What it’s really like to visit Trunyan Cemetery
Bali has an aesthetic way of honoring life, celebrating death, and embracing the afterlife.
On the Island of the Gods, death is commemorated as the freedom of souls from the world’s bonds during festive occasions. Bali has a vibrant cremation ceremony, known as Ngaben—or Pelebon—for nobles and the royal family.
But there is a small village known as Trunyan, with its own rituals and beliefs, which doesn’t have this kind of ceremony.
While going to explore this peculiar village, we crossed Lake Batur from Kedisan Harbor in Kintamani. After spending 15 minutes on a speedboat, we finally entered the home of the Bali Aga—indigenous Balinese people in Trunyan village, which is located on the eastern side of Lake Batur.
On our arrival, we were welcomed by the village caretaker, who began to tell us the captivating story of Trunyan.
Apparently, the Bali Aga have been around since the days of the Kingdom of Badulu (880-1350). Till today, they have managed to preserve their ancient customs, as they fled to hard-to-reach areas—including Trunyan village – near the active volcano Mount Batur, when the Majapahit empire colonised Bali island. This explains why the villagers do not worship Hindu gods. They believe that their ancestors descended from the sky.
The name Trunyan also refers to the tree that grows in the village area, called Taru (literally meaning tree) and Menyan (meaning fragrant), that many believed was a magic tree that spread its fragrant scent around it. Taru Menyan, believed to be more than a thousand years old, has its own legendary story.
Once upon a time, a giant Taru Menyan’s fragrance was hypnotising four siblings from the Royal Palace of Surakarta—the land of Java. The siblings crossed the Sunda Strait to find the source of the fragrance. When they arrived at Trunyan, the eldest of the siblings fell in love with the goddess of the Trunyan tree (although some say that she was actually the goddess of Lake Batur: Dewi Danu). Afterwards, they got married, resulting in Trunyan becoming a small kingdom. The new king ordered the residents to remove the fragrance, so no one else would be hypnotised anymore.
Consequently, they left the dead bodies in the ground to hide the tree’s organic perfume, which exists till today. Each of the 11 corpses are placed in a triangular-shaped woven bamboo cage to avoid animal attacks. This unique tradition is called mepesah. The villagers believe that mepesah is a native Balinese tradition that has existed long before the time of Majapahit in 1340. Supposedly, not every dead villager can be laid down in the cemetery–the corpses must be in an undamaged condition and the person must have died from natural causes.
But what happens to the dead bodies of people who died in accidents? Seemingly, the cemetery has three categories of graves; baby tombs (Sema Nguda) for unmarried people, sacred tombs (Sema Wayah) for married people who died naturally, and ‘salah pati’ tombs (Sema Bantas) for people who died unnaturally, like by accident or through suicide.
The funeral processions seem quite simple, where the villagers’ corpses will be taken by a boat, followed by families and possibly other residents who happen to ride the boat.
When a dead body is being carried, women are forbidden from going to the cemetery to avoid disaster in the village—such as a volcanic eruption!
In the tomb, six bodies are arranged in the top row and five in the bottom. The maximum number of corpses allowed under the Taru Menyan tree is 11. When the 12th corpse comes in, the oldest of the 11 is moved to a pile below. The caretaker scatters the bones decoratively. To our shock, we were encouraged to touch or even pose with the bones of the dead.
Undoubtedly, their open-air cemetery gave us an exceptional experience about extraordinary funerals. Since the bodies were just scattered around, I don’t even want to know what my feet trampled on. It was such an eerie feeling, but my curiosity and a sense of awe overcame my fear.
However, Trunyan is more than just a ‘parade of dead bodies’. As we walked down the paths of the 19.3-kilometre-square village, we noticed that agriculture was the backbone of their economy. The villagers grew fruits and vegetables such as potatoes and oranges in their garden.
In the main temple, Pura Pancering Jagat, also known as the Temple of the Navel of the World, villagers conduct a series of ceremonies. This includes a dance called the Barong Brutuk, an ancient Barong dance that only exists in Trunyan.
Unlike the usual Barong dances, Barong Brutuk dancers wear simple outfits made of dried banana leaves (which supposedly should only be picked from Pinggan Village, to the northwest of Mount Batur).
The Barong Brutuk masks evoke a primitive feeling, as their large eyes drawn with brown or white paint. They walk around the temple with a whip, silently without any music. Villagers believe that their dried banana leaves bring safety and blessings, while their whiplashes heal the pain of the villagers.
Watching all these customs and traditions was a surreal experience for us. It was ironic how spending time with the dead could make us feel more alive.