Revisiting Margaret Mead’s Bayung Gede
In 1936, retreating from lowland Bali, long the focal point of much scholarly and tourist activity, Margaret Mead (1901-1978) and her new husband Gregory Bateson settled in the remote village of Bayung Gede in the central highlands of Bali. Small in size but fierce in personality in a male-dominated science, Mead was known for her ability to popularize sophisticated insights, her rigorous attention to the minutest detail, her strong plain-spoken opinions, her passion for preliterate cultures and her gift of synthesizing science, art and anthropology. She was the most famous cultural anthropologist of the 20th century, at the forefront of a trend to liberalize anthropology. Mead’s ideas about the way culture formed personality and how varying cultural patterns express an underlying human unity reached not just the academic community but also a broad international audience.
Mead’s fieldwork in Bali, recorded for posterity in her wonderful Letters from the Field 1925-1974, was to become an important part of her overall body of work in which she contrasted Balinese culture with the cultures of New Guinea. In striking contrast to New Guinea natives, the ignorant and suspicious peasants of Bayung Gede were afraid of anything they did not understand. Written over a period of half a century, these intelligent, vivid, funny, poetic and revealing letters to friends, family and colleagues detail her first fieldwork in Samoa (which was eventually debunked), mainland New Guinea, the Admiralty Islands and Bali in the Dutch East Indies.
The academically brilliant couple chose the isolated upland village of Bayung Gede because it was so radically different from the island’s lowland villages, therefore its native “folk” life were considered better preserved and relatively untouched, giving them truer guide to the Balinese character than the rice growing “high cultures” of southern Bali. At the time, the triangle-shaped village, surrounded by a tall hedge, was a 20-minute walk from the nearest dirt road. The path wound up and down and over two dry riverbeds and finally reached the village’s West Gate, which guarded at night to keep out thieves and robbers.
The anthropologists’ compound, which took up the space of ten house sites, was located mid-distance from the two ends of the long sloping village. Overlooking walled households of sheds, shrines and rice barns, their property consisted of two houses with wide verandahs, kitchen, dining room, bathroom, storerooms and servant’s rooms with a cement path hung with lanterns at night connecting all the buildings. Mead described the resonant unceasing sound of women beating rice from sunrise to nightfall and the wooden bells of cows clattering softly and melodiously.
A Cool Drive into the Mountains
Straight north from Peliatan’s Arjuna statue, the road up to Kintamani took us through first through Tegallalang, then just beyond Pengotan village in Bangli Regency we turned west for about two kilometers into Bayung Gede. Faithful to Mead’s description of 78 years ago, we crossed two dry riverbeds at the bottom of two valleys, reaching the entrance of the 900-meter-high village, called the “West Gate” in? Mead and Bateson’s time. At a cluster of buildings on the main road, we were directed down a side road, which led to the original settlement.
Today, this traditional Bali Aga farming community in the mountains of central Bali is one of the island’s oldest extant villages where crops like coffee and tegelan rice have been adapted to the chilly, arid climate. The main street, with scores of gateways on either side, falls gradually down to a thick bamboo forest at the bottom, so that the rain flows down and provides drainage. House compounds are clustered tightly together on a north-south axis with the main temple (also as reported by Mead), on the left side at the top facing the holy cosmic Mount Agung.
Its semi-autonomous organization is similar to that of other original Balinese rustic villages in the island’s east and clustered around the central mountainous districts. Comprising about 2% of the Bali’s population, practicing their own architecture, adat customary law, kinship system, religious sects, dance and music, these aboriginal Balinese settled the island long before the influx of immigrants from the decaying Majapahit Empire started arriving in the 14th century.
I first got a good overview of the village from the Kulkul tower at the entrance. Each individual family house-yard is typically rectangular in shape and entered through a angkul-angkul outer split gateway, all of similar monolithic design, separated from one another by brick walls. Bayung Gede has abundant examples of older outer walls built of rocks. The previously widely used bamboo walls of the village’s structures are now giving way to cement, though the use of roof shingles persist.
The village has a quiet pace and almost complete lack of vehicular traffic. The 21st century does intrude in the form of TV antennas piercing the rooftops, motorcycles parked outside the compounds, the use of smartphones, radios, TVs, and modern technology inside the houses. Like most archaic villages, a protective wall used to surround the whole community.
This is the real deal, not a stage-managed tourist site like the “tourist” Bali Aga village of Penglipuran, although the latter is more stunning with its long street made up of one unbroken wall on both sides of the street. In Penglipuran, people invited you inside their homes to sell you something; in Bayung Gede, the inhabitants inside the walled kampungs have never adapted to the tourist economy and are not accustomed to receiving guests. Even the young men of the village use a very polite and respectful form of address. The most striking feature of this old village is its layout and unique Austronesian-style communal longhouses found inside the main temple, which share many characteristics with other primitive villages on Nias and Sumba and are quite different from the vast majority of the communities of southern Bali.
Groundbreaking Fieldwork Photographs
Although Mead and Bateson wrote relatively little about their ethnographic work in Bayung Gede, they did leave behind a remarkably rich and extensive photographic record of their time there which vividly captures the everyday lives of the men, women and children, their homes and temples and other fascinating details of village life not featured in their publications. Mead called Bayung Gede “our lovely self-contained village way up in the mountains.”
Revealing much about the Balinese character, Mead and Bateson used the photographs both as field notes and as elements in their theoretical arguments, making a substantial contribution to the then new scientific technique of visual anthropology. The 200 photographs were ultimately to be published in 1999 in the book Fieldwork Photographs of Bayung Gede 1936-1939 (University of Chicago Press 1999).
Mead curiously observed in the 1930s that the stoic villagers of Bayung Gede “never praised anyone or thanked anyone or complimented anyone.” She noted that their dour silence was in contrast to the people of Bali’s southern wet rice growing districts who sang as they went about their daily tasks. But I found out quickly that this previous character trait had long since been replaced by a singular hospitality, its inhabitants welcoming and proud to show you around. I heard a motorcycle approaching from behind and turned to see a friendly middle-aged man who introduced himself as Pak Merta.
It was a long shot, but I asked anyway. Where is Margaret Mead’s house? Astoundingly, Pak Merta pointed to a gate nearby, halfway down the main street. We took off our shoes and were invited to enter the house behind the village’s only warung. I could see at a glance that the size of the compound would take up the land of ten house sites. Inside, there was gathering of people beside a darkened kitchen with open earthen hearths and soot-blackened ceiling. The actual house where Mead and Bateson lived and worked had long ago been demolished and there was new construction going on.
A teenage girl brought us black & white postcards. An old woman pointed to a small boy in one of the old photos and told us that he was her husband. Here was a direct link to the last century’s most renowned anthropologist! We bid our farewells, and continued down the main street to the placenta graveyard. Bayung Gede’s traditions are quite unlike those practiced in the Javano-Balinese regions of Bali. Surely one of the most intriguing is the ongoing age-old practice of the pre-Hindu Bali Aga, the sanctification of a placenta cemetery at the bottom of the village.
When a child is born, the Balinese believe that the placenta is like an invisible sibling, which must be cared for as long as the child lives. Families usually bury the placenta in a coconut shell in the yards of their homes but at Bayung Gede it is placed in a coconut shell, then hung from the branches of trees in this special sacred ground called Setra Ari Ari.
At the entrance to a bamboo forest, I asked Pak Merta if there were any ancestor stones or altars in the dense grove before us. He said yes, but didn’t dare to go a step further. I offered him a modest sum for his guide services, what is euphemistically called uang rokok, but he refused to take the money. When I suggested that he could give it to his grandchildren, he smiled and again refused. He took some bills out of his pocket to show me that he already had money.