South Sulawesi Vanishing High Priests

The word Bissu refers to an ancient Bugis priest from the calabai community of eunuch-like people who once played an important role in South Sulawesi. The La Galigo scripture refers to the Bissu as having descended from the gods, and as such were the anointed higs priests of holy rituals. In Bugis royal hierarchy, a Bissu served as king’s spiritual advisor. Today, however, their influence is fash waning, reduced to being called heretics in some communities. A special Tempo English Edition report by correspondents Irmawati and Andi Pajung and photographer Ayu Ambong.

Bissu Saidi Puang Matoa dan Puang Upe Bissu Lolo. Foto by Irmawati

BONTOMATENE village apparently showed no vibrancy that evening. There was no significant activity in the village located in Segeri district, Pangkep regency, South Sulawesi. Only several elder women were seen sweeping dry leaves in the yard while watching over their children at play. In fact, the next day a Mappalili ritual would be conducted by Saidi Puang Matoa—the Bissu chief in Segeri district.

In seems the ritual marking the paddy planting season is no longer heartily welcome as it used to be. Today, the ceremony held by Bissu, traditional clerics of ethnic Bugis people, is always tainted by controversy. Taufik, 40, a Bontomatene resident, described it as wasteful. But a neighbor, Kaharuddin, 40, and his wife, Nurasia, 38, claimed to remain conforming to the ancestral custom. “My husband only dares to go to paddy fields after the Mappalili ritual,” said Nurasia.

Formerly, people in Segeri strictly observed Bissu’s directives. They didn’t dare to go to the fields before the Mappalili ceremony. But now “it’s enough to watch the season. When it begins to rain, we go plowing,” said Syamsul, 60, a farmer  in the village. Syamsul added the locals’ compliance in the past was more due to fear. “The reigning king at the time followed the ritual rule. We would have been beaten up unless we did,” he added.

The shift in the community’s confidence in the role of Bugis clerics was among others affected by Islam. Bontomatene community figure Muhammad Tamrin, 64, said part of the local population no longer abided by the rule because the Bissu ritual was seen as a form of idolatry.

Long ago, the position of these oldstyle religious leaders was very high, even above their king. They held kutika (book of prophecy) to determine good and bad days. They connected the real world with the realm of invisible gods. Their advice was duly implemented by royal and noble circles.

But their heyday has been over. When a Bissu service was held in mid-November in Segeri, only very few residents took part. As Arajang—a sacred-heir—loom plow—was paraded along the village, several youths mixed mud water with cow dung and then showered the Bissu master of ceremony with it.

Head of the Ethnic Art and Culture Research Center, Makassar State University, Halilintar Lathief, acknowledged the role shift. “The ceremony used to be held with utmost joy and reverence, lasting for 40 days and nights. Since 1966, it has been simplified to 7 days and nights,” he said. Now it even only takes 3 days and nights. The festive Mappalili of the past, according to Halilintar, was due to the support of Bugis aristocrats and wealthy people.

Bissu Saidi Puang Matoa bersama sejumlah bissu dan warga kampung berkeliling di Segeri, Pangkep, November 2010. Foto By Irmawati

When Bugis kingdoms were ini their glory, all ritual costs and living expenses of the clerical community were derived from royal crop fields. Traders, farmers and the nobility gave regular contributions. Five hectares such fields were available to the clerics.

But since Sanro Barlian (Beddu), Puang Matoa—Bissu chief—of the third generation in Segeri, died in 1979, the communal land has been in worsening conditions, with no more regular source of fund for the ritual. They have had to work hard to support themselves.

Saidi, for instance, before being installed as Puang Matoa in 2001, had worked as a bridal dresser. The same bridal profession has been chosen by Bissu Julaeha alias Jemma Ise, 43, and Bissu Wak Nure, 59.

Another cleric, Puang Upe Bissu Lolo, 54, has even lived in miserable circumstances. His stilted home, measuring 6 x 6 meters, is swaying as the wind blows in. the wooden floors of the house are damaged  and the wall on side of the building has crumbled—without ever being repaired.

Puang Upe relies on the 10 chickens he raises for a living. Sometimes he is invited to conduct rituals at wedding parties or other events. He earns an honorarium of less than Rp 100,000 for one such service. “I keep the money for medical treatment,” he said softly with intermittent coughs that have been persistent. When Tempo saw him some time ago, he was lying ill on a mattress near the kitchen. He was skinny, feeble and looked pale.

Bissu Lolo Hasna alias Muharram alias Mirna sedang Maggiri. Foto By Irmawati

Not all clearics live miserably. An example is Lolo Hasna alias Muharram alias Mirna, 21. As the youngest Bissu, he has owned two salon businesses with a fairly large number of customers. He can earn Rp 1,5 million in net profit monthly.

The youngest of seven siblings has had the status off Bissu. He claimed he had been interested since childhood. “As a child, I saw them doing Maggiri or stabbing themselves with keris near my grandma’s home,” he said. “And since then I’ve been fascinated,” Lolo Hasna added.

Little Hasna also already showed a sign. Every time his hair was cut, he felt pain. After assuming ‘Bissu-hood,” the pain was gone. Now Hasna is being prepared to become Puang Matoa replacing Saidi. “I’m ready but it takes a long time to learn,” he said optimistically.


Puang Upe Bissu Lolo. Foto By Irmawati

LIKE transvestite community in Pangkep, the majority of Bissu in Bone have bridal makeup and wedding equipment rental businesses. Their community leader in Bone, Fitri, 47, admitted the hard life being faced today. “Formerly Bissu would just sit in courts. Now by only sitting we would have nothing to eat,” said Fitri.

Since the death of their chief, Puang Matoa Daeng Tawero, three years ago, they haven’t yet found a successor. For the moment, Fitri shares the leadership with Puang Lolo Angel. “We strengthen our organization first because many senior Bissu have passed on,” noted Fitri, adding, “Whoever will later be the leader, it’s OK.” The community members in Bone are around 20—actually there should be 40. Of the 20, not even half have the supernatural Maggiri invulnerability.

In Wajo regency, the Bissu community has only 25 members in 14 districts. Their leader is Janna, 45, known as Bissu Pammana or Angkuru. He admitted the different treatment they had received them to seek side jobs. Janna is active in wedding service and equipment rental business.

Nonetheless, the Bissu group in Wajo is relatively better off. They have stylish houses. Most of them have made haj pilgrimages and minor pilgrimages to Mecca. According to Halilintar, the haj status in the Bissu world can enhance their standing. But generally they don’t want to fulfill the religious they don’t want to fulfill the religious duty at a young age. “They believe after such pilgrimages their age will shrink, leaving a maximum of four years,” he revealed.

The Bissu in Wajo remain fairly appreciated—as some of the local people believe in their sacred status. They are requested to conduct rituals for welcoming datu (king) and important guests, weddings, births, as well as entertainments like mappadendang, a dance with paddy-mortar pounding, and mallejja bara or walking barefoot on flames.


Maggiri. Foto By Irmawati

UNLIKE in Pangkep, Bone and Wajo this community in Soppeng still has 40 members. Pung Matoa Cece, 60, said the official Bissu of Soppeng Kingdom totals 40. He himself lives in a yellow house, where Arajang (heirlooms for the Mappalili ritual) are kept. The other 39 members are scattered over Soppeng distrivt. Some are working as bridal makeup artists, cooks, bakers, traders, traditional healers, others even become primary school teachers.

The Bissu community in Soppeng terains its size because some of the nobility continuts to preserve it. “We’ll conduct Masappo Wanua or a ritual for the safety of Soppeng tomorrow. This is our annual ceremony,” said Isa Tenri Sumpala Mappajanci, a descendant of the local king.

Kelengkapan upacara Mappalili. Foto By Irmawati

Cece has served the royal family of Soppeng for seven years and his life is secure. Before his inauguration as Pung Matoa, he worked as a cook. He has also earned income from other sources. When Tempo visited his home at the end of November, several residents were asking for his blessings. Bringing along a kilogram of sugar, condensed milk, chicken eggs and two liters of rice, Hajarah, 55, saw him to be rid of evil, “I do this each month,” she said.

Another resident, Neneng, also called on him to have her new rental car purged of evil. She brought along offerings in the form of rice, eggs and money worth Rp 20.000. “Every Friday, Thursday and Monday night residents are coming to get evil-ridding blessings,” said Cece. He claimed in Soppeng nobody had ever scorned them. “We believe in God. We’re Muslims, praying five times daily like most men do,” added Cece.


Saidi Puang Matoa dalam ruang Arajang di Segeri, Pangkep, November 2010. Foto By Irmawati

THE loss of aristocratis support, the growth of Islam, and modernization have threatened the community’s existence. However, the other important factor reducing their popularity, in the view of Halilintar, is the declining quality of Bissu. “Parhaps the process is now relatively easier to go through,” he said.

Current Bissu more often compete with each other in lifestyle and have male lovers. And they have rarely followed the process, a candidate for Bissu lies like a dead man without eating and drinking for several days on the roff beam, waiting for messages from gods. The risks “range from passing out, going insane, even to death,” remarked Halilintar. It’s indeed very tough. But this old tradition has noted that only through the severe test will invulnerable Bissu be born.

(By Irmawati, Outreach, Tempo English Edition, December 22-28, 2010)


Divine Songs and Dagger Stabs

Hymns accompany the Arajang ritual procession marking the planting season. Bissu display their supernatural power by thrusting a dagger into their own bodies.

Beberapa bissu terlihat sedang menjalankan prosesi upacara Mappalili di Segeri, Pangkep, November 2010. Foto By Irmawati

“TEDDU’KA denra maningo. Gonjengnga’ denra mallettung. Mallettungnge ri Ale Luwu. Maningo ri Watang Mpare. (“ I wake up the  sleeping god. I shake the reclining god. Who is lying in Luwu. Who is asleep in Watampare!”) Saidi Puang Matoa sings the song to awaken Arajang, the sacred object believed to have come down from the sky.

Nine other bissu (monk), participating in the Mappalili  ritual, respond to Saidi in a choir. They sing 10 songs to rouse Arajang. Part of this ritual is called Matteddu Arajang or awakening the sacred object. Each region has a different arajang. In Soppeng, arajang is  represented in a ponto, a bracelet with a dragon head made of pure gold. In Bone and in Wajo, it takes the form of a keris dagger. In the Pangkajene Islands or Pangkep, it’s a farm plow.

The plow was reportedly discovered via a dream and said to have existed since the year of 1330. Since it is very old, the heirloom is no longer  user for plowing fields. And it is brought down only during the Mappalili ceremony. On other days the object is tied to the roof of the house where this  arajang is kept. Before it is hung, the plow is wrapped in plain white cloth and enlaced with dry coconut leaves. Placed right below the arajang is palakka or a bed containing incense and several daggers. The palakka is surrounded by plain red cloth.

The ritual is continued with the Mappalesso Arajang (Moving the arajang). The arajang in unwrapped and  taken to the open hall where it is laid out right in the middle. Afterwards the ancient sacred object is covered with a banana leaf with its both ends placed under bunches of rice paddy. Mounted above is a typical Bugis umbrella.

The next ritual is called Malleko Bulalle or fetching the grandmother. The pick up ritual is done at the Segeri market where some of the ritual materials such as betel nuts and coconuts are obtained. Later, Ied by Puang Upe Bissu Lolo, the party prays at the four corners of the market. Afterwards, they proceed to the Segeri River to take some water. This is called Mallekko Wae ritual. This is followed by Mapparewe Sumange or  reviving the spirit.

Foto By Irmawati

At night, right after isya (evening prayer), the Bissu perform the traditional Maggiri show. Bugis priests’ supernatural power can be witnessed in this ritual: they are resistant to stabs from dagger or any othet sharp objects.  Even though the dagger pierces through the neck, belly and chest, it leaves no marks of wound or tear whatsoever.

Kelengkapan upacara Mappalili. Foto By Irmawati

Since late afternoon the bissu groom themselves so as to look their best in colorful costumes. Then they sit around the arajang. Led by Puang Matoa, they recite mantras in torilangi, the language of the gods, in the ancient Bugis tradition. Next is a dance  where each Bissu draws a keris from their waistband, takes out the dagger from its case and stabs it into their neck or the belly.

To convince the spectators, they forcefully thrust the keris while jumping around, rocking the stilted house. Saidi performed the belly-stabbing stunt last November. The keris stood upright on the floor with its tip supporting his entire body right at the middle of his stomach!

After the show,each Bissu would extend an open handkerchief, a hat or a box asking for contribution from the audience. Favorite Bissu usually get larger tips.

The last of the ritual is parading the arajang around the village signifying the beginning of the plowing season. At this stage, every resident has the chance to splash water  on the party parading the arajang to pray for  rain from the Creator.

When the parade is over, the arajang is bathed and returned to its place. The residents scurry to collect the bath water through the slits in the floor of the stilted house. They believe that the water has magical properties.

(By Irmawati, Outreach, Tempo English Edition, December 22-28, 2010)


Bissu Saidi Puang Matoa : I prefer to be stabbed with a keris than be injected

SAIDI Puang Matoa alias Saidina Ali has lived like a Bissu since he was 7 years old. Fluent in Torilangi—the ancient Bugis language—and bord in 1971, Saidi became a Bissu or Puang Matoa in November 2001. He is the fifth general Puang Matoa in his area. Torilangi, the language he uses when  he communicates with the gods, and extensive knowledge has brought Saidi to a number of countries.

He was shosen to be one of the actors when a part of the I Lagaligo scripture was turned into a theater performance which toured around the world. He speaks in a polite and firm tone, never raising his voice, let alone scream. When he is forced to ask for help, he will use a katto-katto, kind of cane to call for a boy helper or kalung-kalung to call a girl.

Saidi Puang Matoa. Foto By Irmawati

Last week, during a meeting of Bissu at the home of Arajang, Saidi was interviewed by tempo reporter Irmawati. Excerpts:

How did you first enter the world of a Bissu?

I have always wanted to be a Bissu since I was a small child. They are pure people, who can communicate with the gods and become their intermediaries with human beings. I felt this to be my calling. By coincidence, my grandfather was a fourth-generation Bissu. To gain further knowledge, I often attached myself to the older  Bissu, including the Puang Matoa Saike. I also studied in their communities in Soppeng, Wajo and Bone.

What is the task of a Puang Matoa?

Him main task is to lead rituals. If there is a shortage of funds to hold them, it is the responsibility of the Puang Matoa to look for funding. My other task is to lead the Bissu community at Pangkep. There was a political split when I was sworn in. In 2003, my deputy, Puang Upe Bissu Lolo was sworn in as the Puang Matoa, but we are now united once more.

How doas it feel to be Puang Matoa? Do you get special facilities?

Since I became a leading Bissu the burden I carry has become bigger, particularly when  during my leadership, the Arajang traditional land was occupied by the government. Yet, the proceeds of the harvests of traditional land are used ti fund ceremonies and Arajang’s operational expenses for a year. Since there is no permanent source of income, we ask for government subsidy in order to be able to carry aot important rituals, such as the Mappalili. We get no special facilities since the Arajang traditional land was taken over by the government.

So, what is your source of livelihood?

Before I became a Puang Matoa, I was a chef. But since becoming a Puang Matoa, I don’t cook anymore. Thankfully, I have always been fortunate, like getting compensated for my role in the I La Galigo performance.

Have you travelled elseshere since te La Galigo performance?

I visited countries in Europe, like the Netherlands and France, also the United States. But ever since I was small I have  been scared of getting injections.  When I performed in Singapore, I fell sick and the medical staff had a difficult time because when I needed an IV, I refused to have a needle injected into me.

But dom’t you possess the ability for Maggiri—a kind of resistance to the thrusts of a keris (traditional dagger)?

Yes, people are puzzled by the fact that I possess thet special capability, which I demonstrate in dances, but I am deathly scared of the prick of a needle. During  performances, the keris or another kind of sharp weapon is used to pierce my neck, chest or stomach about 2 to 3 centimeters deep. But we don’t feel the pain because the gods there and the spirits of our ancestors have entered us. The deeper the penetration of the keris, the more pleasant a sensation it feels. If it bleeds, that is a sign for an incoming disaster.

Do you need ti use a special kind of keris?

Actually, all sharp objects are used in the Maggiri ceremony except needles and razors. Since I became Puang Matoa, I must carry a sacred weapon called the Sonri, made of steel and wood. In 2006, this sacred weapon was lost, apparently stolen and sold. We latet found out the  theft was done by hypnotizing the victim. I have since made a duplicate of the weapon.

On the use of a sarong by the Bissu,  what happens when you are traveling overseas, do you still wear sarongs?

Yes, every Bissu must wear  a sarong or even a dress like a woman. The meaning of a sarong is loanga lino or the wide world. If a Bissu wears trousers, that means he wants to go back to being a real man. In that case, he needs to be married off. But overseas, I am forced to wear trousers.

(By Irmawati, Outreach, Tempo English Edition, December 22-28, 2010)






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