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Cleaned skulls stacked under a tree in the cemetery as per tradition on Skull Island, Trunyan, Bali. Source: dani3315 / Adobe Stock.

The Decomposing Bodies of Skull Island: The Unique Funerary Custom of Trunyan

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Trunyan (also spelled as Terunyan) is a village located on the Indonesian island of Bali. This village is known colloquially as the ‘Skull Island’, due to its unique funerary practice , known as mepasah. The majority of the population in Indonesia today belong to the Islamic faith , while Bali is the only province in the country with a Hindu-majority population.

While the Muslims bury their dead, the Hindus cremate them. This is not the case in Trunyan, as the dead are left to decompose above ground. The villagers of Trunyan who practice this funerary custom belong to the Bali Aga people, who are considered to be the indigenous people of Bali.
Trunyan is situated on the eastern shore of Lake Batur, in Bangli, a regency in central Bali. Lake Batur is a crater lake located opposite an active volcano, Mount Batur. Trunyan is one of the villages belonging to the Bali Aga people, who are found mainly in the Karangasem Regency, in the eastern part of the island.

The Bali Aga are regarded to be the original inhabitants of Bali, who settled on the island prior to the rise of the Majapahit Empire . Around the 14th century AD, the Majapahit Empire expanded into Bali and some of its people migrated onto the island via neighboring Java. The majority of Balinese today trace their origin to these Majapahit settlers.

Landscape of Batur volcano on Skull Island, Bali. (Naughtynut / Adobe Stock)

Landscape of Batur volcano on Skull Island, Bali. ( Naughtynut / Adobe Stock)

How Did the First People Arrive on Skull Island?

It is not entirely clear as to how the Bali Aga arrived on Bali, and the details of their origin are normally found in myths and folktales. A famous myth that explains the origin of the Tenganan, Pegringsingan, Trunyan, and Pedawa villages involves a holy man by the name of Rsi Markandeya. According to this myth, the holy man, who was originally from Mount Raung in East Java, arrived in Bali during the 8th century AD with several hundred followers to establish a community.

Unfortunately, a pestilence broke out and most of Rsi Markandeya’s followers were killed. Several years later, the holy man returned to Bali with 400 people from the village of Aga. At a site on the slopes of Mount Agung (another active volcano, located to the southeast of Mount Batur), Rsi Markandeya performed the pancadatu, a ceremony to bury the five metals – gold, silver, iron, copper, and a precious stone. The site where the ceremony took place is known today as Pura Besakih. Rsi Markandeya is also credited with the introduction of the basic institutions of Balinese society, including irrigation and villages.

The best-known and most easily accessible Bali Aga village is Tenganan which is located in the Karangasem Regency. This village is situated about 17 kilometers (10 miles) from Amlapura, the seat of the Karangasem Regency, and to the northwest of the seaside town of Candi Dasa. Tenganan can be reached after traveling a short distance of 5 kilometers (3 miles) off the main road.
The villagers of Tenganan have embraced tourism. For a small donation, tourists are allowed to enter and to explore the village. One of the main attractions of Tenganan is their double ikat (a dyeing technique) cloth, known as geringsing (meaning ‘to repel dangers’). The production of the geringsing cloth is a long and laborious process that may take several months, or even years to complete.

Geringsing textile from the village of Tenganan, Bali. (Chris Hazzard / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Geringsing textile from the village of Tenganan, Bali. (Chris Hazzard / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Such cloth is valued not only for its aesthetic qualities but also for its role in ritual ceremonies. For instance, during the traditional tooth filing ceremony, a geringsing cloth would be used as the base cushion. This cloth is also used for funerary rites, as it is placed on top of the bade, which is used to carry the corpse before the cremation.

Trunyan, on the other hand, is much less accessible than Tenganan, as the only way to reach the village is by a 30 minute boat ride across Lake Batur. Thus, only a handful of tourists visit Trunyan each day. As mentioned earlier, one story regarding the origin of Trunyan involves the holy man Rsi Markandeya, though there are other origin stories as well which will be seen later in this article.
One of them involves four brothers from Keraton Surakarta, in Central Java, while another involves migrants from other Bali Aga villages. Each of these origin stories has helped to shape the ritual and ceremonial life of the inhabitants of Trunyan, giving it a distinct and unique flavor.

View of the ancient village Trunyan and Hindu Temple from Lake Batur, Bali. (dani3315 / Adobe Stock)

View of the ancient village Trunyan and Hindu Temple from Lake Batur, Bali. ( dani3315 / Adobe Stock)

Although the inhabitants of both Tenganan and Trunyan belong to the Bali Aga people, their way of life is quite different. For instance, while the Bali Aga speak a unique dialect of the Balinese language, dating back thousands of years, the language spoken in Tenganan is quite different from that in Trunyan. It is clear also that the funerary customs practiced in Tenganan are different from those in Trunyan.

While the villagers of Tenganan cremate their dead, like other Hindus, those living in Trunyan leave the bodies of the deceased above the ground to rot. One explanation for this practice is that in the past, the villagers of Trunyan were fearful that if they cremated the dead they would anger the volcano. Hence, they decided to leave the dead to decompose.

The Funerary Customs of Skull Island

This mepasah funerary custom has attracted tourists to Trunyan, more so in recent times, and the villagers are now seeing visitors as a source of income. At Trunyan, before the bodies of the dead are brought to the cemetery, they are washed with rain water, and then wrapped with a cloth, leaving the head uncovered.

The bodies may only be brought to the cemetery on auspicious days and sufficient money has to be raised by the family for the funeral. Therefore, some corpses would be kept in the home for several days, or even weeks, before they are taken to the cemetery. Today, formaldehyde may be used to stop the corpses from rotting during this waiting period.

When a body is brought to the cemetery women are barred from entering the area. It is believed if a woman enters the cemetery when a body is being delivered an earthquake or volcanic eruption will occur. At other times, however, women are allowed to visit the cemetery.

At the cemetery in Trunyan (known as Sema Wayah), there are 11 (the number having symbolic significance in Hinduism) cages made of bamboo, which are covered with arched palm leaves. The deceased are left in these cages, which are meant to protect the corpses from carrion birds and other scavenging animals. Photos of the deceased are attached to the bamboo cages, while their personal belongings are placed in a pile in front of them.

Bamboo cages covering the deceased, cemetery at Skull Island. (Yusuf IJsseldijk / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Bamboo cages covering the deceased, cemetery at Skull Island. (Yusuf IJsseldijk / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The corpses are then allowed to be decomposed by nature. According to traditional belief, the wind plays an important role in this process. As there are only 11 cages, space in the cemetery is limited. Therefore, once the bodies are sufficiently decomposed (which may take up to a year) the skeletal remains are removed. The bones are cleaned and scattered around, while the skulls are placed on a ledge nearby.

It may be noted, however, that not all the villagers of Trunyan have the privilege of being left in this cemetery when they die. This cemetery is reserved for those who have completed life’s journey . In other words, being married is one of the conditions required if a person wished to be left in this cemetery.

Unmarried individuals, along with those who died of illnesses, or experienced unnatural deaths, i.e. victims of accidents or those who committed suicide are not eligible to be left in this cemetery. Instead they are buried and in Trunyan a cemetery known as Sema Bantas is used specifically for burials. There is also a third cemetery in Trunyan, known as Sema Nguda, where both mepasah and burials may be found.

On Skull Island the deceased are only covered by rudimentary cages, Trunyan, Bali, Indonesia. (Yusuf IJsseldijk / CC BY-SA 2.0)

On Skull Island the deceased are only covered by rudimentary cages, Trunyan, Bali, Indonesia. (Yusuf IJsseldijk / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Although the bodies of the dead are exposed above ground, it seems that neither villagers nor tourists have any problem whatsoever with the stench of rotting flesh. The bamboo cages where the dead are laid in are placed around an ancient banyan tree known as Taru Menyan (which means ‘nice smelling / fragrant tree’). Locals believe that the tree exudes a sweet smell that masks the smell of decay.

At the cemetery on Skull Island there is a Taru Menyan tree that emits a fragrant smell, so the cemetery does not stink. (Ayrahsha / CC BY-SA 4.0)

At the cemetery on Skull Island there is a Taru Menyan tree that emits a fragrant smell, so the cemetery does not stink. (Ayrahsha / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Legends of Skull Island

According to a local legend, in the distant past, the Taru Menyan’s fragrance traveled so far that it hypnotized four brothers from Keraton Surakarta who were making a voyage across the sea. The brothers followed the scent and arrived at Trunyan. The eldest brother fell in love with a guardian spirit of the tree, married her, and established a small kingdom at Trunyan.

This king is still worshipped today as a god known as Ratu Sakti Pancering Jagat. In any case, the king realized that the sweet scent of the Taru Menyan might endanger his kingdom, as it could bring hostile enemies to the site, just as it did with him and his brothers. Therefore, the king decreed that from that day onwards, the dead of his kingdom are not to be buried but left under the Taru Menyan to rot. By doing so, the fragrance of the tree would not spread abroad. At the same time, the sweet smell would get rid of the corpses’ odor.

Interestingly, Ratu Sakti Pancering Jagat is also connected to Mount Batur, and is considered to be the protector of Trunyan. This is unsurprising, due to his role in the myth of the village’s founding, as well as the power of the volcano as a force of nature. The god is known also as Datonta and in a place only accessible by the villagers of Trunyan there stands a megalithic statue of the god.

A bronze tablet dated to 911 AD that was found in a temple, known as Pura Puncak Penulisan (known also as Pura Tegeh Kahuripan) not far from Trunyan, provides instructions for the worship of the statue. Thus, during certain ceremonies conducted by the village flowers are offered and the statue is ritually cleansed with rain water and a special oil.

Temple Pura Puncak Penulisan on Skull Island, Trunyan, Bali. (Patrick Chabert / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Temple Pura Puncak Penulisan on Skull Island, Trunyan, Bali. (Patrick Chabert / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

A third story used to explain the origin of Trunyan is that the village was founded by migrants who came to the area from other Bali Aga villages further east on the island. This origin story is re-enacted in a dance known as Berutuk.

This dance is not merely a performance but also full of ritual significance. Apart from narrating the story of Trunyan’s founding, the Berutuk dance is also believed to be a means of maintaining the equilibrium between the visible, physical world, and the non-visible, spiritual realm.

The costume worn by the performers of the Berutuk dance consist of a sacred mask and two aprons woven from dried banana leaf fiber. One of the aprons is tied around the neck and covers the torso while the other is tied around the waist. The performers of the Berutuk dance are a selected group of unmarried men.

Prior to the performance these men have to undergo a period of ritual purification and isolation. During this time, the performers live in a temple, abstain from sexual contact, and learn the necessary prayers for the dance from the temple priest.

The performers are not taught the movements of the Berutuk dance. This is due to the belief that the men serve merely as temporary vessels of the Berutuk spirits. Thus, the emphasis is placed on the ritual purification and the prayers which would enable the spirits to take possession of the performers’ bodies.

The villagers of Trunyan believe that due to their contact with the supernatural, the aprons of the performers become imbued with powerful magic. Therefore, they would try to steal bits of fiber from the aprons in order to use them as amulets.

An important part of the Berutuk performance is the courtship dance of the Berutuk king and queen. In order to ensure the fertility of Trunyan, as well as that of the performer, the Berutuk king must successfully capture the queen.

The Berutuk performance may be considered to be a rite of passage, as the young men are only eligible for marriage after the completion of the performance. Once the queen is captured, the performance ends and the performers take a bath in Lake Batur.

There are no set occasions for the Berutuk dance and the dance is performed according to the needs of the village. Nevertheless, it cannot be performed when the village is faced with problems, for instance, during times of pestilence or crop failure.

Top image: Cleaned skulls stacked under a tree in the cemetery as per tradition on Skull Island, Trunyan, Bali. Source: dani3315 / Adobe Stock.

By Wu Mingren

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