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.

P1100590

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.

P1100591

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.

P1100592

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.

P1100593

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.

P1100595

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.

Making Peace with Good and Evil

Good and evil, yin and yang, are balanced today in the village of Bakbakan.  It isn’t easy to maintain harmony with these energies. The level of sensory intensity in the ritual prayers, dances, and offerings that are required to keep peace between the sacred and the profane is unparalleled by anything I’ve seen before.

My friend Wayan invited Nancy (who is visiting from the U.S.) and me to attend the temple ceremony as guests of her family. The village of Bakbakan is about 30 minutes from Ubud. I arranged with Pasek and Ketut for motorbike transport. After a sidesaddle ride, which Nancy accomplished with impressive decorum, we were delivered to our destination and welcomed warmly by Wayan and Komang in ceremonial dress.

A group of women had already congregated. They were stunning. They looked like brides, all in white with a colorful sash at their waists. We had a few minutes to visit and then a line started forming. The row of towering pyramids of fruit, cakes, whole baked chickens, and colorful confections were retrieved by the woman who created them and placed on their heads.

This woman’s husband helps her with her 4′ tall, over 30 pound offering.

I cannot comprehend this feat of balance and strength.  It’s a challenge for me to balance a book on my head for more than a few steps. How on earth do they do it? The stately procession was followed by the gamelan musicians. Nancy and I walked alongside the men, snapping photos as discreetly as possible.

A stunning parade, at least 50 women all in white, carried their towering offerings the 1/2 mile to the temple.

The temple complex has three areas. Those who cannot enter wait in the least sacred area outside the entrance. If a relative has died recently the family cannot enter the temple. If a woman is menstruating she must not enter. At we approached Komang politely asked if Nancy or I were menstruating. There are very few bodily functions that register as taboos in Bali. Community life is an open book. There is no embarrassment around such things. I assured him we were both well past that age. He smiled and motioned us to the holy water where we were sprinkled. Then we passed through the gate and entered a magical realm. All was in readiness for the evening festivities as we passed through this second area.

Stepping through the last gate into the most sacred portion of the temple a riot of color and commotion assailed us. The air vibrated with expectation and the hum of voices. We were urged onto a platform, a seat of honor, and woven bamboo mats were quickly spread for our delicate foreign bottoms. Nancy and I sat by Wayan while Ary slept peacefully in her arms.

Komang’s cousin, Made, appointed himself our teacher and began explaining the events that would take place. His English was excellent and I learned more about Balinese Hinduism in the 30 minutes with him than I have in 5 months of reading and asking questions. We sat and chatted while other friends and family came and went.

The gamelan began, signaling time for prayer. We sat on the ground in family groups. Each family brought, in addition to the 4’ high offering tower, a basket of flowers and incense which Komang’s mother placed in front of us. Prayers were chanted in unison as the intricate rituals were performed. I tried to chant. I’m pretty good at following along with most melodies, but this wasn’t exactly a melody. When we got to the end I recognized the words and gave it my all, Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, Om.

A buzz of excitement rippled through the crowd at this point and almost as a unit the we moved to the perimeter creating a center space. A cloth was spread on the ground and offerings were placed there. These were different. Some appeared to have been slightly burned. There were a couple of smaller, colorful ones but the rest were almost scary looking. Made explained that there would be a dance and prayers now to balance good and evil energies. A row of holy men in white sat behind the dark offerings. Incense was lighted that did not have the sweet fragrance we had been experiencing all night. This odor was acrid and harsh. The gamelan musicians began again. Then a grandmother appeared moving to the rhythm. Another grandmother joined her and soon a group of elder women were dancing in front of the offerings and the holy men. We had been told earlier that this would be a trance dance. It was eerie. The women appeared to be doing battle with the dark energies. I watched, mesmerized.

The solemnity of the prayers and trance dance complete, food suddenly appeared. Wayan handed us a tangerine, some beautiful little striped crackers, and a lacy confection of shredded coconut glazed with palm sugar. Yum! We ate, visited, and anticipated the beginning of the evening’s entertainment. People started moving into the performance area and Komang hustled us into position at the front. What followed were three traditional Balinese dances, each one more spectacular than the one before.

The first dance, Penyembrahma, was brilliantly colorful.

That was followed by the spectacular, twirling Bird of Paradise dance.

The costumes in deep maroon with gold were absolutely gorgeous.

Bird of Paradise was followed by a brilliantly costumed trio. I missed the name of this performance and it moved quickly so photo ops were difficult. It was hard to keep my eyes behind the camera when I really just wanted to absorb myself completely in the moment!

It was 9 p.m. by the time the dancers finished. We were told that there would be another performance starting soon, but this was a ritual dance and it would be dangerous for us to leave in the middle. It again had to do with balance of good and evil. Once we started watching we would have to stay until the end at about 2 a.m. As much as my curiosity, my heart, and my mind wanted to stay, my body was in protest. Komang graciously escorted us to the street. Pasek and Ketut had returned and were waiting for us. We exchanged sweet farewells and started home. The cool night air brushed by as we zipped through dark, quiet streets. I was overwhelmed once again with immense gratitude for the opportunity to live this kind of life, a life I have created for myself knowing what I need, what I want, and what I love. It is a life that fits me like skin.

%d bloggers like this: