The Bissu From Segiri: The Guardian of the Ancient Bugis Tradition

The Bissu From Segiri: The Guardian of the Ancient Bugis Tradition The Bissu From Segiri: The Guardian of the Ancient Bugis Tradition - Photo: Bary Kusuma
In a distant period, Pangkajene dan Kepulauan was once the center of the Kingdom of Siang, an ancient kingdom in South Sulawesi. The traces can be seen from the existence of bissu community who became the heir of the ancient Bugis culture.
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Word: Ayu Arman

A ritual named Sangiang Serri was held that afternoon in Segeri. In a white-painted house, various offerings were outspread to fill the room. Seven chickens were slaughtered. An assortment of fish was cooked. Glutinous rice of seven colors was presented neatly on the tray.

Various Bugis snacks were served, ranging from onde-onde, leppe-leppe, apang, baje tejjaji, wenno, kaluku lolo, up to bokong. The scent of incense covered the whole room.

Puang Matoa Bissu Nani, a bissu leader in golden dress and black headgear, sat cross-legged accompanied by Puang Lolo Bissu Juleha and Bissu Lolo Eka. They dressed up prominently. Their eyebrows were bold. Their eyelids were stroked with eye shadow. Their lips were smeared with lipstick. Their faces were thickly powdered. On each of their backs a badik was tucked.

They are the bissu. People who are considered to have the ability to communicate with the Gods. Bissu becomes the link between humans and the Gods in the Upper World.

A bissu is a calabai¬ —a man who has a female nature. However, there are also real female bissu who usually come from high nobility. It is not easy to tell which bissu is male and which bissu is female. In everyday life, they look like women with feminine dress and makeup, but still carrying masculine attributes.

Not all calabai are able to become bissu. Usually, those who becomes bissu will get magical calls through dreams. After receiving the calls, the person must report to the bissu leader to be ordained and to perform some rituals of abstinence before bearing the title as bissu.

One of processions of the abstinence ritual is being shrouded for 7 days 7 nights and given only coconut water for drinking. After becoming a bissu, he also undergoes daily rituals, such as reverently studying sureq or La Galigo chronicle, praying, dressing politely, maintaining behavior, and continuing to purify spiritually.

To maintain spiritual holiness, a bissu must not be adhere to biological and sexual desires. Therefore, a bissu is required to always be holy and clean as the term attached to them. Bissu is a Bugis word which means bessi or clean.

The only explanation about their existence is contained in the La Galigo chronicle. That oldest book of Bugis culture contains information about the importance of bissu for the sustainability of the kingdom in the pre-Islamic era. In addition to spiritual advisors of the kingdom, bissu is the duty bearer to connect the Underworld (human) and the Upper world (Gods).

They play an important role in traditional ceremonies such as ceremonies of king inauguration, births, deaths, and agriculture. In each traditional ceremony, they will perform Mabbisu dance or a mystical dance by encircling sacred objects which are believed to be residences where ancestral spirits resides.

At each peak of the dance, they perform maggiri movements; thrusting keris into body parts, such as stomach, palms, and throat. The people of South Sulawesi believe that when the body of a bissu stabbed by the keris does not bleed, ancestral spirits have already possessed the bissu. Thus, people believe their appeal is heard by their ancestors and they hope the gods give them their blessing.

Along with the passage of time and the destruction of the Bugis kingdoms, their existence has been marginalized. Especially in the 1950s when the Darul Islam /the Islamic Army of Indonesia (DI / TII) led by Kahar Muzakkar held Operation Tobat that feared many bissu. At that time, many bissu were slaughtered. Some others ran into hiding. In Pangkep, there was a cave that they made as a hiding place. The place has still been there. The distance is about two to three hours on foot from Sigeri District.

After the DI / TII rebellion fire was extinguished, another obstacle appeared, namely Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI (the Indonesian Communist Party)). Although not doing a mass slaughter, all bissu are requested to be men again as they should. They were also regarded as godless since they still believed in the teachings of gods and animism. Therefore, slowly the existence of bissu began to be displaced by religious leaders.

Currently, there are around 40 of active bissu in South Sulawesi. They are scattered in Segeri, Bone, and Soppeng. Bissu first descended in the land of Luwu, then they dispersed to the royal areas.

In Bone, was known Bissu Patappuloe (the Forty Bissu) who was forced to run out of Bone due to being pressed by clerical groups and gangs. Some of them later settled in Segeri, Pangkep. Currently, there are four areas which become fixed residential of bissu, namely Soppeng, Wajo, Bone, and Pangkep (Segeri).

The bissu community centered in Segeri is a Tolotang adherent. They believe in what is called Dewata Seuwwa (the one and only God). Tolotang belief belongs to the local community and has been passing down from generation to generation, has lived and developed by the next generation. The original culture that is imbued with belief in the One God is based on a cosmological view of life.

Segeri occupies a special position among Bugis bissu in South Sulawesi. In Segeri, there is a storage of heritage objects from the relics of the Bugis kingdom, or known as Arajang house. This is where bissu live. Only bissu in Segeri are called Bissu Dewata. The others are not so called. Therefore, if there is a royal event in other districts, it is the bissu of Segeri who are called.

It is said that there has been a story about the loss of a sacred object of the Kingdom of Bone. If the object was not found, famine would befall the kingdom. The king then ordered 40 bissu to search the sacred object. Once, the object was found in Segeri. However, the local people did not want to return it to Bone. Bissu—as the guardians of heirlooms—finally chose to stay there to date to keep the sacred object.

The heirloom is a plow of rice fields sizing up to 5 meters long. The plow is neatly kept to date and it can only be taken out for the Mappalili traditional ceremony of. This ritual is popular in Bugis cultural society to start the rice planting season in Segeri. This ceremony serve as well as a guide for farmers to start the planting season. Formerly, the Mappalili ceremony in Segeri lasted for 40 days-40 nights, then changed into 7 days- 7 nights, and now it is only 3 days-3 nights.

Come in November to Segeri. You will see the excitement of the Bugis Pangkep community to reverently welcome the planting season led by the bissu by reading a mantra called Mattesu Arajang, begging the blessing of the Gods in the sky.

According to the bissu, only with the blessing of the Gods the farmers and the community may obtain good crops. This ritual is believed to bring a blessing to make the harvest abundant. Therefore, Mattesu Arajang event is considered sacred and continues to be preserved by Bugis Pangkep society to this moment.

Mattesu Arajang is waking up the magical plower to start the Mappalili event. The object wrapped in white cloth has already been hundreds of years old since circa 1770s. And, every year is always held the ritual of washing this historic object.

After the cloth is removed, one by one all bissu bathe this rice field plow; this activity is then followed by Arajang Ri’alu rite, namely parading the magical plow by encircling the village with the accompaniment of traditional music. The customary leaders who bring Arajang wave red and white flags. Arajang is paraded with a wisdom rite. Parading Arajang to the rice fields is the peak moment of the series of events of stepping into the fields.
The Segeri society today is a transitional society. They accept modernity with open arms, but also hold their traditional beliefs to the best. They cultivate land with a tractor, but still faithfully burn the incense. Modernity does not change their beliefs and their closeness to nature. They need technology just to replace power, but not as a conversion of trust.

Although the majority of the society is Muslim, they still believe that this nature consists of three layers of banua, namely Botting Langik (Upper World), Kale Lino (Middle World), and Paratiki (Underworld). In Bugis’ human cosmology, the three banua are interrelated.

To avoid particular catastrophes in the Middle-earth, such as infectious diseases, pests, drought, and so on, they perform ceremonies of worshipping the gods that dwell in Botting Langik. And, the worship is led by bissu—the group considered as the only communication operator between humans and gods through traditional ritual ceremonies using the language of deity/heaven (basa Torilangi).

Just like that afternoon, from Mrs. Liani’s house (56 years old), one of Segeri residents who claims to get a message from their ancestors, both through dreams and in a conscious state in the middle of the night, to perform Sangiang Serri (earth fertility) ritual.

From her house came the sound of drums beating. Event the sound of a large gong was heard. A man rubbed a gamarru on a plate to make a noise. There were those who also rubbed two bulo pangilu that produced mystical tone. The smell of frankincense was strong.

Puang Matoa Bissu Nani, shutting his eyes, sat in front of the heirloom wrapped in golden cloth, then chanted mantras and prayers to the gods. The praise was delivered in the heavenly language by the bissu to the Gods wholeheartedly until the atmosphere became more solemn. The drum was played again. Bissu Nani stood followed by two escorts. The Manggitik dance then started.

The bissu stomped hard along with the rhythm of the drum. Followed by a loud cry from their mouths. They danced with wild movements and powerful pounding, but their faces looked calm. The bissu were dancing while reciting mantras in Torilangi language. Then, they pulled the badik out of its sheath and thrusted it into their neck, chest, palm of the hand without getting hurt or bleeding.

That means the ancestor’s spirit has possessed the bissu. Thus, their appeal is heard by the ancestors and they hope that the gods give them blessing.

A few minutes later, the badik was sheathed back. The dance stopped along with the cease of the sound of a drum beating. The presenting Segeri society then were scrambled to shake the bissu to get the blessing of salvation.

Currently, the number of Segeri’s bissu diminishes. However, the bissu generation of Segeri continues to take care of them with joy. It is because being a bissu actually becomes a “spiritual mother” who sows the seeds of affection to the surrounding nature. In fact, his presence becomes the alignment of the harmony of life, as embodied in the ancient manuscript I La Galigo that bissu are able to reduce natural disasters and create a harmonious world.