Gajeboh, Banten Province. High in the lush hills of far western Java, an animist tribe lives a peaceful existence, untouched by the turmoil of the financial crisis.
The Baduy, who are estimated to number between 5,000 to 8,000 people, are an anomaly surviving on tribal lands only 120 kilometers from the teeming megacity of Jakarta. Yet despite their proximity to the capital, the Baduy live in almost complete seclusion, observing customs that forbid using soap, riding vehicles and even wearing shoes.
Villagers stare blankly when asked about events in the outside world. Salina, a young mother, plays with her son on the steps of a thatched-roof hut in this small river-side village.
“I don’t know about any crisis,” she says when asked about the economic turmoil that has taken its toll on the rupiah, which has lost about 30 percent of its value this year.
No one is certain of the origin of the Baduy. Some anthropologists think they are the priestly descendents of the West Java Hindu kingdom of Pajajaran and took refuge in the limestone hills where they now live after resisting conversion to Islam in the 16th century.
They speak an archaic version of Sundanese, the main language of this area of western Java. Blending ancient Hinduism and animism, the Baduy believe their homeland is the center of the world and that they were the first people on earth.
They also believe they must follow a strict set of rules to prevent disasters. Renowned for their mystical powers, Baduy leaders conduct rituals in a secret spot surrounded by megaliths to appease ancestral spirits and gods.
On the surface, at least, their way of life appears primitive, but experts who have studied their farming techniques say they are well attuned to their environment. For example, they are forbidden from using metal hoes when cultivating a dry variety of rice, which helps prevent soil erosion.
Nonetheless, a long list of taboos often appear to make their lives unreasonably difficult. School education, glass, alcohol, nails, footware, irrigation and raising four-legged animals are all forbidden.
“There is no formal education. Going to the field is an education for them,” said Boedhihartono, an anthropologist at the University of Indonesia. He keeps a room free at his Jakarta home for when the Baduy sometimes make unannounced visits after a three-day barefoot trek since they are not allowed to use transportation. Asked about whether they had much knowledge of the outside world, he said: “Not really, except if they come to my house and watch the TV.”
Their society is divided into an outer zone of villages and an inner heartland of just three villages. Baduy who break the rules are banished to the outer zone.
Members of the inner zone of about 800 people, or 40 families, dress in white, as opposed to the black attire in the outer zone, and follow the Baduy traditions much more strictly.
Visiting the Baduy requires tough trekking along slippery paths in plunging valleys. Foreigners are allowed to visit the outer zone, but are limited to a few nights, sleeping on bamboo mats in villages pitch black at night due to a lack of power. It is, however, nearly impossible for non-Indonesians to visit the sacred inner villages.
The outer area acts as a sort of buffer zone and the leaders from the inner Baduy sometimes pay surprise visits to make sure their outer zone compatriots are not breaking too many rules. They sometimes confiscate radios and other things deemed as pollutants from the modern world.
With no motorbikes and smoke-belching buses, the villages are tranquil spots where the gentle clacking sound of weaving looms is one of the few noises.
But it is difficult to keep all things at bay from the modern world. On a recent trip some Baduy children had forsaken traditional wear, one wearing a blue Italian soccer shirt, while the use of technically taboo money has replaced bartering with the outside world. The outer Baduy sell sarongs and also sell honey and palm sugar in nearby towns. The cash is used to buy salted fish and other things they can’t produce themselves.
The main threats they faced, Boedhihartono said, are from outsiders. Although generally left to their own devices by colonizers ranging from the Dutch to the Japanese, authorities have at times sought to include the Baduy in mainstream society.
When the government of former President Suharto tried to foist development on the Baduy in the 1980s, they sent an emissary to plead to be left alone. Suharto, a deeply superstitious man with a fondness for Javanese mysticism, conceded and arranged for the Baduy to mark out their territory to protect them from outside influences.