Bali | Welcome To Ceremony

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October 20, 2015

Balinese culture is characterized by an intricate web of ceremonies. Thirteen of these are important rights of passage to purify and protect a person’s soul. So if you speak to a Balinese on any given day, chances are they’ve either recently attended a family ceremony or they will do soon. I’ve been invited to an important coming-of-age ceremony, a tooth filing for Dewa’s niece, and I’m asked to wear the respectful dress of sarong and sash. I’m in luck—I’ve brought a sarong with me to Bali. But I soon discover that what Westerner’s commonly think of as a sarong—the bright-coloured lengths of material with fringe along the bottom (sold on nearly every street in Ubud)—aren’t the genuine article. They’re really just beachwear. Dewa excuses my mistake and tells me I’ll have to forgo wearing one. Instead, he folds what I’ve brought and ties it around my waist as a sash. I’m now bulky, but presentable! I meet his extended family, easing into this large gathering presided over by a high Brahmin priest. I’m given generous offers of food and drink to combat the heat and friendly attempts at conversation with the little English that most people have. Offerings are piled high throughout the compound and sweet-smelling incense fills the air. Two small boys are kicking a ball around, wildly displaying their soccer moves. Their sister wants me to take their picture but shyly hides her face from my camera. An hour later I join them again and she gestures to me that she wants her picture taken. She laughingly throws her head back and I quickly snap her photo. We look at the image on the screen and she’s both bewildered and thrilled to see her own shining face and her missing tooth.

Dewa’s niece is a young mother. She greets me with a smile and gentle handshake, and thanks me for attending her ceremony. Her little girl is clamped to her like a magnet. Sensing the current of anticipation in the air she doesn’t want to leave her mum’s side. Eventually she’s coaxed away with the promise of a lollipop, and into the arms of Dewa’s wife. Tooth filing is typically done at the onset of adolescence, but can be performed into adulthood as well. According to Balinese belief, the canine teeth represent the more “animalistic” attributes of a person’s nature. Filing these teeth eliminates and provides protection against the more coarse and evil instincts of greed, anger, lust, intoxication, confusion and jealousy.

A priest begins the ceremony with a purification ritual and blessing, followed by a piece of sugar cane wedged between the teeth to keep the jaw open for tooth-filing. Family and guests gather round a raised platform. And although there’s an air of quiet concentration and concern, it’s punctuated by the chatter of children and drifts of laughter from within the compound. As seriously as the Balinese regard their ceremonies, there’s room for the ordinary amidst the sacred.

When the tooth-filing is over, I talk to a family member about the importance of ritual and ceremony to the Balinese. Both are at the heart of maintaining spiritual, emotional and social balance throughout a person’s lifetime. And neither exists without communal co-operation. I’m at a loss when asked about Western rituals. I offer up a few paltry examples, trying to explain the notions of Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthdays. But I feel an emptiness when I do, as though I’m floating further away from any greater meaning. None of these tether me to any sense of spiritual, mental or emotional well-being. They don’t orient me to my place in the world or give me a sense of purpose within my community. They bind me to my small family, but I’m well aware of how they polarize others from theirs. It comes as no surprise that when I leave this gathering of family and friends, I’m thinking about my own family and how I can mend the holes in our net.
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