Is it Magic or just a Trick?

I’ve always heard stories about Bugis people in Indonesia being “iron resistant” but I never believed it. If someone is “iron resistant” they can stab themselves with an iron dagger without it going through their skin. It was very hard for me to believe and as the famous quote says ‘you got to see it to believe it’, which is exactly what I did. Last week there was a ‘Mappalili’ ceremony in Segeri. The ‘Mappalili’ ceremony is conducted to mark the beginning of rice-planting season. It happens every year in November and is a Bugis tradition. Bugis are one of five ethnic groups in South Sulawesi. They recognize five genders, one of which is Bissu. A Bissu is a gender transcendent who is believed to be a combination of all genders. They are born male but they possess female characteristics. These were the ones who perform the rituals for the ceremony. So, excitedly, we set of on a Wednesday night to join them for their yearly tradition. Since Tari Travel knows one of the organizers we were told the Bissu would wait for us to arrive before they began their ritual, otherwise we would have arrived in the middle of their trance. We arrived to a little wooden house so packed with people that we had to push our way through. The organizer took us into a small room where I saw six Bissu all sat silently. The organizer explained to us we had to ask permission from the Bissu leader before we could join the ceremony. I gazed around at them all, amazed at their outfits. They wore bright colours of pink, red and blue with shiny gold skirts and headscarves. Their faces were covered in thick white makeup with bright red lips and thick black eyes. They were of all ages, including a young teenage boy and an elderly man.

As soon as permission had been granted we walked into the main room and the Bissu began the ceremony. Everyone sat round a display made of palm leaves and offerings with straw hung from the ceiling. Drums started to play and the Bissu started to dance. It was very intense because the Bissu were dancing to wait for a spirit to enter their body. This is because once a spirit has entered their body they can perform the task of stabbing themselves with an iron dagger. This process is done to get blessings from the gods to start the rice planting. If they are successful the dagger will not draw blood. After about fifteen minutes the Bissu leader stopped, took out his dagger and placed it on the palm of his hand. He started to do motions to show he was pushing the dagger down onto the skin but it wasn’t going through. The other Bissu then followed. They started stamping their feet to show their force, trying so hard to break their skin but it just wasn’t happening. Then, as if it wasn’t scary watching them stab their hand, they started to bring the dagger to their throat. The oldest man actually placed it to his head. They slowly applied pressure and started to stamp their feet again. Their motions showed us they were pushing the dagger down but it wasn’t hurting them. Three of them fell to the floor and pushed the dagger on their front and back. It looked like they were possessed. It actually seemed so unreal and I found it hard to believe it was happening. I still look through the photos and ask myself did that actually happen? Did they use magic or was it just an act?

Once the ritual was over things calmed down and we went back into the small room with the Bissu. We met two little old women who were preparing food offerings for the next day. These food offerings included chicken, rice wrapped in different kinds of leaves, bananas and other fruit and vegetables. We left them to prepare for the next day and went back to the organizer’s house to spend the night. We were very lucky to stay with a local family. They were warm and welcoming and made sure we had everything we needed. We woke up early the next morning to coffee and cakes. They told us that we would be walking for 3km and needed to carry our phones and electronics in a plastic bag. Why? This part of the ceremony would include lots of water. Intrigued, we got ready and made our way back to the little wooden house. We arrived to music being played with traditional drums and the two little women making music with plates and straw. This was played whilst the Bissu sat around the offerings and performed another ritual, which was calmer and felt very spiritual. It was then time to make our way to the rice paddies. Everyone joined the Bissu and walked together down the roads and through the streets until we reached the rice paddies. The offerings were placed down and I thought that was the end. How wrong I was. As soon as we got back onto the road people started throwing buckets of water all over each other for luck. So the wetter you get the luckier you are. Every single house had people waiting for us to come by with buckets of water and hosepipes. It turned into a massive water fight. Everyone was laughing and playing. If you were dry there was no chance you were going to get away with it. They chased you down and made sure you were soaking wet. It was such a great atmosphere.

We finally arrived back and the Bissu prayed to close the ceremony. Before driving back to Makassar the local family prepared a delicious lunch for us of prawns, mango, fish and vegetables, with bananas fried in nuts for dessert. It was definitely a unique and unforgettable experience. Thanks to Tari Travel we got to witness a fascinating event.

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