Skulls, Souls, & Unsolved Mysteries: A Journey to Trunyan Cemetery

On the Eastern side of Lake Batur (Bali’s largest lake), lies the small village of Trunyan. While the village is Hindu among the others, Trunyan is distinct because it is home to the Bali Aga people, one of the original Balinese societies. These people have preserved traditions that pre-date the more modern Balinese rituals. The village is located opposite Mount Batur- offering amazing views of the volcano mountain, the surrounding black lava rocks, and Lake Batur itself. Set underneath tall green mountains, the scenery is stunning, but it is not the main attraction. Rather, the village is known for its unique funeral traditions. In Trunyan, the deceased are not cremated or buried, but rather placed in a lakeside cemetery under a bamboo cage. Possessions of the deceased are also deposited with the body. It is possible to visit the cemetery, but not easily. It lies between steep hills in a remote lakeside location, making it only reachable by boat.

We had camped the night before on the opposite side of the lake, on the slopes of Mount Batur. With a view over the large lake, we could see what we presumed to be Trunyan on the other side. In the morning we began to circumnavigate the lake on motorbike. Though Lake Batur is the largest body of water in Bali, one can reach from one side to the other in about 40 minutes.

We stopped at the southernmost village of Kedisan and asked if it was possible to reach Trunyan Village by road. No, the man replied; the road is broken and filled with water. It sounded potentially dangerous, but I also knew that our acquaintance was trying to sell us a (very expensive) boat trip from the nearby port. We set off on motorbike regardless, to see what we would encounter. After all…people live in this village! There must be a way to reach, I thought to myself.

We made our way along the hilly road. We were two (me and my friend Ijul) on an old scooter plus a big bag of luggage. We cascaded down the the hills and slowly chugged up the ascents. It was true what the man had said- in two places water from the lake had overtaken the road. Still, other people passed through the sunken road and we carefully followed. Along the way a man pulled up beside us – “You want to go to the cemetery?” he inquired in Indonesian. We responded positively and he gave us some price options, but we decided better to bargain upon arrival. He was friendly at least, so we followed him along the windy road, straight to the port of Trunyan Village.

I smiled as we parked the motorbike. It was the kind of small village scene that I love – school boys were playing soccer on a volleyball court adjacent to the gates of a large temple. The beautiful, steep green hills loomed overhead and little homes on the edge of the lake were just steps away. We went into a nearby warung (an Indonesian shop/restaurant) to sort out transportation options, charge our cameras, and eat some food. Ijul chose some instant noodles with egg (an Indonesian staple), while I eyed a big basket of fruit.

I asked if the fruit was for sale and the woman told me it was for an upcoming ceremony, but if I liked I could buy some. I wasn’t sure if that would be polite – eating her special ceremony fruit? But after she offered a few times, I sensed that it was okay. Plus, a large, juicy dragon fruit was calling out to me. I cut it in half and ate the sweet red flesh with a spoon.

Outside I saw a woman beating a white, steaming mass. She was using a large green object (the trunk of a skinny tree wrapped in leaves), which she repeatedly raised above her head then forcefully struck down upon the mass. I’d never seen anything like this before, so I inquired what she was doing. I was told the process was also for the upcoming ceremony; she was beating a mixture of cooked sticky rice and shredded coconut. It looked gooey and delicious, but I was am unsure if the preparation was for eating or offering.

Back in the warung we began conversing with the woman’s husband. He was a large, friendly man dressed in traditional clothing. He began telling us stories about the traditions of the village. Pulling out his smartphone, he shared a video from a funeral ceremony. The body of the deceased had been placed inside a large colorful display (imagine a parade float), which was being carried by a group of people. There was much music and movement and the structure seemed to be spun around by the crowds. It is after this type of “celebration” that the body is then transferred by boat to the cemetery.

Filled with curiosity, we finished our food and readied ourselves for our boat journey. We made our way to the lakeside where a blue paddle boat was waiting in between two homes. The rising level of the lake means that homes once lakeside are now partially underwater. We climbed aboard and our two guides began to paddle. The lake was large and calm. Its serenity seemed to match the stillness of what we would encounter. It was a short trip to the cemetery (maybe fifteen minutes), but very beautiful; roots of trees stretched down to the lake and the steep hills formed a green wall. On the opposite side was a beautiful view of Mount Batur volcano.

As we neared our destination we could see the entrance; the water flowed right up to the steps, which were in between two brick pillars. Each showcased a skull surrounded by coins. With no other visitors at that time, the place was totally quiet except for some distant bird calls. Climbing the few steps and entering the cemetery, we were greeted by creepy, life-size puppets on either side.

Our guides ushered us into the space, while they stayed back to wait by the boat. They reminded us the most important rule – “do not take anything from this place”. After all, the cemetery is filled with belongings of the deceased, money, and treasures. Stealing would not just be frowned upon, but a total violation of the village’s culture and traditions.

The space was smaller than I expected, but filled with heavy energy. As we entered, directly in front of us was a wall of skulls. To its right was a massive, old Banyan tree. Called “taru menyan”, this tree is said to mask the smell of the rotting bodies, while also housing the spirits of the deceased. To the left of the skulls laid the bamboo cages. There were eleven of them, which is a key rule of the tradition. Only eleven can be present; if there is a new body to add, an old one must be removed. There were no human forms left under the cages, but visible were the skulls, sometimes with flip-flops on the opposite end. We were told that the most recent addition to the cemetery was just one week prior.

We moved about the area, carefully peering into the cages and examining the surrounding objects. I noticed to the left of the cages, among some shoes and baskets, a spine was protruding out of the ground. It was at this moment that I realized – the ground we were walking on was literally infused with human history; bodies dating back thousands of years had decomposed into the earth below us.

Ijul tapped me on the shoulder, signalling me to look in the other direction. Less than a meter from where we were standing was a rotting body. It was still very in tact – visible red flesh, whole ears, and with hair upon the head. It laid partially covered by a yellow cloth. Strangely, the body was not under a bamboo cage. It was opposite the others, among the pile of belongings. It was not laid straight either, rather, the legs were bent up towards the chest to a near fetal position. This sight was both odd and shocking. We asked one of our guides why the body was not under a cage. His answer was plain, but confusing. He told us that because only eleven bodies can remain at one time, sometimes bodies must be removed. Still, this body was clearly newer than all the others- why were older remains not removed instead? Why did it take a different position, in a different location?

We hypothesized between ourselves, but could not settle on an explicable answer. Bodies are not placed in the cemetery when the death is sudden, strange, or suicidal. Was the death of this person an undecided exception?- placed in the cemetery, but without adherence to the formal rituals? Though the bamboo cages provide only partial covering, they imply a ceremonial intention and mitigate the gruesome site of an exposed, decomposing body. But open and unaligned with the others, the mystery corpse left us with strange, uneasy feelings.

We climbed back aboard the boat and solemnly returned to Trunyan Village. Along the way we dipped our hands in the lake as an act of cleansing, letting some of that heavy energy sink into the waters. Still, my visit to Trunyan Cemetery will forever stick in my memory.

4 COMMENTS

  1. That’s amazing Molly, what different culture and ritual with the dead bodies…I wonder what was with the mysterious body apart from the others in a fetal position. Did you ever find out more about the meaning behind that?

  2. A friend of mine and I went there and my friend was stupid enough to take one of the coins. He had 2 terrible incidents happen to him the next day that cost him lots of money. First thing happened was he tripped and fell into a rice field and dropped his $3,000 camera into the water totally ruined then the next day his cell phone fell into the ocean and was ruined. He now wants to know what he should do with the coin…

    • An old Indonesian man told me that he stole a skull from Trunyan and put it on the front of his motorbike. But when his Balinese friend discovered its origin, he ordered him to return it!!

      So I guess your friend could maybe return the coin to restore his luck?

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