Saturday, October 29, 2005

Mediums in Bali

My curiosity about the fire walking I had so little expected prompted some reading. A back issue of Bali Echo has an article about trance in Bali, whereby certain people become mediums for the gods. Pamela Tibbs said:
"The trance state of mind is in fact a regular part of many traditional Balinese dances. Kris dancers utilise this state of being to stab themselves with razor sharp knives, which then refuse to enter the body. In some instances dancers actually pierce the body with the kris, while singing and dancing for hours on end. When the sharp blade is removed there is no blood and the dancers apparently feel no pain."
That sounds like nonsense, but it is interesting that mediums are used in Bali as they have long been in Tibet. Tibbs said:
"The Balinese believe that God selects [a woman to be a special priest, or sedan]. Often the first thing that happens is that she becomes very sick and cannot eat or drink. No medicine is effective. The family asks God what has happened to their loved one. This is all done in a special ceremony with a priest who goes into a trance. If the sick person is a sedan, God sends a message through the entranced priest and tells her what kind of natural medicine should be given."
She recounted what she witnessed in Tianyar, near Tulamben, on the north east coast. A sedan meditated amongst the clamour of 500 people at a ceremony until:
"after about fifty minutes or more, her entire countenance changed. Her facial features took on the look of a very sick person, her mouth become distorted, lips slack, saliva running down the right side of her mouth as if she were paralysed. She looked as though she had no control over this bodily function, and her right hand became twisted like that of a stroke victim."
The relatives of a man who had met a premature death were able to talk to him in the spirit world for more than an hour through the sedan. S/he told them that he was happy to find his final place of rest and to say his final goodbyes. There was much relief. It is a nice story, and whatever its foundation it is no doubt comforting for the family of the deceased to have this last contact with a soul in the knowledge that it will soon come to rest. Dr Jean Couteau, a French anthropologist who had lived in Bali for more than 20 years when Christian Racki wrote The Sacred Dances of Bali, wrote in the preface to that book:
"[One of the functions of Balinese dance] might be a way to channel or make visible the invisible world. Most religious events consist of the calling 'down' and sending 'up' of ancestors, gods and gods' companions. They sometimes come down through the intercession of a dancer. As the Balinese say, they perch on the dancer, who functions as a repository for the visiting deity. The dancer is visited; in other words he is in a state of trance. As such he may perform feats such as trampling fire or stabbing himself."
There is more here about balians, the traditional healers of Bali.