Caci Whip Fighting - more than just a traditional Manggarai dance
Written by Ms. Christiane Moser
Two men. A whip. A shield. The vibrating sound of drums and gongs. A sharp hit. Blood.
Caci, a traditional ritual whip fighting dance, is a major element of Manggarai cultural identity. Being a unique and aesthetic delight for the spectator, Caci performances are an attraction to foreign as well as domestic visitors of Manggarai.
Caci is played by two male adversaries, one of them mostly coming from another village to compete. The spectators who support their favourite party by cheerfully shouting out their encouragement make Caci a very lively event. Caci equipment, consisting of a whip, a shield, masks and sticks, is bursting with symbolism: The aggressor’s whip is made out of rattan, with a leather-covered handle. It stands symbolically for the male, the phallic element, the father and the sky. The defender’s round shield, on the other hand, represents the female, the womb and the earth. It is usually made out of bamboo, rattan and covered with buffalo skin. As these meanings suggest, the male and the female elements are united whenever the whip hits the shield – a unity which is an essential premise for giving live. The players’ heads are covered by a wooden or leather mask wrapped with cloth and goat hair hanging down on its back side. The two horns of the mask represent the strength of the water buffalo. For additional protection from the whiplash, the defender holds a stick in his left hand.
While playing Caci, the men wear the traditional songket (woven cloth) over a pair of regular pants. A belt of bells worn on the hip and strings of bells strapped on the ankles give the fighters in action a peculiar sound. The upper body remains bare and uncovered, leaving it exposed to the whip strikes.
After a starting signal, the whip and shield duel begins. The dancers shuffle their feet and raise the spectators’ tension by running back and forth towards each other. The aggressor tries to hit his opponent’s body with the whip. However being hit does not automatically mean losing the game - it is more important which part of the body to hit to make one a winner: A hit in the face or on the head means losing game; a hit on the back, though, is a good sign, promising that next year’s harvest will be prosperous.
The roles of aggressor and defender are changed after every whip strike, and after four trials, a new pair of opponents will take their chance. Even though being a playful event, the purpose of Caci is also sacrificial: the blood that is shed from the wounds caused by the whiplash is an offering to the ancestors who will ensure the fertility of the land.
Originally, Caci used to be performed mainly during Penti, a festival which is held after the harvest to end the old agricultural year and start the new cycle. Being part of the integral ceremonial and ritual context of Penti, Caci never was performed as a standalone event. The Caci performances lasted at least one day, more often two or three days, always accompanied by drum and gong music. The preparations for Caci required many fixed ritual procedures accompanied by animal sacrifice. Other occasions for Caci performances included marriage, birth and funeral ceremonies. The functions of Caci were manifold: Besides being a sociable event and a way to fulfil obligations of offering to the ancestors, it is also an opportunity for young men to prove their virility and – in the past - a means of conflict management for disputing villages.
With changing social and agricultural circumstances and the increased interest of domestic and international tourists in this cultural attraction of Manggarai, Caci performances have by now also turned into a business for local cultural cooperatives. As most visitors do not want to spend a whole day or more watching Caci, the length of the performances is drastically reduced, showing only fragments of the process. Some people criticize that Caci fights performed on demand are alienated from their original ritual and ceremonial context and thus lose their authenticity. However, the growing interest of foreign visitors definitely increased the pride and self-consciousness of the Manggarai people in a fascinating element of their culture.
Opportunities to see Caci in its original context:
• During Penti, the Agricultural New Year ceremony. Penti festivals usually take place in the dry season between July and November, depending on the region. Nowadays most villages are celebrating Penti on a five-year interval. If you happen to be in Manggarai in the dry season, just ask the local people if there is an upcoming Penti festival.
• If you are lucky, you get invited to a marriage where there are Caci performances.
Opportunities to see organized Caci:
• Todo village, about 50 km southwest of Ruteng, offers Caci performances to visitors. Please contact Pak Titus, a government officer and original resident of Todo, at least one day in advance for more information: +62 8137984914. To go to Todo takes about 2 hours by car or 3 hours by public transport (bis kayu). It is also possible to go there by motorbike, but be aware that the last part of the road is quite a challenge. Take the main road west for about 30 km, then follow the sign to the small rugged road and enjoy the nice view over river valleys and rice terraces on the way to the village.
• Visitors also have the opportunity to see a Caci performance in Melo village, located on the Trans Flores Highway about 20 km on the road from Labuan Bajo to Ruteng. It can be reached by car, motorbike or public transport. Contact Pak Yoseph, Ugis, the leader of the local cultural cooperative: +62-81353778858.
• If you prefer to have a Caci performance within a guided tour, contact Pak Leonardus Nyoman from Flores Exotic Tours (www.floresexotictours.com; +628123662110).
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