Would you give up your gender and sexuality in order to talk to God? This is what came forward to me right at the cross-road of generations, local shamanic belief and Islam in South Sulawesi.
Although I found many more thrilling aspects here in South Sulawesi, my main interest of visit was the holy personality called the bissu. These local shamans connect not only the divine and the mundane, but also the femininity and masculinity, on a very real grounds. Namely, most probably the bissu is also a calabai, locally, or a waria in Indonesia, which is globally rather known as a transgender. Bissu is seen as the 5th category of gender here in Bugis culture, the para-gender, that somehow accumulates all other genders in the society.
We were driving across the dirty and slippery village roads with Eka to give one old bissu a visit already on the very first day I was around. There were mosques sitting in the bushes every 400m or so as we were driving. The mosques resembled me some cosmic stations, and indeed they were often decorated just as Chistmas trees, bling-bling.
One of these simple Pippi Longstocking’s style of houses a bissu Nani was living. S/he was pulling together her shirt while I entered the house and I noticed hir breasts. But surely s/he was born as a man. On the wall there were some photographs of hir dressed in a bissu’s ritual costume. This was shaded by the huge fake photograph of Mecca in golder frames, which are the very common elements of interior design here around Sulawesi and Kalimantan, somehow less apparent in Java, which I think just has to do with current fashion and market availability.
I was handing hir over a plate covered with necessary gifts for the spirit. There were some betel nuts, special leaves, some cigarettes and a note of 20 000 rp. We also brought a bunch of bananas. You can’t go to meet a shaman without thinking about the hunger of the spirits, you need to bring an offering.
Bissu invited us to hir room of the spirit, which usually most bissus have in their household. The room was fully dedicated to serve the spirit, an altar was in the middle and there were all kinds of little baskets, rocks and candles around, which s/he seemed to know the meaning, and perhaps there wasn’t anything more complicated than the bare fact that these were all to reinforce the communication with the dewata or the world of spirit. But as we started to talk with Nani, and Eka seemed to be really anxious and not too much at the level of transcendence, Nani said that today is not the best day to have further conversation.
“Why not today?” I asked.
“Because today it’s Friday, and this is the holy day in Moslem. Better we talk some other day,” Nani explained.
“Is there a conflict between these worlds?”
“The spirit does not really want to come out on Fridays…”
Eka stood almost immediately up and started to make a move. That is her common way of restlessness. But I was confused.
The curvy dagger called kris is the most important accessory for bissu
I got even more confused when the next day we were visiting another old bissu. This time without the presence of Eka. She somehow didn’t want to come. The bissu couldn’t believe that there could be any conflict between the world of dewata and the world of Islam.
“There’s no problem with Friday to communicate with the spirit,” s/he said. Apparently s/he was the kind of leader of the bissu community here, not that it would place hir spiritual capabilities anywhere higher, but this respected bissu must know something about the most crucial issues – and the relationship between old local belief and mainstream Islam is definitely one of them.
Here most of the bissus also go to mosques to make their daily prayers. And besides, they can always use their personal tempat dewata (the place of the spirit) in their household to get in touch with the God. Almost all bissus I talked to agreed that these worlds are actually the same, just the way to reach them is different. And I have to admit I agree with it, because I understand it (and this is almost the only reason why I tolerate institutionalized religion – most probably it can get you in touch with the same transcendence). And here the bissu even gives blessings to those going to a pilgrimage to Mecca!
I only later got to realize what might actually be the issue, why bissu Nani didn’t really want to talk to me that day when I went there with Eka. Because this very Eka sometimes likes to write a word bissu behind her name, just as she enjoys the friendship of the local authorities. And yet she’s a busy businesswaria and happily in love with her husband.
Once she was trying to get into the bissu community, she was learning about it, I later hear some rumors around the village. But how couldthe younger generations of the waria possibly dump there daily carefree lifestyle and literally give up of their gender and sexuality in order to talk to God?!
“This is when I was a bissu,” said the young waria and proudly showd me the picture.