Magic & Witchcraft: Part II by Bill Dalton

If by some remote chance you haven’t noticed, the Balinese devote a major portion of their waking hours to an endless series of physically and financially exhausting purifications connected to spirits. The goal is to maintain the cosmic balance between good and evil and to appease forces that have caused an unexplainable illness, the failure of a family business or some other misfortune, events which are often ascribed to black magic. Excoriating rituals such as trance plays and animal blood sacrifices that placate the dark powers play a huge role in the world’s perception of Bali. Rangda, the witch-heroine of the Calon Arang story, and the Kecak dance, have over the last 100 years become the most potent and memorable symbols of Bali’s magic power.

In their everyday life, the Balinese always try to stay on the good side of all the forces. Any dangerous transitional event, natural disaster, calendrical shift or anniversary that occurs suddenly without explanation almost always calls for the ancestors to descend to earth, dispose of evil fiends or banish vermin from the fields. Among the range of rituals activities (yadnya) are rites for demons and the lower spirits involving parades to the sea to cleanse villages, special prayer days for the dead and nights of penance (sivaratri). Cockfighting was originally a temple ritual that symbolized blood spilled for the gods.

I’ve seen entranced villagers, possessed by devils, bite off the heads of chickens and howl with terror in the confines of the Temple of the Dead across the small valley of rice terraces from my home in Tabanan. Phenomenologically speaking, the psycho-social experiences of a Balinese performer in dance is similar to someone with multiple personality disorder in the West.

If a village has been visited by a calamity like the birth of twins of different sexes, a murder, an ugly road accident, an epidemic or flood, a priest needs to purify the ground to avert more trouble and strengthen the spiritual foundation of the village. Along with attending to sun gods, totemic gods, deer gods, secretaries to the gods, mythical turtles and market deities in the Bali Hindu religious pantheon is the care of the dark spirits that linger everywhere.

When a Balinese chops down a tree, s/he first asks permission of the spirit (tonya) within. Once a year coconut trees are honored by dressing them in bright skirts and scarves. Old banyan trees are venerated by the placement of offerings (ngedjot) in altars among their aerial roots. Clay figures of the fire god Agni are put over kitchen hearths, bank clerks place pandanus-leaf offering trays on their desks and before a journey offerings are made to guarantee a safe passage.

Elaborate purification ceremonies (mecaru) and blood sacrifices expunge leyak witches. In a ruse to drive out demons, the Balinese New Year (Nyepi) is a day of silence when no activity is allowed. A 15-day ceremony in 1991 in Ubud to straighten out the axis of the world was so complex that it took an IBM computer to run the event. Bali’s most important exorcism, taking place every 100 years, is the stupendous Eka Dasa Rudra. Involving tens of thousands of people, it is a ritual purification of the whole island to rid if of threatening and ever watchful demons and witches.

In Bali’s performing arts – theatrical antidotes for black magic – the underworld is ever present. In wayang theater, the puppeteer (dalang) recites to himself various magic formulas to ensure success with his audience. During the shadow play itself, the greater positive deities are placed on the right and the lesser malevolent gods, demons and the unholy graveyard kepuh tree festooned with evil birds and entrails are placed on the left.

The trance dance Sanghyang Dedari, held in time of trouble to alleviate sickness or misfortune, is a celebrated shamanistic dance. Two little girls become possessed by the spirit of a god and dance on men’s shoulders. They never open their eyes, yet their performances coincide perfectly. The real dance is often closed to tourists; tourist versions are laughable shams.The Kecak, derived from the choral element of the Sanghyang Dedari, is a spell-binding spectacle created by Walter Spies in the early 1930s. It’s also called the “Monkey Dance” because of the savage eerie, hissing and moaning ape sounds made by the performers.


Priests and Shamans: Pedanda, Pemangku and Balian

Priests purify people after an accident or illness, avert curses and bring people out of spells and trances. There are various kinds of priests, the pedanda, or high priest, and the pemangku, or temple priest. A third kind of technical specialist, the sungguhu, is a low-caste priest whose duties are limited to propitiation of malignant buta and kala.

Pemangku exorcise devils and remain in direct contact with the ancestors. Even the most indigent Balinese will make a great effort to hire his services to make sure that dead loved ones are properly ushered into the spiritual world.

Pemangku should not be confused with balian, nor with bell ringers or scribe writers. Balian is the collective name for practitioners of Balinese traditional medicine. Using an amalgam of indigenous techniques, the word balian is oftentimes translated as ‘healer.’ However, not all Balinese healers are referred to as balian. Not all balian heal and not all healers are balian.

Balian are often prominent members of the community who are consulted to solve problems both profane and spiritual. They have the potential both to both cure or cause, restore or disrupt. He or she is a consecrated person with some priestly functions who operates alongside the the exclusively religious figures. Many balian, including witch doctors who practice white or black magic, are said to possess strong mystical powers (kesaktian). These native practitioners are more than just folk healers. Their practices aim at restoring the balance between the body and the mind, the body and soul, between an individual and society and even between a community and a group of communities.

No matter what type of healing they practice, all balian are influenced by the Bali Hindu religion that lies at the core of all treatments. There are actually hundreds of types of specialist balian, designated according to their predominant healing method: those who base their practice on the teachings of traditional palm-leaf lontar manuscripts (balian usada); whose healing is a divinely bestowed gift (balian paica): who sell protective mantras and amulets (balian kebal); diviners (balian tenung); spirit mediums (balian taksu); balian who physically manipulate a patient’s body (balian apun); bone-setters (balian tulung). Traditionally a patient offers a balian whatever he or she is able to give in return for the consultation.


Demon Temples

Over the entrance of Balinese temples are the coarse, leering faces of monsters (kala or bhoma) with splayed hands, tusk-like teeth and missing lower jaws, which prevent evil characters from slipping into the sacred grounds. Two flanking guardian demons often stand guard at both ends of Balinese bridges. Mass profusions of esoteric and grotesque mythological creatures –  vampires, ogres, one-eyed birds – glare out from temple friezes or adorn temple corners.

The dwelling place of underworld denizens is the Temple of the Dead, pura dalem, dedicated to Siwa the Destroyer. Before the deceased have been completely purified by cremation, their souls rest in the death temple. Its carved walls are decorated with gruesome depictions of the fate awaiting offenders who violate taboos or fail to observe customs. The pura dalem is also where the sacred Barong mask is stored. As most villages are built on a slope, the southern (kelod) end in the lowest part of the village is also where the burial ground with its mournful kepuh tree are located, facing the sea, the dwelling place of the powers of the netherworld.

A number of haunted temples in Bali are believed to be infused with black magic. Pura Pusering Jagat contains demonic catuhkaya figures with large open eyes and sneering mouths. Pura Dalem Penataran Ped, on Nusa Penida’s NE coast, was built to honor Ratu Gede Mecaling, the patron saint of all leyak. On the site of Pura Kebo Edan in rice fields south of Intaran is the gigantic “Pejeng Giant” statue dancing on a wide-eyed human corpse. Scholars maintain that this 3-m-high giant symbolizes Bhairava, a Tantric Buddhist manifestation of the Hindu god Siwa-Bhairava and his consort Durga in their more terrible aspects.


 Herbal Medicines

Like landslides or being struck by lightning, maladies are often thought to have supernatural causes. Witchcraft, neglect of rituals or the wrath of ancestors can lead to a “faulty illness.” Even a sick child is not innocent as he’s suffering for some crime he committed in a past life.

If symptoms persist after seeking help from family members, neighbors and doctors, the patient employs the magico-medico skills of indigenous healers who administer plant concoctions in their healing practices. More often known as dukun, not balian, these men and women are particularly adept at healing people who have illnesses, diseases or mental disorders which are acute or unusual.

If possessed or magically poisoned, Balinese use healing formulas to make themselves whole again. It’s believed that only a dukun is able to restore the body’s equilibrium through the traditional philosophy of Tri Hita Karana (“the three sources of well-being”) which promotes harmony among fellow human beings, nature and god. Though it’s considered outside the expertise of Western-style medicine to effect a cure, afflictions are more and more treated simultaneously with modern medicine.

Placing a slice of red onion on the fontanelle of an infant prevents the entry of a leyak who considers the smell highly offensive. The magical dadap plant drives away illness and keeps low spirits at bay during the ceremony for opening a new home. Bunga Padma dispels nightmares. In the villages one still sees amulets, talismans, tumbal (charms), dried umbilical cord and other magical objects hung around a baby to protect her from attack. Wearing garlic around the neck or ear is believed to ward off evil spirits. Sacred pools (Tampaksiring), hot springs (Toya Bungkah) and natural spas (Yeh Panas) are said to have magical curative powers.

Traditional medicines, found in Bali’s markets, are said to cure anything from nosebleeds to fainting spells. Rural families still grow their own herbs and plants and crush and knead (jamuan) medicinal pastes in a bowl or on a flat stone in the corner of the bale. The deep blue flowers of bunga celeng (Papilionaceae family), considered holy, are always seen at funeral offerings at cremation ceremonies. The Andong plant is often used to make offerings and is necessary spiritual protection in the marriage ceremony. Bunga ratna, seen dangling from small house altars, serve important religious and medicinal functions. Honor is bestowed on someone by simply placing a holy cempaka blossom in their ear.


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