Privileged Witness of Balinese Trance

Kuningan CelebrationA decade ago I was privileged to come across a village on the coast of eastern Bali that was preparing to enter into a period of ceremony and celebration.  I decided to stay. What unfolded was a ceremony, attended overwhelmingly by locals, that would stick with me forever. The images of those days I can recall with clarity and remain vivid in my mind.

This was not a ceremony dictated by the whim of tourists but rather by the lunar calendar to which many Balinese ceremonies and festivals adhere.  The fight scenes depicted in the dances of good and evil were tense and produced blood. All the local women removed themselves from the final scenes so as to prevent any adverse affects by the upcoming release of evil.  Men became consumed by trance while others forced them to the ground. Ceremonial chickens were slaughtered and holy water was used to douse the bad energy. The ceremony was interesting, unique, and shocking.

I have never seen another one quite as intense.

As the evening a decade ago, began, I was still unaware of the events about to unfold. Usually this sleepy village has little to no activity in the evening bar the occasional cluster of children taking advantage of the sea’s cooling waters at the village doorstep.

Tonight was different.

All around locals were dressed in their finest batik sarongs, cotton kebaya’s or shirts, and matching headdress. There was an excitement in the air.

My hotel manager took me by the hand to her little house out back of the hotel. She wrapped me in the appropriate formal outfit and ushered me in the direction of the temple.

The street leading to the temple gate was lined on both sides. Men dressed in unison of white and women adorned in beautiful, colorful, and intricate attire from ankle to head. Towering head pieces of flowers, fruit, money, and chickens, resident component of these offerings.

The tar-sealed road had been modified by a hand turned drill. Holes every fifteen feet down the center line became the pots to which Penjors (tall decorated bamboo stakes) were added.

The loud boom of a gong sounded the beginning of the ceremony. 

Small players in the good versus evil battle emerged and began to dance. The dance re-enacted the ever-present struggle in our daily lives. With every dance the participants became gradually more wild-eyed, dance interpretations turned to actual attacks and with the passing of time blood from wounds began to appear.

The intensity was growing and the onlookers were fully aware that their assistance would soon be required.

Except, of course, for this onlooker who was mesmerized, dumbfounded, and slack-jawed.

The final battle is between Barong and Rangda and is the major battle; heaven versus hell kind of thing.  It is used to invoke a restoration of balance between the world of people and that of deities, spirits, and demons from the other world.

Like the other dances before it, this started out slow. As it went on you feel the build of the crescendo.  At this point all the women who had gathered, rose to their feet and walked briskly in the opposite direction; backs turned to the ever evolving battle.

The gamelan music being played at the temple rises and falls with the blows of the fight. Adding another fully engaged sense to the mix and promoting the violence now a very real component of the dance. The participants are now hallucinating; their trance building.

Through my eyes it appears that something unearthly is happening. Chaos devours the crowd. Evil spirits enter. Screams, moans, and wild energy descend on the crowd. Men begin to be possessed and others drive them to the ground showing no mercy.

It appears several are having seizures and talking in garbled noises, spitting and cursing. 

Holy men come into the fray and begin dosing water onto the heads of those afflicted. Chicks arrive in cages and are brought to the struggling men now covered in bodily fluids, vomit, and blood. Inserted into their mouths they bite the heads off in a single twist of their necks.

Decapitated baby chickens lay strewn across the battle field like lost souls.

Rangda screams a curse out to the men and those holding daggers turn these on themselves. Another surge of onlookers spring into action and prevent the deadly thrust from piercing the skin. For some this is not a complete success.

More blood, more vomit, more screams.

Gradually the subdued men begin to ease up. Holy water continues to rain down on them until, exhausted they collapse. They are disarmed, cleaned, and carried to the temple. In here any remnants of the trance are broken and with it, balance is restored even though there was no clear winner.

But just as in life…when is there really!

I returned to this town again, a day ago, and was fortunate to arrive in time for the same celebration.

Galungan and Kuningan ceremonies are the biggest festivals on Bali. The front of every house is decorated with Penjor. Galungan ceremonies are held over several days. During the Galungan festival, the gods descend to the earth and stay with the people.  After 10 days it is Hari Raya Kuningan, a kind of all souls’ day. In the morning people bring offerings to their ancestors and gods. The next day Sunday is Manis Kuningan and is when the Barong dance is performed.

To once again witness a ceremony that is steeped in tradition and undiluted by the tourist industry I could not help but feel privileged…once again.

For photos of Indonesia click here.

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37 thoughts on “Privileged Witness of Balinese Trance

  1. You have an amazing way with words! Thank you for sharing your experience in a way that allowed us to feel like we were right there with you!

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  2. Hi Tim! That was scary! I would have freaked out if I was there. I had a picture in my mind of the decapitated chickens and it gave me goosebumps!

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  3. Hello Tim,
    It is definitely an experience to cherish and talk about. You interpreted the series of incidents and described them clearly. It will really be tough for many people to experience such an energetic event from such a closer vicinity.

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  4. That sounds intense and some parts gross. However, it would be cool and great experience to see it once. I have heard alot of people talk about visiting Bali. They say its one of the best places to visit. I love that they carry around fruit and money. That is awesome! Great descriptive words. =)

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    1. The religion is Hindu but the women leave as it is believed that once evil enters the ceremony you do not want to risk it getting into a women as they are the bearers of children.

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  5. This is an intense one Tim, but so much culture and history and art as well as horror. I wonder what went through your mind and the emotions and facial expressions you had as you watched all this happening. I have an idea. Thanks mate

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  6. I was on the edge of my seat as I read your post. I understand why the women chose to leave. I don’t know what my reaction would have been to see men biting off chicken heads.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it Christina. The women leave as a way to protect the village from evil ever getting in to unborn children via their mothers.

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  7. hi tim; i don’t know if this one preceeded the one about the monk snowball fight or followed it. I wish i had read this one first. the other one would have calmed my fear of having a nightmare later. sounds like one of those events so intense even the blind would feel its power. thanks for sharing this with us. so many of us wil never get the chance to do so in person. take care out there my friend, max

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  8. Wow. How amazing that you were able to experience this not just once, but twice! I agree with what Lenie said about being able to feel the tension build as I was reading. I love the photos, by the way. Especially the one of Kuta Gate.

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  9. What an amazing celebration to stumble upon. I think I too would have been mesmerized, dumb-founded, and slack-jawed. I’m glad you found some of the background on the ceremony and shared it with us.

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    1. Without the background it was still an amazing ceremony but with the background it just added those extra layers of understanding; even if just at a basic level.

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  10. Amazing. I bet there are not many tourists who can tell this story. It sounds like you really were privileged to be invited in. I’m curious, was it as shocking the second time as it was the first? I felt like my hair was standing on end just reading about it!

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    1. I would have to say the first time was the most shocking as it was all completely unexpected and a little disturbing. The second time I at least had an inkling of what I was in for. But you are right; both times were amazing.

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  11. This is a pretty awesome experience. Can’t say I’ve ever come close to something like this. Were these people used to seeing foreigners or did you get any stares? Very jealous of you for this opportunity.

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    1. The town of Padang Bai is the main route for the ferry to the neighboring island of Lombok so tourists are not uncommon. Most however just arrive, get on the ferry and are gone within the hour. To stay in the town for several days opens up a whole other side to it.

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      1. On a side note, I was looking to visit Indonesia and join an orangutan ecotour that a friend recommended. Do you have any experience with those? Apologies if that’s a ridiculous question but love to hear first-hand experiences as much as I can.

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        1. There are sanctuaries in Sumatra around Medan and also in Kalimantan (Borneo) and I believe they have started one near the city of Yogyakarta on Java. I have not visited any personally but I have no doubt the experience would be a great one; helping to protect and care for these endangered animals.

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  12. You were very very detailed. I wonder what I would have been thinking if I witnessed this ceremony. For me it seem very graphic but having the education to know they do certain things would make a difference. I feel like I’m living vicariously through you.

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  13. What a vivid recounting of what must have been quite an intense experience. I remember years ago participating in a ceremony (mild, mild, mild compared to this one) and it stayed with me for days. I can only imagine how this experience impacted you…although, I’d imagine it did, profoundly. Thanks so much for sharing so articulately and with such vivid detail; I almost feel as I was there!!
    Michele

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    1. Thanks Michele. It was certainly one of those times that has embedded itself in my memory for all time. I feel very fortunate to have been a part of it.

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  14. This is a great example of a totally immersed sensory experience. Such experiences are what keep people addicted to travel. Just the other day I was thinking about what past experience in my life I would consider to stand out the most in my memory due to how it affected all of my senses, and it would probably the hikes I did in Yellowstone, particularly Union Falls.

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  15. Excellent writing helps when you share an experience like this Tim! I found it riveting and scary all at the same time. I’m not sure slack-jawed would have been my reaction…I might have dropped to the ground to cover my head!! I loved Bali but only saw the Monkey Dance there and hadn’t heard of these ceremonies. What a powerful experience…thanks for sharing it:)

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    1. I agree with Jacquie! Your writing style really brought the images to life, Tim! This event is not something I would like to witness, but I am grateful that you shared it with us. I would prefer my first Balinese adventure to contain a wonderful dining experience followed by a sunset walk on the beach. Cheers!

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  16. Hi Tim. Your vivid memories fuelled a very vivid recounting of what must be an amazing experience. I have never had the opportunity to witness something where the stylized morphs into the primal on an organized basis. If I did, I expect your description … slack jawed … would be apt.

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  17. Tim, you have such an amazing way of writing that it was a bit scary – I actually felt the tension as the ceremony progressed and the fight became more intense. What an experience for you to have been there in person – not once but twice. Fantastic.
    Lenie

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