Down The Rabbit Hole- Life, Death, Ritual and Ceremony in Bali

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

A Visual Essay

Hello there, I'm a photographer /artist living in Bali with my Balinese husband. For the past 16 years it really has felt as if I have fallen down the rabbit hole, where nothing is as it seems and what I once thought as normal is really very strange to me now. I have comfortably lived in two worlds, moving between the Balinese culture and the culture of my Western upbringing.

Attending Balinese rituals and ceremonies has become a normal occurrence for me. I feel privileged to say the least. Always a sumptuous feast for the eyes and from the perspective of an artist/photographer it's an absolute delight. I have compiled some of the shots I have taken over the last few years and intend to keep adding to this.

Potong Gigi, Teeth Filing Ritual

We are all brought up with societal constructs which appear normal to us. living within Balinese culture you watch the children grow to take their place in the system, beginning very young, without question, without rebellion, adapting and responding to the everyday Balinese rituals and events-

A group of teenagers sit dressed in ornate traditional clothing. The low muted, repetitive sound of the gamelan orchestra can be heard in the distance. A bell is ringing intermittently as the high priest chants, breaking through the repetitive, pentatonic scale of the gamelan. Incense permeates the air and combines with the sounds, the heat, the intense colours to encourage a state of heightened awareness, of my senses. We wait for the ritual to begin, signifying a right of passage, where the eye teeth of the participants will be filed down to ensure access to heaven after death. This isn't a situation to take lightly apparently as the relatives about to go through the ritual are vulnerable to outside forces. Procedures must be observed to ensure safety.

Teeth Filing Ceremony Bali.

A Mass Cremation in Bali

Not for the faint hearted, deceased family members are removed from their resting places in the ground the night before the cremation. Usually by the men of the family who become the grave diggers. I was invited to this event when my husbands grandmother was exhumed, however I declined as my horror movie influences were too strong.

The next day I was very aware of my Western sensibilities being slightly shocked at the open empty graves and the wind blowing dust over me from such. Over one hundred deceased remains were exhumed the previous night, leaving many empty graves. We sit amongst the empty holes in the ground and wait for the cremation to take place.

In a traditional mass cremation such as this, relatives clean the bones and arrange them with offerings, as well as a few of the deceased person's belongings. The remains are arranged on small beds alongside each other. A series of rituals and ceremonies take place to ensure a safe journey to the after life.

men from the banjar, are employed as gas burners to stoke the pyres. They have large gas bottles and long prods with which to ignite and keep the fires burning. The heat is intense as very high temperatures are needed to get this job done. I was fearful of explosions but nothing happened apart from what was meant to.

Barong Ritual, Jimbaran Bali.

Not a performance for show, but a set of three consecutive rituals, intended to cleanse the area from evil. The spiritual leaders give the direction for the Barong ceremonies to occur, when it is thought to be needed. It is a battle between the Barong and Rangda, which represents the eternal battle between good and evil.

It's slow to start in the heat, with the constant chanting and repetitive sounds of the gamelan seeming to never end. I try to find a place to sit in the crowd, as it's hot in the kabaya and my legs hurt from standing for so long. Jalan Uluwatu is lined with people as far as you can see. The road is blocked off and men of all ages are sitting on the road facing the same direction, with their white sarongs tucked up between their legs. Each man has a sword tucked into the scarf wrapped around his waist. I find a place to sit with a view of the men and their swords. I figure the best vantage point for my camera.

Once the fight between the Barong and Rangda plays out, you can hear sounds - coughing and vomiting sounds. it's as if on mass people are being affected by something. I'm now thinking I am sitting a bit too close to the action as men start vomiting and hacking up. Then in an instant, as if the men are summoned by something, they jump up and run towards Rangda, swords out, they hit what appears to be awall of energy and fall back onto the hot tar road.

It all happens very fast now with the crowd up and running towards the action. People screaming and dropping to the ground, both the men involved in the drama and the bystanders. People are overcome by something and are starting to trance. I remember thinking at the time, I don't want to succumb to whatever it is that is affecting them all.

Then the big temple is the place to be apparently, so I follow the crowd. I'm on my own now as there are hundreds of people moving into the temple, up the steps and through the narrow doorways. Some are being carried. My husband Wayan finds me in the crowd and we sit on the temple floor, with family. The whaling on mass intensifies.

A few family members have also begun to trance and they have to be watched and taken care of by family members and a priest who sprinkles them with holy water. At this stage holy water is being splashed everywhere. The trancing people are soaking wet. One relative has apparently been possessed by some sort of primate, and has eaten kilos of fruit. Other people continue to cathartically cry and sob, while in a trance like state. A man is performing snake like movements on the ground, writhing and crying. Others are fire walking. As well as much self sword stabbing by the men. Women dance and trance. I'm catching as much as I can on camera. It seems to spiral up into a chaotic, cathartic peak. I'm not allowed to photograph a lot of it.

Then late into the night it winds down. We leave the big temple and buy sate on the street, jump on the bike and head home. I wonder about what I just witnessed. this sort of event with all that went on is very normal it would appear down this rabbit hole.

I have been told the energy has been set straight again, everything is as it should be and we can all carry on as we normally do.

Ceremony Bali

Ceremonies, parades and ritual.

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