Caci, Spectacular Dances of the Manggarai People of Western Flores

Two bare chested Manggarai men circle each other warily in the arena. Both wear bright head dress and horned helmets with beautiful Flores ikat covering their lower bodies. One man is armed with a wicked leather whip over a couple of metres long.

The other man attempts to defend himself with a large buffalo hide shield and a curved stick. As drums pulse and gongs sound in the background, the crowd in on edge. Bells attached to the combatants’ waists nervously jingle as they square off. Suddenly the arm of the man clutching the whip clutching the whip is flung back and flies forward as the leather whip cracks over his opponent. This is caci – the whip dancing duel of western Flores.

With many other participants looking on, each “round” of the duel involves the whip wielding warrior lashing out at his opponent who desperately attempts to protect himself with his shield and stick. When the whip strikes bare flesh, the two exchange weapons and they continue with roles reversed. Soon two other combatants step into the ring and the “dance” continues with many participants over several hours.

Spectacular Dances of the Manggarai People

Music, pageantry and displays of bravado are a bit part of caci, with the whole performance carried out over several hours. The pulsating local music, the “ooh” and “aahs” of the crowd, and the frequent rousing speeches of the combatants attesting to their bravery and the cracking of the whip continue well into the afternoon. As an observer, it was extraordinary to me how the whole dangerous performance was conducted over many hours entirely with good cheer and humour by the crowd and participants alike. Multiple welts, bruises and a bit of blood did not put a dampener of the day of anyone, not even the wounded.

The seeming contradictions of this extraordinary ritual are exemplified the times and occasions when it takes place. Despite its inherent violence, and its underlying ancient philosophy of desiring the spirits of the ancestors to be appeased by the spilling of blood, such duels usually take place on happy occasions like Independence Day celebrations on August 17, and even weddings. Even the resulting welts and scars are a cause of joy. They are said to greatly improve their owner’s prospects with the Manggarai ladies. If you want to see caci, the best and most reliable time to see it is on or around Independence Day.

caci – the whip dancing duel of western Flores
The head dress represents the horns of a buffalo and Caci participants are always smiling

Flores is one of the most beautiful and culturally interesting islands in Indonesia

A trip of several days from Bali or Jakarta to Labuanbajo in east Flores is well worth the effort. Apart from seeing Ruteng and experiencing the Manggarai culture, the Komodo dragons on nearby Pulau Rinca and Pulau Komodo are easily reached. Labuanbajo (where the airport has cleverly renamed itself Komodo), has excellent diving, snorkelling, boating and cruising, or just lying on clean and pristine white sand beaches nearby. The seafood in Labuanbajo is exceptional.

If you ever needed convincing that Flores is one of the most beautiful and culturally interesting islands in Indonesia, the four hour drive from Labuanbajo to Ruteng will be most instructive. Leaving the dry countryside around Labuanbajo, the winding Trans Flores Highway climbs in to the mountains, passing jungles, rivers, brilliant flowering trees and plants, neat gardens, rice terraces and coffee plantations as it does so. The Portuguese well named this island the “Cape of Flowers”.

Like the journey from Makassar to Toraja, the culture changes from the Bugis and Bajo Islamic influences prevalent on the coast to the predominantly Catholic highlands. The appearance of the people changes with the scenery – up here there are many people with curly hair wearing ikat sarongs – the patterns on each sarong being distinctive to an area of Flores.

With its cool climate, beautiful scenery, strong traditional culture and fascinating villages, Ruteng itself and the surrounding region around are each well worth exploring for a couple of days. It was in small village near here that the remains of the “hobbit man” were discovered just a few years ago. Indeed, in the world of natural history, Flores and the area around Ruteng is a kind of “lost world”. Here and on the surrounding islands creatures developed into giant or dwarf species. Look no further than the hobbit, the dwarf elephants of Flores or Komodo Dragons – now the world’s largest lizards

If physical activity is your scene, you can take a hike in the morning cold around the villages or to one of the surrounding volcanoes. Gunung Ranaka, the highest peak in Flores, is about 15 kilometres from Ruteng. From the end of the road, it is a 5 kilometre steep hike to the smoking summit. The views before the afternoon clouds come in provide spectacular views across to the ocean on a clear day.

Lake Ranamese is a stunning turquoise-blue lake set in the forest on the road to Bajawa. It is worth a trip out there to see the brilliant colour of the water, take in the magnificent view bit of fishing.

A number of very traditional villages are accessible from Ruteng. Many are famous for their ikat. Some villages still have the square with a round stone altar in their centre. A rumah adat, with its conical palm covered roof, and adorned with buffalo ornaments can still be seen in some villages today. Interesting villages include Todo – a traditional village and original seat of the raja. Waereno has Flores’s oldest rumah adat (traditional house). The drive to Reo is amazing with spectacular views over rice fields among the hills.

There is plenty for those wishing to do some shopping or just looking for an oleh oleh. The markets are colourful events providing great photographic opportunities. They sell all the usual fruits, vegetables and all kind of animals, but also wonderful Manggarai style Ikat which is noted for its strong blacks and colourful embroidery.

While the most of the Manggarai people are Catholic, the old ways and traditions are strong here. Local ceremonies are often a mixture of Catholicism and Manggarai traditon. Rituals such as Pentl, a local tradition celebrated in August, are still celebrated here. In Pentl, which is commemoration of the spirits of the ancestors, pigs and buffaloes are slaughtered in sacrifice

It is wonderful that the old spectacular traditions like caci live on in such interesting places. The beauty of this extraordinary island, its amazing traditions and the friendliness of its people makes any trip here a wonderful experience.


caci – the whip dancing duel of western Flores – Temporaktif

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