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Paying for the Sin of Pre-Natal Sex

By: Bodrek Arsana

This article was originally published in Latitudes magazine, a renowned bi-monthly magazine focusing on Indonesian culture. The magazine hailing from the island of Bali previously existed in paper form and was especially known for its in-depth critical articles and beautiful photography. As a tribute to all contributors of this magazine presents a selection of articles published in the years 2001-2004.

The twins—still un-named infants—are fast asleep on a mat on a bamboo platform. They are wrapped thickly in cloth and screened off behind mosquito nets. They seem not to be bothered by the sound of all the people around them. The chilly weather and mountain winds, which aren’t really good for newborn babies, don’t disturb the serenity of their faces. The twins were born a week earlier, on 9 April 2004, in a hospital in Singaraja, Bali. Ever since then, the infants and their parents have been living in a makeshift bamboo hut on the outskirts of their village. The floor is dirt, and the roof is plaited palm fronds covered with a plastic tarpaulin. Nearby is a small irrigation channel and beyond that are rice fields.

The blissful repose on the faces of the twins is nowhere to be found in the faces of their parents, I Nengah Tarsa (aged thirty-four) and his wife Ni Ketut Susun (twenty-nine), or in the faces of Tarsa’s relatives sitting on the bamboo platform beside the babies. All look anxious and confused. The atmosphere is very different from that surrounding the birth of other newborn babies in Bali. There is none of the happiness, none of the gaiety that infuses the preparation of ceremonies to welcome a newborn child into life. The reason is that these twins are male and female. The Balinese term is kembar buncing; but sometimes another term is used: manak salah, which means ‘wrongly born’.
The notion of male-female twins as an event that is supernaturally charged is found all over Bali. It is thought that the twins obviously formed a sexual union in the womb and are therefore born in a state of impurity (sebel or cuntaka) that must be corrected through ritual. Individual communities have their own ritual requirements for coping with this situation; and while the details differ from region to region, the blueprint is ritual ostracism—a temporary estrangement of the parents and babies from the village for a certain period of time (usually forty-two days, in a temporary dwelling near or in the graveyard) followed by elaborate purification rituals for the village (desa) at the parents’ expense.

In recent decades, this very old practice has begun to be seen as harsh and backward, and it has been discouraged by public institutions such as the Parisada Hindu Dharma Indonesia (PHDI), a nationwide association concerned with Hindu affairs. Adding fuel to the impetus for reform was the view among some Triwangsa (upper-‘caste’ groups) that the birth of male-female twins was a portent of good luck—as long as the children were born to the princely class; if they were born to commoners, it was an impertinence. This reasoning is based on the notion that the twins might be reincarnations of the 11th-century rulers of Bali, Masula-Masuli, a royal pair of male-female twins. Certain communities (sometimes, but not always Triwangsa) allow the twins to marry when they come of age.

This particular village—Desa Padangbulia in the hills above Singaraja, Buleleng on the north coast of Bali—has been the focus of public debate since mid-April. Desa Padangbulia’s own unwritten customary law requires that the parents of male-female twins and their babies must live at the outskirts of the village in a specially constructed dwelling for the duration of three consecutive Tilem (dark of the moon), or sixty-eight days. During that time, the parents are not allowed to leave their temporary dwelling, nor to work to earn a living. After this period, they are obliged to hold purification ceremonies at their temporary dwelling, their family temple and the village temple (pura desa). Then, at last, they may go home and return to their normal lives.

Pak Tarsa tells me, “I left it all up to the village. Whatever they decided was right is fine with me. I don’t want to cause anyone any trouble.”
Made Rimbawa, a local religious official (Ketua Majelis Madya Desa Pekraman /Adat Buleleng) confirms the general view when he says, “Male-female twins are considered impure and are called ‘manak salah’. The birth of male-female twins is seen as disruptive to village harmony, polluting the village and its inhabitants. Only the sanctions of exile and purifying rituals can ‘cleanse’ it.” [“Kembar buncing itu dianggap aib dan dikenal dengan istilah manak salah. Kehadiran bayi kembar buncing dianggap akan mengganggu keharmonisan desa, dan desa berserta warga desa menjadi tercemar (cuntaka). Hanya sanksi adat pengucilan dan upacara pembersihan ini yang dianggap bisa ‘membersihkan’nya.”]

I became interested in this little family, not because of the birth of male-female twins per se, but because of the public discussion it provoked in the Balinese press. The media, both print and electronic, had swarmed on the village of Padangbulia to interview Pak Tarsa and community leaders. When I met Pak Tarsa, his name had already become well-known. I asked him how he felt about that.
“I don’t understand a thing. I’m just an ordinary person who happens to be having some problems,” he said. He admitted that all the media attention was irksome. “I’m embarrassed in front the community and Pak Bendesa,” he said, referring to the bendesa adat, or village customary leader. “People will think I’m trying to take advantage of the situation or trying to become famous. But I swear I don’t understand anything.”

Tarsa is known among the villagers as a good man who gets on well with people. The bendesa adat, I Gusti Ngurah Bisama, told me, “As far as I know, Tarsa and his family have never had any problems with anyone. They’re good members of the community.” After graduating from a technical high school (STM) in Singaraja, Tarsa found work in Singaraja and then in Denpasar. But after five years of working in Bali’s capital, he married Ni Ketut Susun and moved with her back to his native village, where he opened a tractor repair shop.
“I came back to the village because my parents are old and I wanted to look after them. Also, I was tired of working hard away from home and not earning very much. I figured better to come back to the village and open a business. It doesn’t earn a lot, but it’s enough to let me take care of my parents. The important thing is, now that I’m married, I have to meet my village responsibilities.” Tarsa borrowed money to start his little business and is still paying off the loan, although he is unable to earn anything with which to service the debt while they are paying off this ritual penalty.

The twins are Tarsa and Ni Ketut Susun’s third and fourth children. The elder children are daughters. Tarsa says, “I had no premonition at all that we would have twins. Old people say that if something like this is going to happen, there are always signs. But my wife had a completely ordinary pregnancy. When she went for a check-up, all the midwife said was that the baby was rather big.”
The storm of media coverage about the birth of the twins revolves around criticism of the family’s ritual exile, and it has offended the bendesa adat. I Gusti Ngurah Bisana feels that certain parties are giving the village a bad name. “There was no problem about this,” says Bisana. “The village did not demand that Tarsa’s family undertake these ritual sanctions; they did it of their own initiative. I and the other village leaders are only helping them to carry it out. But because there were outside parties that got involved, the issue has become confused. Now people think the village has ostracized Tarsa and his family and the news has spread everywhere.”

Gusti Bisana then explained to me the nature of the adat sanctions and cleansing ceremonies that Tarsa and his twins are undertaking. “These are not awig-awig,” he said, referring to a village’s written rules, which are considered to be bequeathed by the villagers’ deified ancestors. “They are awig-awig pasuaran desa—procedures agreed through discussion in village meetings. So if anyone looks for clarification in the written awig-awig, they won’t find anything. In fact, the sanctions are flexible: people can observe them or not, depending on the individual’s beliefs [tergantung dari kepercayaan masing-masing warga desa]. Of the seven cases of male-female twins in this village, six families chose to undergo the sanctions because they were afraid that if they didn’t, some bad luck might befall the village. The one couple that decided to forego the sanctions changed their minds because they kept having disturbing visions.” He continued, “But I can assure you that the village of Padangbulia did not exile Tarsa and his male-female twins. We are like Tarsa’s family and we are helping him because he has been stricken with a problem and is undergoing a ritual procedure to remedy it.”

The publicity around this case began a bit over a week after the birth of the twins, with the arrival in the village of I Wayan Sudirta, S.H., a well-known attorney who is one of the four recently elected representatives from Bali to the Provincial Council (DPD) in Jakarta; he is also a prominent figure in the Hindu association PHDI. He came with a number of activists and members of the Hindu Youth (Pemuda Hindu).
Gusti Bisana told me, “On 18 April 2004, Sudirta and his group came and met with me and other village leaders to talk about the case of I Nengah Tarsa. Sudirta said that he had been asked by the PHDI office in Jakarta to come look into the case. He said, too, that he had been asked by the National Committee of Human Rights for Children [Komnas HAM Anak-anak] to request that Tarsa and his family be allowed to return home and that the sanctions be lifted. He also said that the police were aware of the matter.” It seems that some activists from Komnas HAM Anak-anak had sent an sms to the head of police in Bali. The insinuation was that the police would take action if Tarsa and his family did not quickly return home. Gusti Bisana added, “Pak Sudirta lectured us on human rights for over three hours.”
At that meeting, Gusti Bisana told Sudirta that he could not comply with his group’s requests. He said that he would need to obtain the agreement of the community in a paruman (formal village meeting).

That evening, just after Sudirta and his followers left, news of the impending meeting and its agenda swept through the village. People came out of their houses and swarmed on the village street. Suddenly around a dozen people went into trance. The trance took strange forms of expression, such as roaring tigers; one villager rolled on the ground and howled like a dog. Gusti Bisana said, “Then the village priest went to the pura desa temple and consulted with the deity there. He said that the deity was angry and did not agree to the dissolving of the adat sanctions in regard to Tarsa and Susun’s twins.” The village dropped all plans of bringing the little family home before the end of the ritual term.

Soon a public discussion was under way, in letters to newspapers and on several websites, condemning the exile of I Nengah Tarsa and Ni Ketut Susun and their male-female twins. I Ketut Ngastawa, a law lecturer at Udayana University and secretary of the Center for Hindu Studies in Denpasar, regretted that a village could still consider male-female twins to be unclean and to punish them in such a manner. When I interviewed him, he said, “The ostracism of village members because they happen to have male-female twins cannot be allowed, because this is an infringement of human rights and religious teachings. To my knowledge, these practices have been outlawed by the provincial legislature of Bali (DPRD) in Paswara No.10/DPRD Bali/1951. A decision [Bhisama] by PHDI in 1971 and the regional law [Peraturan Pemerintah Daerah (Perda) Bali] No. 3 in 2002 recommended that village leaders adjust their awig-awig in accordance with religious and national law.”

Meanwhile, on the website, two articles appeared (on 18 April and 21 April) by the head (Ketua Umum) of the Buleleng chapter of PHDI, Ida Pandita Nabe Sri Bhagawan Dwija Warsa Nawa Sandhi.
The first, “Penjelasan ‘Kasus Kembar Buncing’ ” (which was sub-signed by I Made Dibia BA, Ketua and Nyoman Sedana Hantara Spd, Sekretaris) was an elucidation of the case—meticulously composed in outline form—which spelled out in clear and impartial language the background and details of the matter in Padangbulia. It sought to absolve the village of any accusations of ill treatment, feudalism or superstition, and it encouraged fellow Hindus to help the family in its voluntary ritual ordeal with contributions. It also said that the PHDI Buleleng chapter itself had made a donation of Rp1 million in cash, one hundred kilograms of raw rice, as well as coffee and sugar, to the parents of the twins.

One sub-paragraph of the statement emphasized in capital letters that “the parents of the twins DO NOT FEEL THEY HAVE BEEN OSTRACIZED by the villagers, that indeed they felt that they were being cared for by them, because every day and every night the villagers voluntarily took turns keeping them company and taking care of them at their place of exile”.
The second article, published only a few days later, had a surprisingly different tone. In response to public outcry against the village of Padangbulia and its practices in regard to the birth of male-female twins, Bhagawan Dwija apparently appealed to the critics’ sense of superiority.

It seems that I must explain to my friends in dharma about the case of male-female twins in Padangbulia. Do not expect the thinking of the people in Desa Padangbulia is like that of those of us who live in Jakarta, Surabaya, etc. To the contrary, Desa Padangbulia is a village in which not a single inhabitant has graduated from elementary school—that is, most villagers, old and young, do not have very broad minds. Everything that happens around them which, with their ‘limited’ power of thought, they cannot understand, they attribute to “the power of the Invisible World” and in situations such as this, rumors of ‘speech from the deity’ or ‘trance messages’ [‘rawos baas-pipis’] are utterly believed and accepted (swallowed whole).

Besides this, the unwritten adat laws of villages such as this is ‘suryak siu’, that is, going along with the crowd. If [one does] not, it’s dangerous; one can be ostracized. I and all of you who are educated and perceptive naturally reject the categorical sanctions against male-female twins, but in order to address the situation in the field, we must be careful. To bring fellow Hindus who are ‘backward’ into a more moderate view is not to be accomplished with a clap of the hands. It takes a long time and above all it requires raising the level of public education. If the people of Padangbulia were college graduates, perhaps this shocking case would not have happened.
PHDI does not want to take the position of ‘bulldozing’ patterns of thought that have existed in the minds of the people for centuries. Our responsibility is a strategy that at first does not challenge the path, in the sense that we follow that path but along the way we slowly turn that path in the right direction. If we [choose to] take drastic action, for instance stopping the exile of the parents of male-female twins, we certainly could, especially since village leaders have told us from time to time that they do not force these exiles but [go along with them] at the request of the particular families. But if at some later time there should be some incident, for example if the twins die, or if there is conflict or crop pests and so forth, those village people whose thinking is so limited can accuse PHDI of being the culprit.

Again, we are dealing with uneducated fanatics. For this reason, PHDI and the Buleleng Council of Villages must proceed very carefully. What we must address now is what we can do to save the lives of those two children, because right now their health is not very good.
Infant twins, according to doctors, are not as healthy as singly-born infants, because they are smaller and their supply of mother’s milk is limited. That has become the priority of us in Buleleng, not accusing each other of being wrong with arguments that smack of ‘text-book thinking.’ Those friends who already have experience in handling social cases will surely understand the position of PHDI.
[The next paragraph gives details for how to make a contribution to the ‘fund for the male-female twins of Padangbulia. … ] This money will be used to buy milk, pay for medical care, and support the parents of the twins during their exile.
Remember, we use the phrase ‘male-female twins’ [kembar buncing], not ‘wrongly born’ [manak salah]. That is different. [Translation from the Indonesian by Latitudes.]

When I asked Gusti Bisana what he thought of the accusations that the village of Padangbulia transgressed human rights, that they were backward in their adat sanctions against Tarsa and his family, his face went red. “I don’t care if certain parties think we transgressing human rights. I don’t understand human rights, I’m just the bendesa adat carrying out the wishes of the community,” he said.
“As I said before, I don’t understand human rights, but isn’t this treating them in a humanitarian way? The impure condition that has struck this family has struck all of us in Padangbulia. We all offer our help, every day and every night,” says Gusti Bisana. Then he adds, a bit sharply, “And many people of Padangbulia are college graduates. Nobody in our village is illiterate.”

Gusti Bisana says that he has begun to refuse interviews, and that the people of the village are now suspicious of reporters and angry at some of them who have come there. Meanwhile, ever since the villagers went into trance, Tarsa has been afraid to make any comment. On 27 April, one of the twins became ill and remains in the hospital as I write this in early May. Tarsa told me, “I don’t want to talk about these adat sanctions. I don’t know about human rights, for male-female twins or anyone else. What’s important to me is that my daughter gets well and that the twins will grow up healthy—and that as soon as we’ve finished these rituals I can go back to work and support my family.”