GAJEBOH, Indonesia (Reuters) - High in the lush hills of far western Java, an animist tribe lives a peaceful existence, untouched by the turmoil of the financial crisis.
The Baduy, who are estimated to number somewhere between 5,000-8,000 people, are an anomaly surviving in tribal lands only 120 km (75 miles) from the teeming megacity of Jakarta.
Yet despite their proximity to the Indonesian capital, the Baduy might as well be a world away as they live in almost complete seclusion, observing customs that forbid using soap, riding vehicles and even wearing shoes.
Villagers stare blankly when asked about events in the outside world. Salina, a young mother, plays with her son on the steps of a thatched-roof hut in this small river-side village.
“I don’t understand about any crisis,” she says when asked about the economic turmoil that has taken its toll on the rupiah which has lost almost 25 percent of its value this year.
Within a 50 sq km (20 sq mile) area in the shadow of Mount Kendeng, the Baduy people cling to their reclusive way of life despite the temptations of the modern world.
No one is certain of their origin. Some anthropologists think they are the priestly descendents of the West Java Hindu kingdom of Pajajaran and took refuge in the limestone hills where they now live after resisting conversion to Islam in the 16th century.
They speak an archaic version of Sundanese, a language spoken by many in this part of western Java.
Blending ancient Hinduism and animism, the Baduy believe their homeland — Pancer Bumi — is the center of the world and that they were the first people on earth who must follow a strict set of rules to prevent disaster striking.
Renowned for their mystical powers, Baduy leaders, known as pu’un, conduct rituals in a secret spot called Arca Domas surrounded by megaliths to appease ancestral spirits and gods.
On the surface at least their way of life appears primitive, but experts who have studied their farming techniques say they are well attuned to their environment.
For example, they are forbidden to use metal hoes, helping to prevent soil erosion, when cultivating a dry variety of rice.
Nonetheless, the long list of taboos often appear to make their lives unreasonably tough.
School education, glass, alcohol, nails, footware, diverting the course of water and rearing four-legged animals are among some of the long list of things forbidden to the Baduy.
“There is no education. Going to the field is an education for them,” said Boedhihartono, an anthropologist at the University of Indonesia, who has studied the Baduy for years.
Their society is divided into an outer zone of villages and an inner heartland of just three villages. Baduy who break the rules are banished to the outer zone.
Members of the inner zone of about 800 people, or 40 families, dress in white, as opposed to the black attire in the outer zone, and follow the Baduy traditions much more strictly.
Visiting the Baduy requires tough trekking along slippery paths in plunging valleys. Foreigners are allowed to visit the outer zone, but are limited to a few nights, sleeping on bamboo mats in villages pitch black at night due to a lack of power.
It is, however, nearly impossible for non-Indonesians to visit the sacred inner villages.
The outer area acts as a sort of buffer zone and the leaders from the inner Baduy sometimes pay surprise visits to make sure their outer zone compatriots are not breaking too many taboos.
They sometimes confiscate radios and other things deemed as pollutants from the modern world.
With none of the motorbikes and smoke-belching buses common in most of Indonesia, the villages are tranquil spots where the gentle clacking sound of weaving looms is one of the few noises.
But it is difficult to keep all things at bay from the modern world. On a recent trip some Baduy children had forsaken traditional wear, one wearing a blue Italian soccer shirt, while the use of formally taboo money has replaced bartering with the outside world.
The outer Baduy sell sarongs they make and also travel to nearby towns to sell honey and palm sugar. The cash is used to buy salted fish and other things they can’t produce themselves.
“Even in the center they already know money,” said anthropologist Boedhihartono, who has over years developed what he describes as “a sort of friendship” with the Baduy.
He keeps a room free at his Jakarta home for when the Baduy sometimes make unannounced visits after a three-day bare-foot trek since they are not allowed to use transport.
Asked about whether they had much knowledge of the outside world, he said: “Of course not really, except if they come to my house they watch the TV.”
While the Baduy are supposed to shun modern medicine, he said the use of antibiotics had helped sharply increase their numbers.
The main threats they faced, he said, are from outsiders trying to plunder their land and proselytizing by some groups in the majority Muslim community surrounding them.
The Baduy have taken on some outside influences such as circumcision, which is in line with local Muslim practices.
Although generally left to their own devices by colonizers ranging from the Dutch to the Japanese, authorities have at times sought to include the Baduy in mainstream society.
When the government of Indonesia’s long-time strongman president Suharto tried to foist development on the Baduy in the 1980s they sent an emissary to plead to be left alone.
Suharto, a deeply superstitious man with a weakness for Javanese mysticism, conceded and arranged for the Baduy to mark out their territory with poles to protect them from outside influence.
Editing by Megan Goldin