Bali’s Well Fed Dark Spirits

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it too many times to count: The energy of Bali is different from anywhere else. If you’re tuned to her frequency, she will draw you back again and again until your power to resist is gone. The island is magic, and the people of Bali live equally in two worlds: the seen, and the unseen.

Rucina Balinger is a legend in Ubud. She came to Bali from the U.S. in 1974, and forty years later she’s still here. Marrying into the Ubud royal family, she became what she was required to become as the wife of a Cokorda. Needless to say, she’s a reliable fount of information. So when invited by email to hear her speak on Bali magic, I signed on. For two hours she talked and answered questions about the dark arts as practiced here with a slide show to emphasize her points.

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I came away with one sentence burning in my brain, Black magic only works if you believe it does. I’m a guest on this island where probably close to 100% of the locals believe in magic. Therefore, on Bali it works, and chances are fairly high that, whether I believe it or not, I’ll be affected by it in some way. So it behooves me to learn as much as I can. Forewarned is forearmed, right? There’s just one small problem with that: The more I learn, and the more I see, the more I believe. So I’ll fill you in on a little of what I’ve gathered, both from Rucina and from Ketut, my ‘go to’ for all things Balinese. I preface this with a profuse apology to the people of Bali for my very small knowledge of this subject. Mohon maafkan saya untuk pengetahuan saya kecil dari subjek ini.

The Balians, who are the healers, magicians, and soothsayers, must learn both the white and black arts so they can counteract the effect of one with the other. These powerful people are chosen by spirit and declining the invitation to become a Balian is not an option. Those who refuse, die. But there are also initiates who, in the course of study, become mentally deranged and are institutionalized, some temporarily, some permanently. And others wander about their villages sometimes babbling incoherently, sometimes more lucid than I. I’ve met one of those and it’s unnerving. This is not a coveted occupation.

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Any Balinese person will be quick to tell you that jealousy is a big problem here. In a family compound there may be as many as 15 to 20 people piled, quite literally, on top of one another. There’s a communal kitchen, a room for the grandparents, possibly another one for the parents, and another for everyone else. The sons live here with their wives and children and as things go, little grievances form across family ties. Pretty soon somebody is visiting the Balian to get a potion to wreak havoc with his neighbor. When the wronged party realizes he’s been zapped, it’s his turn to visit the Balian to get the remedy and perhaps a little something for the other guy. Illness may be the result of natural causes, or it may be black magic induced, but a visit to the local Balian will clarify the matter.

Both men and women can become Balians and in Rucina’s words, unmarried women are the best practitioners of black magic. Hair, or fingernail clippings make effective amulets for casting spells. For years Rucina collected her own hair every time she brushed it and buried it somewhere outside so no one could grab it and use it against her.

Food, too, can be tainted by a person wishing ill will. To be polite, you always accept food when it’s offered. But if you’re suspicious of the bringer of this gift, don’t eat it. According to Rucina, take the food to the bedroom after the person leaves and pass it under the bed three times. This will undo the magic. Then you can eat it. Ketut laughed when I told him that. “Maybe if very small magic,” he said. Perhaps the conjuring in his village isn’t so easy to unravel.

But they are in agreement when it comes to the times when people are most vulnerable. During the first three months before their feet are allowed to touch the ground, babies are extremely susceptible. At this tender age they’re considered divine and are in danger of being stolen and having their entrails eaten by Rangda, the embodiment of black magic, so she can access their power.

In the Bali pantheon of the paranormal, there are gods, goddesses, spirits, and witches. The Leyak witches take many forms, some beautiful, some terrifying some funny looking or unusual. These humans who transform themselves are evil and throw fireballs or lightning bolts and steal babies. Parents put a shallot on the soft spot of a baby’s head since that is another point of entry for black magic and the Leyaks don’t like shallots. One Leyak in the form of a particularly beautiful woman likes to climb on behind the driver of a motorbike. He thinks he’s scored a hot one until he sees that her lower torso isn’t there, and her upper parts don’t resemble anything human.

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Other times of vulnerability occur during the ceremonies marking rites of passage. At tooth filings and weddings, a person is distracted and makes an easy target for the black arts. Performers of traditional dances are especially susceptible. They pray before dancing but still often fall into trance during their performance. Even the masks worn by the dancers have powerful magic. Places, too, can invite mischief. Graveyards, crossroads, bridges, the edge of the village, are littered with offerings to maintain a peaceful balance and ensure that the spirits are content.

Every fifteen days Kajeng Kliwon rolls around, Bali’s own Friday the 13th, and that requires offerings only for the dark spirits. The segehan have boiled rice in five different colors signifying the five elements. These form a five-pointed star in the bottom of the coconut leaf basket. Then the usual flowers, cigarettes, and snacks are piled atop the rice.

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When I arrived in Bali it appeared to be the island of smiles. Everybody wore a happy face and I couldn’t believe that so many people could be so joyful all the time. Then Rucina burst my bubble. There are antidotes to black magic and one of them is, you guessed it, happiness! A smiling face rejects evil. Even at cremations people smile and joke. That end of life ceremony does not in any way resemble the Christian funeral where solemnity and tears mark the day.

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Symbolic objects like rings, bracelets, special spirit drawings, or the kris (Balinese sword), are powerful anit-evil talismans. Ketut has a ring that’s been blessed and imbued with protective powers. “I don’t like,” he said. “Maybe enough just pray and make offering.” But, oh! The offerings! Spirits love to eat, symbolically of course, and the Balinese go to unbelievable lengths to feed them. Ancestral spirits are protectors and advice givers so they must be kept well nourished. The spirits of all the gods and goddesses, the trees and animals, cars and computers and mechanical things, and the opposing dark spirits, all need to be honored to keep the balance between good and evil.

Widi WasaThe great god Sanghyang Widhi Wasa (the All-in-One God) is honored everywhere in Bali with offerings placed in open shrines. The Balinese are monotheistic, but there are hundreds of lesser deities, manifestations of this god-of-the-enormous-penis who is said to be genderless. The closed shrines are only for rivers, known to be thoroughfares for dark energies and those, too, must have their quota of gifts.

As I write this a curtain of overwhelm descends. The inadequacy of what I’ve said here is titanic. Even with the help of Rucina and Ketut, it doesn’t cover as much of the topic as a flea on the surface of a mastodon. So I’m going back to what I said at the beginning: The energy of Bali is different from anywhere else. The Balinese believe in magic. They believe that their ceremonies, rituals, offerings, and prayers strike a balance between good and evil, and so do I.

A Strange Diagnosis

Ketut’s father is sick. The Balian, a traditional Balinese healer, is consulted. “How is Bapak?” I ask him the next day.

“Same-same,” is his reply. But there’s more to the tale and once again I listen in amazement to the complex interrelation of medicine, magic, and mystery that surrounds the lives of the Balinese. This is the story as told to me by Ketut.

One of his father’s ancestors a long time ago was a Balian and he had a book that had been passed down in the family for seven generations. The book (lontar) contained the collected wisdom of the healing arts, required rituals, recipes for medicinal cures, instructions for auspicious marriages, and all that the community needed to know to thrive. But it also contained the opposite, an operations manual for black magic.

When that Balian died, no one replaced him. The book that had been cared for, consulted, honored with offerings and placed in a special position of prestige, was ignored. It was kept in a cabinet in the father’s sleeping room.

“The Balian say book angry,” Ketut tells me. “My father sick because book want house.” I pepper Ketut with questions and learn that construction on a house for the book is underway. I’m trying to wrap my head around this but the concept is elusive.

A few days later I ask Ketut how construction is coming. “Not yet finish,” he says. I get the same answer as weeks go by. I’m picturing one of the small tower-like structures that I’ve seen in temples all over Bali. That, I assume, would be a fitting house for a book. But why is it taking so long?

The day comes when the new house is finished. “Is the book already inside?” I ask.

“Oh no.” Ketut answers many of my questions this way. “Not yet good days,” he says. “Manku make ceremony when good days.”  So this is a bigger deal than I thought. I should have known. The book can’t be moved until the holy man finds an auspicious day. Then the priest will be hired to come and officiate. Mountains of flowers, fruits, cakes, and chickens will be purchased or cooked and prepared as offerings.

“I want to come to the book ceremony,” I tell him. He says of course and he’ll let me know. Weeks pass. “Book ceremony soon?” I ask.

“Not yet, maybe three month.”

“Three more months?” I’m shocked. His father hasn’t gotten better. But this is Bali and the mills of the gods grind slowly.

As mid-April approaches I’m told that the day has been decided. It will be on Purnama Kedasa, the full moon celebration April 14th, an auspicious day indeed.

The long-awaited morning dawns bright and clear. Outfitted in temple clothes, my neighbor Julie and my visiting friend from America, Jan and I are ferried up the mountain to Ketut’s village in a decrepit mini-van. As we chug and cough along Pasek, who is with us, gets a text from Ketut. The priest hasn’t yet arrived. Pasek invites us to his house to wait.

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We’re greeted by Nyoman, Pasek’s wife

Jan is beautiful in her lacey kebaya and sarong

Jan is beautiful in her lacey kebaya and sarong

Nyoman cooked this amazing spread for usIt’s always the same with Ketut’s and Pasek’s families. We are plied with food and drink. When asked if they will be eating too it’s either, “Already,” or “Later.”

Not many foreigners come to this remote, mountain village so we are studied with wide-eyed wonder by the small children. The adult women wrap us in warm hugs. The adult men smile and shake hands or hang back. Teens whisper and giggle.

Waiting outside the temple for Pasek's father to bless us

After the feast we wander to the temple where a rug is spread outside. We squat or crouch in our tight sarongs awaiting the blessing.

It’s mid-afternoon and we’re still with Pasek’s family.  Ketut comes to find us. The priest has not yet arrived but Ketut is ready to take his turn with us. “Want to see book?” he asks. Of course we do! We all pile back into the rusty bucket. This time our route can barely be called a road. The jouncing and jiggling are fierce and I’m surprised my dinner behaves as well as it does. I’m worried about Jan. Her stomach was a little unsettled earlier. But she says she’s fine. It’s a miracle.

Ketut and Pasek's cousing with rice basket cookers on their headsFrom Pasek’s house we move to the home of another relative. A tour of the premises brings us to the outdoor kitchen where Ketut and our driver model the woven cones that are used to steam rice over boiling water.

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Stealing honey

Moving from one mischief to the next, these two decide to pry open the bee house and check for honey. The bees they’re disturbing look like overgrown fruit flies. We’re told they don’t bite, but they swarm around Ketut’s head as he violates their stash.

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He extracts some of the honeycomb and a little nectar for us to taste. The comb is dark brown and the honey has a tart vinegar-y flavor. It isn’t an instant hit.

Ketut’s father with the ancient books (lontar)

Ketut’s father appears and greets us. He is much better. He leads us to a room with a cabinet and takes a seat on a raised platform. This is the room where the lontar is stored. A footed offering plate holds several of the volumes. With utmost care he opens one of them and shows us the script that was cut into the palm leaves hundreds of years ago. Very few people can read the old Balinese writing. The modern alphabet is completely different.

P1060083We lean in close and Bapak says it’s okay to take photos. The inscription is faint but legible. There are dozens of the bound packets of hardened palm leaves. Ketut tells us that the leaf is dried, then soaked in hot water, then dried again and it becomes hard. The writing is done by carving each letter with a knife.

But there are new developments. The book no longer wants to be in the new house. The ancestral weapons, the kris, must go there first. Later if the book wants to be with the kris, it will tell the priest. But for now, the book stays where ‘she’ is and the swords will take up residence in the new house. How was this communicated? “The Mangku he know,” Ketut tells me later.

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This is the new book house. Ketut stands in the doorway and Komang, his wife and a niece look on. I’m shocked to see a real house with two rooms. All this for a book and a couple of swords?

Ketut’s family gathers round while we wait for the priest. More food is brought along with thick, sweet, Bali coffee.

Ketut has heard from the priest. Many blessings are scheduled for the full moon and he’s much in demand. It may be hours before he arrives, “Or maybe tomorrow,” Ketut says.

The sun set a while ago. We still have an hour-and-a-half ride down the mountain before sleep. With the timing of the ceremony uncertain, and the adventures of the day already enough to fill us to capacity, we opt to take our leave. As we bump along the ridge, the lights of the villages lining the shores of Lake Batur shimmer through a gauzy mist of cloud far below.

The island of Bali is another world. But the places we’ve been today could be another galaxy so far removed are they from what we might consider normal. And yet it works here. It fits. And I doubt that I will ever outgrow the amazement and wonder at the vast differences that feel so familiar.

 

 

 

 

 

Black Magic

People in the West don’t pay much attention to the dark forces. Paranoia around all things paranormal runs rampant unless of course it’s vampires, or child wizards wreaking havoc with broomsticks. Those have become acceptable, even desirable in recent literature and film. In fact tales of bloodsucking teens has become a money-making machine. We can’t get enough.

In Bali the dark forces are acknowledged and maintaining balance between the negative and positive energies is a daily practice. Credence is given to blessings but perhaps even more attention is afforded the dark arts. Someone’s father is sick. A skin rash appears. A house burns down. Crops fail. Black magic, they whisper. It’s as though no other possibility exists.

When illness or tragedy strikes, a balian is consulted. There are two types of balian according to Ubud Now and Then.

Balian Ketut Arsana of Bodyworks Center in Ubud Photo credits Namaste Festival

Balian Ketut Arsana of Bodyworks Center in Ubud
Photo credits Namaste Festival

The first, known as the ‘balian taksu’, is a kind of shaman or trance medium: he goes into a trance to communicate with the spirit world, and frequently chases away unwanted influences in this way. The second, the ‘balian usada’, refers to sacred medical manuscripts, and uses massage techniques and traditional medicines made from plants and animals. He also works with a spiritual approach, drawing on intuition, visions, mantras and prayer to aid the healing process.

The article goes on to say that a visit to a balian requires sensitivity and openness to the Balinese beliefs about the spirit world and the power of the invisible. It may require a dramatic leap of faith to accept a prescribed remedy which can be unorthodox. Yet many visitors to Bali have found themselves cured by a local medicine man when no Western doctor was able to help.

Some of us can be quite comfortable with intuitive types. Their subtle seeing of things unseen, or knowing without being told, is acceptable and we seek them out for guidance. But Bali takes it a step beyond.

Sanghyang is the Balinese sacred trance. It’s a phenomenon that raised the hairs on the back of my neck when I first witnessed it. Spirit possession wasn’t an everyday occurrence in my upbringing and I was unprepared for the raw power unleashed during a Sanghyang ritual.

But for the Balinese, trance is an essential element of their belief system. Skye Laphroaig, in an article for the Bali Advertiser, says that Sanghyang is a sacred state in which hyangs (deities) or helpful spirits temporarily inhabit the bodies of willing participants. The purpose of sanghyang is to cleanse people and places of evil influences to restore spiritual balance.

An example of a Sanghyang is the spectacular fire dance. A man in trance holding a hobby horse walks back and forth through burning coconut husks in his bare feet. Again and again he circles through the fire until he is pulled to the ground by two attendants.  A priest appears and sprinkles him with holy water. The man remains immobile in an altered state for some time.

Kecak Fire and Trance Dance

Kecak Fire and Trance Dance

These productions may appear to be for tourists, but I have attended elaborate performances where I was the only non-native person there. The Balinese do this for the Balinese. They do it to maintain harmony on their beautiful island. The spiritual realm is as real and present for them as the natural and they travel fluidly between the two. They accept without question the presence of the unseen, the dark forces and the light. Their offerings, prayers, and rituals are designed to appease both.

The Balinese year ends with the granddaddy of all spirit-balancing rituals, Nyepi. This year Nyepi falls on March 31. Nyepi Eve is a ghoulish extravaganza of ogoh-ogoh monsters paraded through the streets accompanied by pounding gamelan and overwhelming chaos. The negative deities are chased away or driven crazy by the pandemonium. Then the island shuts down. The airport is closed as are all the businesses. People do not go out of their homes. The streets are empty with the exception of the Pecalang who enforce the day of silence and impose fines on offenders.

Ogoh-ogoh

Ogoh-ogoh

In the West the healing arts have become the healing sciences. Science, we believe, can fix people, animals, vegetation, rivers, and every ailing thing. Bit by bit, a more holistic mindset is allowing natural remedies to be reintroduced, suspiciously, into the mainstream. But other than prayer chains, dialed into service for an extra measure of divine intervention, the vast resources of the metaphysical realm remain untapped.

We scoff at the mystical beliefs of the uneducated. We pass judgment on primitive practices and superstitions. We’re so wise. But what if that’s the missing piece? What if it takes science, and nature, and the realm of the unseen working together, to accomplish mighty feats? What if….

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