I See Fire. ManButur Suantara shares his experience and photography of the Ter-Teran fire ritual in the village of Jasri, Karangasem Bali on March 21st 2023.
A Quiet Morning
We started at 5 in the morning. The road is still dark. Street lights are off, and the wind from the car windows is unusually cold at this time of the morning. In some corners of the street, large statues on the intersections cast long shadows. There is no conversation in the car.. along the way, we sit quietly in the car together. There is a nice calm, while we head towards our first destination Duda Village in Karangasem Regency Bali.
It is a remote village, considered remote even today. The mist is coming down and blankets the landscape. You cannot see very far ahead, it is a soft curtain of grey. Out of the mist, figures begin to emerge. Moving about doing their daily routines. Here it is cool. The contrast is a little dream-like. Because we came in search of fire, yet, at least here there is no sign of heat.
After this first stop at Duda village, we still have some more hours on the road. Heading to our main destination further away. Closer to the coast. There are men dressed in checkered cloth sarongs (kain poleng), they are Pecalang (our traditional security guards). You can see them scattered throughout the streets. In front of some homes, I notice little signs indicating that the fire we are looking for is not far away. There are offerings, special ones that are made only when this ritual is about to be held.
Ter -Teran Jasri Karangasem
This ritual is known as Ter-Teran held in the village of Jasri in Karangasem Regency Bali. This ritual is held to keep the evil spirits away so that the silent day of Nyepi will be able to pass peacefully, quietly and with blessing.
For many years, as a photographer in Bali, I have gone on many trips that explore our culture, landscape and wildlife. There is something special about every ceremony. However, some are quite rare as they are unique to certain villages. This is something dynamic about Balis’ culture. Even though across the island, we share the same cultural roots, the ways that it is celebrated can vary from village to village. Some develop very unique interpretations, that also draw the attention of other local communities as well.
Ter- Teran, First Impressions
Ter Teran is held only once every two years. and this is spontaneous without staging or planning. In other villages, this type of fire war enactment is ritualised whereas the process is a little bit more free-flowing, here in Ter Teran in Jasri. The atmosphere is truly mystical. It is not something planned or scripted. There are not many tourists as this is not a common attraction. There is a wildness about it. It does not look like a demonstration set up to cater to an audience. The sacred energy of this ritual still feels very strong. The fire is ON.
A Photographers’ Perspective
From a photographer’s perspective (especially considering the technicalities) rituals involving fire are truly exciting but challenging. There are real elements of danger. There are precautions that you have to consider not only for yourself but for your colleagues and your equipment. Timing in this type of situation is not something you can control. Many aspects are very unpredictable. You can not foresee the logistics or positioning. You are not likely able to set up in advance to prepare for your shoot.
Equipment… Come Prepared
If we are talking specifically about achieving a quality image from this scenario, the right equipment plays a big part. For example, you are taking images at night time. You can not use your flash, as the village rules forbids it during the ceremony. So ,you have to consider that your subject is moving (both the people and the fire) in low light conditions. Your camera needs to have at least a good ISO sensitivity.
About Ter-Teran Fire Ritual
There are three stages during this fire war ritual. The first stage takes place during Sandikala, this is the time of day when time shifts. Like when the sun sets and day turns to night. The ritual we came to see begins when approximately fifty members of the village return from the beach (consisting of village elders, chiefs and priests). They are wearing kain poleng (checkered cloth) and a special headdress made with palm leaves on their foreheads. This group has gone to the beach to Mecaru (a cleansing ceremony) and as they return the villagers begin this fire war ritual by throwing fire at them. Electricity is cut off across the whole village. The power is down.
The group does not fight back, they are only allowed to defend themselves by covering themselves with prokpak (made of coconut leaves) shaped like a small straw broom. They cannot fight back until they pass the three phases of the ritual, determined by the course they must follow from the beach to the Temple., towards the Pura Bale Agung Temple.
The Purpose of Fire
The villagers believe that as they return from the Sea after the Mecaru ceremony, the villagers believe that spirits are still following them as they return to the village. It is the spirits trying to come back that are being held at bay by the fire. This is the purpose of throwing fire at the group returning from the beach.
On this return journey from the coast to the temple, throughout the three phases of the journey,.. something interesting happens during the last stage. On this last leg of the journey, this is where the fire war erupts between the two groups that make up the village of Jasri. These groups within the village are Jasri Kelod and Jasri Kaler. North and South.
I See Fire
The war begins here. What we mean by war is a true battle with fire. Both sides are now throwing fire at each other. The purpose of which we can not say. Perhaps this is in honour of something specific in the village’s history. It is possible sometime in the past there may have been disagreements between the two sides. Perhaps this re-enactment of fire war is something believed to keep the peace between the north and south.
The Heat of Fire to Nurture Harmony
One of the rules in this village during this ritual, whatever happens, regardless of burns and scars or wounds you may receive, it is forbidden to be angry or to feel vengeful. It is something you must accept gracefully and learn from it. You might say that rituals of this nature in Bali, those that have ‘warfare’ in their re-enactments, have a deeper purpose to instil in the community patience, acceptance and humility. The teachings that are passed down through the war rituals, teach not for victory, but for peace and camaraderie. it is ultimately a ritual to nurture and safeguard harmony amongst the people and especially with Nature.
A Photographer in Chaos
I got hit 8 times. There is no time to focus on which person you want to capture, and there is no time to think about composition You shoot and press the shutter. It is chaos. Fire is in the air like giant fireflies. You have to be brave to get close enough to a few good captures. It comes with risk. But it’s hard to explain, there is a euphoric feeling, and there is a mixture of all these emotions. You do feel fear, and excitement but also happiness.ManButur Suantara
Being part of this ceremony even if you are not from this village, is really something that opens your eyes. There are many things that happens in the world. There are many different ways that people express their honour and faith to Nature and God.. There are many different ways cultures teach us how to be better at being human.ManButur Suantara
Photography of Ter Teran Ceremony is part of a social and cultural trip. It can also be said to document traditional village life. in Bali, popular photography is centred on tourism, so interesting travel destinations have become a trending item amongst photography tours as well. In view of this, perhaps we should note some important considerations. Photography trips can be a wonderful shared experience. It widens community awareness of the different practices around us. There is much more access to learning about different cultures and traditions in foreign places.
However, we should be mindful that communities open up their doors and may share something sacred with the world. We have an individual responsibility to make sure our involvement is a positive and respectful one. You may be there for the exciting subject for your photography. Perhaps you are there as a guide or as a guest. You may happen to be there by random chance. Regardless of the reason, our global world is becoming smaller and smaller.
Rituals like this carry generations of tradition and complex meaning. As a guest, we can do our part by respecting the meaning behind the ritual and celebrating the beauty of our world’s diversity. It seems inappropriate to have a growing audience who are simply looking for a spectacle.
Thank you to Sriwijaya Camera Denpasar for their equipment. My Trip Indonesia Daniel Dekko, Flora Rikin and Krsna Raharja for sharing in this experience.
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