Milestones

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The life of every Balinese Hindu is marked by a series of ceremonies beginning at birth and ending with the final cremation rite. In between are a number of significant occasions that track the person’s growth as an individual and community member. This week I happened to see the two such ceremonies. Together they represent the bookends of childhood: the first welcomed a three-month old infant into his world and community, the second signaled a young woman’s arrival as a mature adult.

Balinese child-rearing practices stress the constant presence and affection of family and friends. Babies are held almost constantly, safe from both spiritual and physical danger. This protectiveness is especially important for very young infants, whose souls are not completely settled in their new forms and are therefore vulnerable to malevolent spirits. For the first few months of life the child is not allowed to touch the ground and receives few outside visitors. At twelve and forty-two days after birth, ceremonies are performed both to protect the child and to cleanse the mother, who is considered impure after giving birth. The most elaborate ceremony is held at three months, when the child officially joins his community.

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When I arrived at the family compound, special precautions were still in place because of the infant’s presence. I stopped to touch the kitchen pavilion, a brief gesture that insures the guest’s spiritual cleanliness. The child was nowhere in sight, kept inside with his immediate family before his big debut. A group of priests soon arrived to prepare for the complex ceremony, which began with a procession around the family compound. The group stopped to sprinkle holy water, carefully purifying every corner of the home. Next the three-month old child was brought outside and formally introduced to his village community. His parents placed small gold rings around his ankles and wrists. Then in the safe embrace of his young cousin, the child touched the ground for the first time. A woven basket, traditionally used for keeping chickens, was briefly lowered over the pair and then lifted to symbolize the child’s world becoming open and unbounded. On the ground beneath them was the image of a turtle, which in Balinese mythology carries the world on its back.

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To give the baby boy a taste of what he has to look forward to, he was presented with offerings representing all the fruits of Balinese life. A coconut was cracked open so he could taste the sweet juice for the first time. An egg, a mangosteen, a roasted chicken, and various other foods were briefly touched to his lips.

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The rain drizzled continuously and the baby cried, but the ceremony pressed on. The child and his entourage moved back and forth between the family temple and a small pavilion where a priest performed blessings. Most of the guests opted to keep dry and stay out of the way. Their presence was important, but the actual motions of the ritual were left to priests and immediate family.

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This child will have another smaller ceremony in a few months to mark his first birthday on the 210-day Balinese calendar. After that, his next milestone will come around puberty, when his teeth are filed down to mark his transition into adulthood. Luckily I didn’t have to wait for that baby boy to grow up to witness this famous rite of passage; a young woman in my local village was having her teeth filed that same week.

While the baby’s three-month ceremony involved a lot of waiting around on my part, my second ceremony of the week came as a surprise. My teacher, Subandi, woke me at 6 AM to go play music for a tooth-filing ceremony. The traditional accompaniment for this occasion is gender wayang music, an old and very technically challenging form of Balinese music performed by either two or four musicians. As a gender (pronounced ‘gen-dayr’ with a hard ‘g’) player, Subandi is expected to play for many ceremonies in the village. Normally he would do this with his father or another local musician, but recently he has been inviting me to come play as well. Here we are playing a short piece called “Krepetan,” which literally means, “the sound of a crackling fire.”

We played non-stop for the entire ceremony while a group of men took turns chanting and singing text from the Hindu epics. The desired effect of all this sound and activity is called ramai, which means busy and full. Nobody was listening all that carefully (which was a relief for me); we were there to create an appropriately ramai atmosphere for the pleasure of both humans and gods.

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While we worked our way through my limited repertoire, a young woman entered the compound and laid down on a mattress set up under the central pavilion. The priest filed down the tips of her canines, symbolically removing her animal nature. Her village now expects her to control her emotions and take responsibility for her actions.
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A village official was on hand to take care of the paper work. The woman left the compound in a small parade, now an adult in the eyes of her community. The procession was our cue to play fast and loud for a few minutes, then our part was done. I was left to sip my coffee in a stranger’s home, while villagers toted off the instruments and life went back to normal.

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As always, I am struck the willingness of most Balinese to share their community and religious life with strangers. This open spirit is especially impressive on an island that is flooded by millions of outsiders every year. Perhaps the stream of anonymous faces staring out of tour buses makes people that much more keen to share their culture in a more intimate way. As I take part in more activities in Subandi’s village, I am starting to feel less like the stranger and more like an honorary member of the community. When I ask permission to attend a ceremony I use the Indonesian word ikut,” which means both to follow and to join. It perfectly describes my status: somewhere between an observer and a participant. I may never have my own teeth filed down, but while I am here I have the opportunity to partake in the never-ending flow of prayer, ritual, and ceremony that defines Balinese life.
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