A plate of skulls where visitors can leave donations for grave maintenance. Photo: David DeVoss
A plate of skulls where visitors can leave donations for grave maintenance. Photo: David DeVoss

The vast pool of magma bubbling under Bali’s Mt. Agung continues to erupt daily sending plumes of volcanic ash into the air. The volcanic activity closed the island’s airport and disrupted its tourism industry. Most of the 100,000 Balinese forced to evacuate soon may be able to return to their homes. But for the 300 residents of Trunyan, a tiny village at the base of the volcano, life as they knew it may be forever changed.

I first heard about Trunyan in the 1970s when I was a Time correspondent in Saigon. According to local lore, the village was “discovered” by war photographer Sean Flynn, whose swashbuckling reputation equaled that of his Hollywood father, Errol. Flynn heard rumors of a mysterious people, unwelcoming of outsiders, residing in the shadow of an active volcano on the far side of Lake Batur, a water filled caldera created by a volcanic eruption 25,000 years ago. What he found after crossing the lake was a settlement of primitive Bali Aga who called themselves “the original Balinese.”

Unlike Balinese Hindus elsewhere, the Bali Aga did not memorialize the dead with elaborate cremations.  Instead, they placed their deceased kinsmen beneath a large tree and let nature reclaim the bodies. In my imagination, Trunyan seemed both dreadful and exotic at the same time.

On my first R&R outside Vietnam, I went to Bali, rented a motorcycle and headed to the Balinese highland town of Kintamani. That night from a losman veranda I stared across the vast lake and watched Mt. Agung spit fire into the night sky, imagining what it must be like to live under the volcano.

Events in Vietnam cut short my vacation and it wasn’t until more than 20 years later that I returned to Kintamani determined to finally meet the Bali Aga.  After walking to Lake Batur I found a man with a hollowed out prahu willing to take me across the lake to Trunyan for $2.

It took the better part of an hour for us to paddle across the lake. Upon reaching the distant shore, Trunyan was barely visible through the vines. I walked up a muddy trail through a bird-filled jungle and arrived at a traditional Balinese village whose portal was graced by a plate full of human skulls.

Despite their ominous welcome mat, the people of Trunyan were more indifferent than hostile to a stranger in their midst. Neither did they object when I asked to visit their ancestors. A group of young men standing just outside the village wall with nothing to do escorted me to a row of open graves beneath a massive tree. And then they walked away with nary a glance at the camera I extracted from my bag.

I was breathing a sigh of relief when one of the teenagers turned back toward me and said with utmost seriousness, “Before you go don’t forget to leave a cash offering beside the skulls.”

Left beneath the tree with my boatman, who quickly excused himself and headed back to his prahu, I began walking toward the graves through a landscape littered with bleached femurs, tibias and well gnawed vertebrae. More disconcerting than the piles of bones were the yapping of village dogs that clearly forestalled any semblance of eternal peace.

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Bamboo enclosures where the bodies are placed so they can decompose into the earth. A skull can be seen in the centre of the photograph. Photo: David DeVoss

The graves themselves were surrounded by cane enclosures of the sort that might support vegetable vines in villages further from the volcano. Inside each reed crib lay a skeleton slowly sinking into the jungle floor.

I’ve thought a lot about Trunyan recently. There’s always a possibility the village might recover if the volcano becomes dormant. The spot where Mt. Agung slopes into Lake Batur is simply too beautiful to be abandoned forever. But the Bali Aga’s distinctive culture can’t survive away from the relative isolation that allowed it to exist. If Trunyan’s people ever return they may find their burial customs no longer fit into Bali’s rapidly changing world.

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