and the mai-mai stand on the verandah of the adat house with the tree of life and its umbrella bearer. The dancers begin by beri somba paying homage to the women of Banda for saving the Banda culture and society. The cakalele dancers then dance between the bamboos and around them. At a certain point during the dance they appear to be loosely hugging the bamboos rising up and down. This is to represent the terrible grief that the people felt when their 44 chieftains were beheaded and quartered and impaled on the bamboos.

400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part IV: The healing and survival of a society and culture after the Massacre
: Cakalele dancer miming hugging the bamboos in grief where the body parts of 44 orang kayas were once impaled. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana (private collection)

At the very end of the cakalele dance what remains is the tree of life symbolizing that the people and culture of Banda would survive, that somehow they would rise again. I believe that it is through this performing art and through the rituals of their belief system that the women of Banda were able to bring healing to their people. In the coming years they were forced to marry men from other islands and other lands as most of their men had perished but in Banda they taught these newcomers the Banda adat and ensured that their society and culture survived. They did not forget their men or the old kingdom…

From modern psychology we know that people normally suffer from post conflict traumatic stress under circumstances of intense conflict and violence. The Massacre of the 44 chieftains of Banda and the following decimation of Banda’s inhabitants would have left the survivors in a very traumatized state. One method of healing for such post conflict traumatic stress offered by modern psychology is Creative Arts Therapy which includes dance drama.

All over the world sacred dance traditions have been used to express rites of passage such as birth, marriage and death and as expressed by Maria-Gabriele Wosien in ‘Sacred Dance: Encounter with the Gods (Art and Imagination)’, also “In humankind’s journey to unify themselves with the power and wonder of existence around them.”

B. A. Van der Kolk and O. Van der Hart write in ‘The Intrusive Past: the Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma’, ‘Dramatic enactment is a way of dealing with, narrating, and transforming their traumatic experiences, by allowing the victims both to share their personal experiences and to find action-oriented ways of coming to an alternative resolution to the once-inevitable outcome of the original traumatic event… to overcome a traumatic experience, people require physical experiences that directly contradict the helplessness and the inevitability of defeat associated with the trauma”.

Dance tells the story of the repressed unconscious mind, allowing participants to experience the traumatized self. This is what the caklele appears to have done for both the dancers and their traumatized audience. Relational witnessing is also a therapeutic technique.

Beside the dance drama therapy, the Banda cakalele also brought with it through the ceremony to open the village, psychological coping for the survivors who would have been suffering from post-conflict trauma, through religion and spirituality. In ‘Faith to move mountains: Religious coping, spirituality, and interpersonal trauma recovery’, T. Bryant-Davis and E.C. Wong write that spiritual and religious coping strategies have been endorsed by diverse survivors of war, displacement, and torture. In calling the spirits of the ancestors, the survivors are no longer alone. The dead are with them and this must have been very comforting for the survivors; for a short period of time the old kingdom was back.

400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part IV: The healing and survival of a society and culture after the Massacre
Mama Lima. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana (private collection)

Banda has had a very violent history and living there is to live in the shadow of a live volcano which could erupt at any time. There was a time when I questioned why I was so drawn to a place with so much violence attached to it. It took many years and many visits to understand that the story of Banda has much violence in it but ultimately it is a story about healing. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed reading this article you may also enjoy by the same writer:

Part I: https://observerid.com/400th-anniversary-of-the-banda-massacre-part-i-the-bandanese-and-meaning-of-nutmeg-for-europe/

Part II: https://observerid.com/400th-anniversary-of-the-banda-massacre-part-ii-the-role-of-jan-pieterszoon-coen-and-the-voc/

Part III: https://observerid.com/400th-anniversary-of-the-banda-massacre-part-iii-the-cakalele-becomes-a-dance-of-healing-2/