Once, a woman of the Inner Baduy tribe told her grandson a story. On top of the earth, she said, women gave birth from their heads. On the bottom of the earth, they gave birth from their feet. But here at the center of the earth, in the forested Kendang highlands of West Java’s Banten Province, babies came from their mother’s bellies.
Young Kodo thought it was a silly story. There was no such thing as the “top” or “bottom” of the world.
Many years later, on a September night filled with the screech of cicadas, Kodo sits on the floor of a thatched Outer Baduy home. Beneath the once-white cloth he wears wound around his head, his face is alight with interest, his eyes intent on the atlas lying open in the center of an unlikely circle of people: several his fellow Inner Baduy, their Outer Baduy hosts, myself and two other visitors.
The owner of the house, Jakam, is explaining that the earth revolves around the sun. Kodo and his compatriots, taking this in stride, have a few follow-up questions for us.
Why is your skin white and ours darker? How does that camera work? And how big is the Internet?
An Unlikely World
There are not many places in the world where this type of exchange is even remotely possible, but the Baduy — or most of them — have steadfastly rejected modern conveniences and knowledge in accordance with the ways of their ancestors. The extremely conservative Inner Baduy live in a small, sacred area that foreigners are not permitted to enter and their mystical leaders, the Pu’un, are not allowed to leave. The Outer Baduy, slightly more lax when it comes to things like modern clothing and cellphones, live in villages that dot the hills around this inner sanctum in a protective buffer zone.
It is all the more incredible considering that the Baduy live within walking distance of the sprawling, smoking megacity that is Jakarta.
Walking distance for the Inner Baduy, that is. Gas-powered vehicles are off-limits, but they still go into the city on occasion to sell honey they have harvested or palm-sap sugar they have made. The bumpy, 120-kilometer trek — drivable in about six hours — takes them about three days. Wearing shoes would also violate their animist religion, known as Sunda Wiwitan, so they walk barefoot.
Just how sturdy their feet are becomes clear the next day as Kodo and his cousins Dede, Carakin and Sapri lead us on a walk through the highlands. Not a single one of them falters as we trek over high passes and through cool, wooded areas to see a bridge that Vita Ardiyana describes as an “icon” of their people.
Vita, a young woman who grew up just outside Baduy territory, organized our tour. She speaks Sundanese, a modern form of the Baduy’s ancient dialect that is close enough for her to be understood.
Every month or two, depending on demand, she’ll arrange trips from Jakarta for people to spend a night in an Outer Baduy village.
“You will take showers and swim in the river with the community,” she told us in an e-mail before our trip that also instructed us to bring drinking water, a flashlight, a raincoat and other basic necessities.
As for things to leave behind, she wrote: “The attitudes of an ignorant and selfish city dweller.”
About halfway to our destination, we encounter someone well-known to Vita: Aya Mursit, an Outer Baduy who acts as a liaison with the local government and the Muslim Sundanese who inhabit the villages that border Baduy land.
No community remains as unspoiled as the Baduy without deliberate intention, and talking to Aya Mursit, it is clear that it would be a grave mistake to underestimate his people because of their simple lifestyle. They are able to live the way they do in this modern world — without paying taxes to the government, with no deeds or titles to their land, refraining from formal education for their children — because they have some serious diplomatic talent.
To appease outside pressure, for example, they once built a mosque on their land. They didn’t use it, but it threw government envoys off the scent. When census takers pushed for access, the Baduy helpfully gave them a detailed list of answers they had compiled themselves. On the new e-KTP electronic identity cards that all Indonesians are required by law to possess, their religion was not listed, so the Baduy have left that field blank.
Each year, the government doggedly tries to give them money to build a school. Each year, they decline, seeing it as an insidious erosion of their culture. “If the children go to school, it’s just the same as the outside world,” Aya Mursit says through Vita. “They would be exposed to different values, and risk becoming greedy.
“A lack of an education isn’t the same thing as a lack of intelligence.”
The Baduy have long been considered a source of wisdom and magical power by other Indonesians. Many have sought an audience with the spiritual Pu’un leaders over the years, but they are picky about who they will see. Former President Sukarno, who granted them government protection, sometimes consulted with them. When his successor Suharto tried to visit in his helicopter, the Pu’un sent an envoy.
The Good Life
By and large, the Baduy are walking advertisements for clean living. Their skin is glowing and unblemished, their physiques are the type that gyms plaster on billboards. Their society has essentially zero crime.
But Baduy is not utopia.
One of Jakam’s neighbors, a young mother, was bitten by a snake some months ago. She was treated by a traditional healer but received no modern medicine and died horribly over three days.
A 2006 study by the Bina Karta Lestari Foundation, an NGO that works toward sustainable development, found that the government considers the Baduy to be living in poverty. Using income, education level, sanitation, access to electricity and savings as indicators, they are indeed. But measuring access to adequate clothing, food and housing, they do not lack for anything.
So how long can they hold out and keep their way of life intact? Considering their long history of sustainable practices, the answer would seem to be “indefinitely” — if they are left to their own devices.
But as we continue our trip, there is more evidence of encroaching modernity. Politicians’ campaign signs crop up even in this remote area. A few cement pilings are in place, presumably the vanguard of a modern bridge over a river.
But that’s not the bridge they brought us to see. Our destination comes into view, and they smile at our gasps of astonishment.
The bridge is a wild tangle of roots that have naturally twined together across a stretch of rocky stream.
It is equal parts mossy and smooth, held up, at least for now, by an ingenious blend of old and new.