Pray, Magic, Heal: The Story of Ketut Liyer by David Stuart-Fox

Mangku Ketut Liyer became world famous for his role as Elizabeth Gilbert’s guru in her 2006 best-selling book Eat, Pray, Love and in the 2010 film by the same name. The book and the film tell of one woman’s search for spiritual fulfilment and love. Gilbert’s encounter with Liyer was to result in a constant stream of Western visitors to Liyer’s home to consult with him, have their photos taken with him, have their futures told and to buy paintings from him. The man behind the myth was to receive even more publicity in the Indonesian press after his death in June 2016.

Stuart-Fox lived in Bali through the 1970s and 1980s, becoming fluent in the local language. The idea for Pray, Magic, Heal arose out of his personal friendship with Liyer that began in the early 1970s when the home of the balian (folk healer) in Pengosekan was in a quiet village untouched by asphalted roads or electricity and separated from the main town of Ubud by beautiful rice fields. In his book, the author’s aim was to explain the significance of the magic drawings within the traditional practice of a Balinese healer and of Liyer in particular. The interviews were recorded well before the world knew anything about him or anything about traditional Balinese healing arts.

As Stuart-Fox writes in the Preface, from the beginning, the book is as much Liyer’s book as it was the author’s. Starting in the mid-1970s, he began recording conversations with Liyer, and much of the story is told in Liyer’s own words. Looking back on his cherished friendship with the gifted healer, Stuart-Fox recalls that his story had nothing to do with Gilbert’s book or the movie that followed. Julia Roberts, the star of the movie, was attending 2nd grade when Stuart-Fox began his decades-long research project with the Balinese healer.

Traveling widely in the country for decades, the writer has published features for magazines including Garuda, Travel Indonesia and worked as an editor for APA Productions of Singapore in the revisions of their guidebook series on Bali and Java. Stuart-Fox first met the Liyer while staying in a small village south of Ubud. When Stuart-Fox finally published Pray, Magic, Heal, Liyer was already somewhere between 85 and 90 years old. He remembers vividly a visit he made to the old man’s house in 2005, a year before Gilbert’s book was published. It was in July on the day to honor the goddess Saraswati, patroness of knowledge and writing. It seemed the appropriate day to visit. Stuart-Fox had not seen Liyer for several years. Bali had undergone tremendous changes since his first visit with Liyer with travelers arriving in ever greater and greater numbers.

The tourist town of Ubud had encroached on all the surrounding villages, all the rice fields were either gone or hidden out of sight and the tentacles of tourist art shops and restaurants had reached everywhere. After Gilbert’s book became a worldwide publishing phenomenon, there was a steady stream of visitors to Liyer’s home. The temple in the family courtyard had room for only 20-30 people, so one group had to leave before the next could enter. Though the passing years had left their mark on Ketut Liyer, the old man was still fit enough to carry on a thriving healing practice. Liyer showed Stuart-Fox articles written about his healing practices in international magazines.

Every balian has his own idiosyncrasies. In Liyer’s healing practice, he used particular compositions to serve as protection against various threats and afflictions. Even the onslaught of Western ideas, tourists and medicine has not dampened the spirit of Balinese magic. Most Balinese still believe in the existence of a parallel world of demons and deities, of white and black magic, mediated by healers like Liyer who play a vital role in maintaining the health and well-being of the individual, family and community. Balian offer protection against unseen forces and prevention from being stalked by lurking beings which they consider very real. Liyer’s practice was also based on the teachings of traditional palm-leaf lontar manuscripts (balian usada).

The book was produced and edited by Stuart-Fox’s old friend Charles Levine with whom he worked at Apa Productions of Singapore in the mid-1970s. Levine was managing editor at the time and together they began the Ketut Liyer project which for various reasons never saw the light of day when the two were to work professionally again.

A mixture of scholarly reflections and personal reminisces, this book is a unique cultural record that ushers the reader into the shimmering world of magic as practiced by the island’s most famous holistic folk healer and accomplished painter. Fofty-five years in the making, Pray, Magic, Heal is an investigation into the complexity of Balinese magic and healing arts accompanied by a stunning catalogue of magical line drawings and paintings. Besides being a compelling read told with great empathy, the book is clearly written for both the layperson and the Bali culture expert and is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in Bali’s healing arts.


Pray, Magic, Heal: The Story of Ketut Liyer by David Stuart-Fox, New Saraswati Press/Saritaksu 2015, ISBN-978-0986335112, paperback, 262 pages: illustrations, color photographs.

For any publishers interested in having one of their books considered for review in Toko Buku, please contact:


Copyright © 2018

You can read all past articles of Toko Buku at