Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Puputans of Bali

March 31st, 2009 · 10 Comments

puputanMicrokhan’s few loyalists know that suicide is a frequent topic of interest ’round here. No surprise, then, that in the midst of reading Miguel Covarrubias’s Island of Bali, I was struck by the Mexican artist/ethnographer’s account of an infamous 1906 ritual mass suicide. Students of Balinese history (of which I’m certainly not one) are already quite familiar with the phenomenon of puputan, so apologies for serving up a familiar dish. But for those of us less acquainted with the self-slaughtering ways of defeated Rajas, it’s worth reading Covarrubias’s description.

The quickie background is that the Raja of Denpasar realized that he could not withstand a Dutch assault, and knew that surrender would lead to exile. Since death outside of Bali was considered a one-way ticket to Hell, the Raja instead chose to slowly march his entire court into the teeth of Dutch firepower, while wearing their finest clothes and jewels. The results were not pretty, to say the least:

The wives of the Raja stabbed themselves over his body, which lay buried under the corpses of the princes and princesses who had dragged themselves over to die upon the body of their king. When the horrified [Dutch] soldiers stopped firing, the women threw handfulsof gold coins, yelilng that it was payment for killing them; and if the liberating bullet did not come soon enough, the maddened women stabbed themselves. When they had nearly all been killed, a new group approached, led by the Raja’s brother, a twelve-year-old boy who could hardly carry his spear. The interpreters again tried to stop them, but were ignored, and they were all shot down.

The account fascinates because, like so many modern folks, it’s impossible for me to imagine participating in a similar scheme. How many of us would choose, by our own free will, to give up life for the sake of a man we considered akin to a living god? Not for any great cause, mind you, but rather solely for the honor of dying alongside the one we venerate? Methinks one of modernity’s great achievements is the squelching of this mindset, which ranks as the very antithesis of individuality (a value we Americans prize above virtually every other). Yet Microkhan can’t help but admire the fortitude of the puputan‘s victims. Perhaps we’re hard-wired to be awed by self-sacrifice, no matter how seemingly irrational.

More on the 1906 Denpasar puputan, including some vintage photos, here.

(h/t Stranger in Paradise)

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10 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    There’s a really interesting book on the subject of spiritual gurus called “Feet of Clay”. The underlying thesis of the book is that some people more than others need a defined structure to their life and the universe. When a charismatic individual or movement claims to have such a system, there will always be some people swayed by the ideas. Hence how we end up with so many people following Jim Jones to their graves. Or Freud for that matter. Except without the mass suicide bit.

  • Persia

    Reminds me of Masada, where tourists go every year to honor their sacrifice.

    But I think you’re wrong that the impulse is gone. Jonestown and the Branch Dividians come to mind.

  • Persia

    Jordan, I should’ve refreshed before I posted!

    I also think there’s a measure of crowd hysteria to it– the impulse becomes ‘contagious.’

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Y’know, Jonestown immediately came to mind when writing this post, but I don’t think it’s totally applicable. For one thing, I reckon a fair number of People’s Temple members didn’t actually want to participate in Rev. Jones act of “revolutionary suicide.” (Hence the armed guards forcing folks to drink the Flavor-Aid.) But even the true believers were dying less for Jones than the ideals he espoused–or at least the ideals he used to espouse, before becoming a paranoid speed freak in the Guyanese jungle.

    As for the Branch Davidians, I’m still up in the air as to who started those fires. “Rules of Engagement” makes an anti-ATF case worth checking out. It’s also marred by annoying one-sidedness. (I thought they were gonna pin the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping on Janet Reno at any moment.)

  • Captured Shadow

    Interesting series on suicide. The WHO link you gave earlier left me wondering about the Sri Lanka statistics. They are out of date but seem like they don’t fit with the others. Super high rates for women, were they all Tamil Tiger suicide bombers? Pretty high literacy and pretty religious too. Is it an Asian Women thing? Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan are about twice as high as Bulgaria and Ukraine for women.

  • Marisa

    I don’t know if they are killing themselves out of love and devotion or if it also fear the invading army. The women, especially queens and princesses who had lived sheltered and priviledged lives, were surely facing rape and watching their children be brutalized or killed. I don’t think it was a great act of faith, but an acceptance that there are fates worse than death.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Re: Sri Lanka rate–yeah, there has to be some cultural overlay that affects the rate. I guess Japan is the classic case. Despite all the LTTE suicide bombings, I don’t think there are nearly enough to explain the discrepancy. Definitely fodder for another post–I plan on owning this whole suicide thing.

    Marisa: I don’t know enough about the Dutch conquest of Bali, despite having read the Covarrubias book. But my (admittedly amateur) takeaway is that the Dutch weren’t big on raping/pillaging there. I’m not saying they were sweethearts, but the Dutch were on a Ferengi groove–all about making money. Also, it should be noted that the Raja and his court would have been exiled, like the other defeated Rajas on the island. Covarrubias is pretty clear about this being the other option.

    That said, my Dutch East Indies history is pretty shaky. More reading needs to be done, esp. since my (fingers crossed) next book is partially set in Surabaya.

  • Persia

    But people don’t have to be at a high rate of risk that something bad’s going to happen to believe it– Jonestown, again, was a case where people may have felt there were fates worse than death. (And yes, there was almost certainly coersion involved in some cases– but the fact that there’s no record of coersion in Bali doesn’t mean that there was no level of coersion involved.)

    @Captured Shadow: Remember Asian countries are generally non-Christian and so are less likely to think of suicide as something that will condemn their souls to a lifetime of hell. I think that makes a big difference in contemporary suicide rates.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Persia: Good point re: our lack of knowledge regarding coercion. Covarrubias’s account is not first hand, and it bears noting that he was an ethnographer/artist rather than a historian. There are no endnotes, so his sources for this anecdote are not clear.

    That said, the account is consistent with others I’ve read. Sounds as if the Raja planned the procession pretty carefully, and that it was akin to a celebratory parade until its last, fatal moments. If there was coercion, perhaps it was more of the peer-pressure variety, rather than soldiers ordering the court’s nobles to march to their deaths. (“C’mon, all the cool courtesans are doing it…”)

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