In the early 1990s I worked in a large plantation in the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. The plantation was situated south of Lake Toba, and was in hilly terrain.
All the executives' houses were constructed in a straight line on top of a low hill. My house was the second one in the row. In the front of our houses were a few rows of oil palm trees. After this the hill sloped off into a valley. As it was too steep to plant on this slope, it became covered over with undergrowth and small jungle trees. The valley itself was a riot of all sorts of tropical creepers, weeds and larger trees. On the other side of the valley, the slope was terraced and planted with rubber trees.
As I was new to the country then, and just learning the language, I kept mostly to myself after work and pored over an Indonesian dictionary every night. Other than satellite TV, we had no other entertainment. On weekdays we hit the sack early as we had to get up at five the next morning for work.
Even from my first week there, I noted that there was some sort of celebration or prayer meeting every Wednesday evening straight opposite my home. Although I saw no one, I concluded that this must be the case, as precisely at half past six, I heard the sound of metal drums. This sound went on for about half an hour or one hour, and then stopped as suddenly as it began. When I asked my house help as to what was going on there, she just shrugged her shoulders and did not reply. I thought it was impolite or improper to ask about such matters, and did not bother to question her about it anymore.
As I got to know the plantation better, my curiosity about this drumming became deeper. I knew that there were no houses or buildings in the valley in front of my home. On the hill beyond the valley too there were no homes or other buildings. Yet every Wednesday, the drumming appeared to be coming from somewhere very close- almost as if from the valley!
Finally, as tactfully as possible, I asked some of my assistants as to what the sound was and from where it was coming. They just smiled at me and said, ' Itu orang Bunian ' ( It's the Bunian people ). I did not wish to look silly by asking them what the Bunian people were, and so I just said, ' Oh ' and nodded in agreement.
There was an assistant there who was particularly close to me. I asked him in confidence as to what these Bunian people were. He replied that they were invisible people, somewhat similar to the gnomes and fairies of Western folklore. They liked living near humans and sometimes got friendly with some of them. There were stories about how some human males married Bunian females and went on to be accepted in the Bunian community. They however became invisible to other humans as soon as they entered the Bunian community. Humans could ask for help from the Bunians. If a person was having a feast and did not have enough cutleries for the occasion, plates could be borrowed from the Bunian people. Great care however must be taken that not a single plate is broken.
I asked this assistant as to how he could prove that the drumming was made by the orang Bunian. He replied that on one Wednesday, two other assistants determined to find out once and for all from where the sound issued. Armed with torchlights and long knives, they proceeded to look for the source of the sound as soon as it started. They descend all the way into the valley and travelled up quite a distance on the hill on the other side, and still the sound appeared to be coming from just a short distance in front of them. As it had already gotten dark by then, they abandoned their quest and hurried back home.
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