Indonesian Indigenous Studies

In the Name of Dialogue and Moderation: The Lost Authenticity of Balia Ritual

Sulistya Pratiwi

On September 28, 2018, the earthquake, liquefaction, and tsunami hit Palu, Sigi, and Donggala at the same time, and caused massive injuries. The number of victims, settlement damage, economic collapse, and other similar issues were frequently highlighted in the media, and most people were concerned. However, without devaluing those issues, this essay raises another issue concerning responses to disasters associated with the Balia Ritual of Kaili, the indigenous people of Palu.

The natural disaster occurred during the Palu Nomoni—the anniversary of Palu City. The Balia ritual was performed at that event. The ritual performance was meant to portray the culture of the Palu people. It was not the first time the ritual was performed in public. The very response attracting me to writing this essay was that the ritual was accused of being the primary cause of the natural disaster. People outside Kaili considered the ritual as satanic veneration. Those responses surely endangered the religion of the Kaili people. This essay examines the accusation and claim and argues that we need an alternative paradigm, inclusive of practitioners, to interpret such rituals.

Muslims in Palu reject Balia Ritual

Balia Ritual: Then and Now

People’s responses to the existence of indigenous communities, especially their rituals and traditions have been historically problematic. Kaili people continue experiencing such exclusive and problematic responses from the public. Their rituals and traditions have been misunderstood and misrepresented. Without discussing their claim, people as reported in the media, publicly discredited Kaili’s Balia ritual. For the Kaili people, the Balia ritual is a healing ritual. It is to heal or deal with sociocultural and natural crises, consolidate, strengthen, and sustain the community, in terms of socio-cultural and religious development and sustainability.

Although partially, the Palu local government was right when facilitating the Kaili people to perform their Balia ritual on the Palu anniversary. The local government must be thankful that the Kaili people are still preserving Palu’s “unique culture”. Should the local government understand the various functions of the ritual, it would effectively implement its mandate to empower its people to participate in development. The government may involve the people in tourism and other development affairs, but should not reduce the people’s ritualistic aspirations. 

Like other indigenous people, Kaili people have to strive to face challenges such as people’s misinterpretation and misrepresentation of their rituals, especially the Balia ritual. These media misinterpretations are rooted in the world religion paradigm. The paradigm narrowly views rituals as worshipping. Inherited from 19th-century European thought, and privileging modernized Islam, the paradigm misunderstands the human-nature relationships as worshipping spirits such as Satan behind nature. The Balia ritual is therefore wrongly understood as syirik or heretical. 

Kaili people have also been misrepresented by rationality-based science. The Balia ritual, which is to recontextualize human-nature interdependence, has been misperceived to be irrational and backward. For such scientific views, nature cannot reason, it is only human who is rational, and human and nature are thus not interdependent. Humans are to control nature. 

Indigenous Interpretation of Balia Ritual

Despite those challenges, indigenous people persist to preserve their rituals, including the Balia ritual. Many kinds of Balia rituals are still practiced now such as Balia Tampilangi Ulujadi, Balia Tampilangi Tomateo, Balia Ntorudu, Balia Jinja, Balia Tomini, and Balia Baliore. Balia Jinja is one of the rituals carried out for self (inner and outer) healing. In spite of the accessibility of hospitals and modern medicine, the Kaili people continue to practice the Balia ritual. As argued by O’Sullivan, their reasons include that hospitals and modern medicines do not always accommodate indigenous peoples’ perceptions and aspirations of health and healing. 

If we step back, we can see that almost all indigenous religions, including the Balia Ritual practiced by the Kaili community, have gone through periods of acceptance and rejection. The world religion paradigm, which produced the dichotomy between myth and logos (taxonomic and generalization), had a significant impact on the preponderance of indigenous religion. Because what they performed could not be verified by science and did not fall under the umbrella of the world religion as explained by Masuzawa, their rites became abandoned, deemed heretical and outdated, and were stripped of their dignity and rights. In the case of the Balia ritual, the ceremony, in fact, brings a healing effect, even though what they do has not yet been scientifically proven.

One of the reasons for the rejection of the Balia ritual is its use of elements of mysticism and spiritual power, which leads to the Balia ritual facing accusations of being mushrik and heretical. For this reason, the government order seeks to ensure that Balia rituals are attractive and acceptable to the people of Central Sulawesi. Unfortunately, the government promotes the most advantageous aspects in treating Balia rituals; following a negotiation between traditional leaders and religious leaders, it was decided that Balia could be carried out but with Islamic elements.

Bringing Back the Meaning of the Ritual

The Balia custom lost its identity and authenticity as a result of the modification attempted by the government and the majority of Palu residents. Meanwhile, the purpose of rituals, according to Armstrong, is to make mystical occurrences from the distant past present at the moment. Trying to alter and modify ancestral rituals for the sake of the economy, tourism, and regional development in order to gain acceptance from the majority community is a superficial problem solution that will result in discrimination and, once again, failure to recognize and protect indigenous peoples as citizens.

To conclude, the glorified methods of dealing with diversity issues in Indonesia, such as religious moderation, still need to be reviewed. It relies on the concept of common interests where two or more opposing parties are brought together to be invited to dialogue and cooperatively find solutions. If acceptance of indigenous peoples is not practiced profoundly, I believe religious moderation will still strengthen the status quo of majoritarian dominance and hegemony against minorities—particularly in the case of the Balia ritual, whose recognition and rejection are practiced in the name of economic interests, regional development, and the interests of the majority. Nevertheless, further research is required in the future.

Sulistya Pratiwi is a graduate student in the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS), Graduate School, Universitas Gadjah Mada

Artikel Terkait

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button