This annual ceremony marks the beginning of the sowing season on the island of Celebes, where the community of Bissu, who do not want to be neither man nor woman, once considered sacred, today struggles not to disappear.

There remain less than forty Bissu, distributed in the South of the island, according to anthropologists, with a cultural and spiritual role comparable to that of the shamans, who try to perpetuate their traditions.

Puang Matowa Nani, in his sixties, recounts the hostility of his family when, born a man, he experienced an identity crisis in his childhood and wanted to join the bissu community, which has a feminine appearance.

But he now says he is at peace.

"My family was against it, especially my older brother."

"He constantly beat me to be a + real man +".

"I tried but I couldn't".

In the 1950s, during a rebellion led by an Islamic fundamentalist group that attempted to establish a caliphate in the country, many Bissu were accused of violating the tenets of Islam and were persecuted.

The annual Mappalili ritual marks the start of the sowing season on the island of Celebes, Indonesia.


Chased, killed or forced to behave like men, "they were frightened and decided to hide"

"The Bissu no longer wanted to show themselves, they disappeared and no longer wanted to practice cultural activities", explains Halilintar Lathief, anthropologist from the Indonesian University of Makassar.

Their community is now in danger of dying out, and the few surviving Bissus of disappearing within the majority Bugis ethnic group south of Celebes.

The Bugis recognize five genders: makkunrai (female), oroane (male), calabai (male who adopts a traditional female role), calalai (female who assumes a male role) and the Bissu who are neither of female gender, nor of the masculine gender, but represent all genders.

While the oldest Bissu die, without material support or to perpetuate their culture, few in the new generation want to replace them.

Some members of the community, however, strive to keep their traditions alive.

floating soul

At the edge of the pond, along a bright green paddy field, Puang Matowa Nani leads the ceremony and sings a prayer as other Bissu dressed in brightly colored silk blouses, headdresses and embroidered skirts close the procession.

The Bissu perform a ritual dance to the sound of a drum before stabbing themselves with a long knife, a "kris", as if in a trance.

Bissu priests in silk costumes and embroidery take part in a ceremony for the annual ritual of Mappalili, Indonesia © INDRA ABRIYANTO / AFP

The Bissu say they received a divine call.

They must follow a complex training, with many rituals and a secret language, which only the Bissu can understand.

Many of them evoke messages received from God during their dreams.

Julaeha, who only has one name, told AFP that she had been suffering for two months, in a state of delirium and had seen a man on horseback in a dream asking her to join the Bissu community.

"I felt my soul float".

intermediaries with God

The Bissu were once revered and led a privileged life.

They received land from the bugi kingdoms that existed before the formation of modern Indonesia.

"The Bissu had a very important role in the time of the kingdoms. They were considered intermediaries between God and the people", explains Halilintar Lathief.

But now that they are struggling to survive, the community no longer attracts.

Some members of the Bissu community earn their living with ordinary jobs, such as bridal makeup.

"Those who are interested in becoming Bissu are rare because you cannot receive a salary from the government," said Puang Matowa Nani.

Despite the persecutions of the past and the contrasting opinions on the community, its representatives still have a place in the very Muslim Bugis society.

"Since I became Bissu, I have always been accepted by the public", underlines Julaeha.

"I have never been insulted or ostracized. I am called often for rituals".

The Bissu were once "considered as intermediaries between God and the people", explains anthropologist Halilintar Lathief.


Pattola Ramang, a spectator fascinated by the Mappalili ceremony, believes that the authorities must do everything to prevent the disappearance of this community.

"What they are doing represents a culture and a tradition that we must preserve," said the 66-year-old Muslim.

"The government must pay attention to the Bissu and support them to survive."

© 2022 AFP