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Seeking Soul in Bali: A Balinese Purification Ceremony

By Karryn Miller

We leave the Chedi Club Tanah Gajah Ubud as the sun is still rising, before the heat of the day settles over Ubud, and while good spirits are lingering still in nearby temples. Holy beings, I gather, aren’t big on the heat or the sun.

As we drive, shuttered shopfronts give way to rice paddies and traditional villages. The streets are empty but already there’s a buzz of activity by each local temple.

Within 15 minutes we’re in Pejeng Village, to the east of Ubud. Gerhana, my driver and guide who has been at the Chedi Club for the last 16 years, tells me they chose this location for the Balinese Purification Ceremony for its relative peace and quiet. They chose well. There are no other visitors in sight.

I begin with a sarong. Long pants or a dress won’t do. It must be a sarong. My guide, our local contact Yogi, and his dad all gather around to help with the wrap, none of them entirely sure how a woman should wear it so they’re figuring it out on the spot. Once they’re agreed on how it’s done a white scarf (selendang) is then tied around my waist. My guide explains that this scarf will stop my spirit from escaping my body as I go into the temple.

Melukat, the purification ceremony I’m about to do, is part of Balinese life. This ritual is for the Balinese what confession is for the Catholics. For me it’s a chance to explore the spiritual side of the “Island of the Gods.” When I lived in India I meditated beneath the Bodhi Tree where Buddha achieved enlightenment. In Japan I got engaged inside the Great Buddha of Kamakura (Kamakura Daibutsu). I’ve always been fascinated with sacred sites and rituals regardless of the religion.   

Gerhana confides he’s only performed the rites of the melukat once in the last six months. Most people go monthly, especially when the moon is full and the omens are bright.

“Balinese people do this when stressed or under pressure. They may have had an accident or feel their soul is heading in the wrong direction,” explained Deasy Swanadarini, the general manager of the Chedi Club, the night before. “They do this to bring them back to balance.”

They do not do this, however, no matter the circumstances, when a woman is having a period. I know this as I’ve been asked several times by different people if it’s that time of the month. Since Bali’s iconic Mt. Agung erupted last fall, partly — say the locals — because some had upset the gods with actions that violate age-old customs, I sense that observing customs to the letter of the law is all the more important these days.

We make our way down a mossy stone staircase and I can hear the sound of the river. A group of local ladies are a few steps in front, detouring for a natural spring used not just for the ceremony but also for drinking water and bathing. Curious, I looked around one corner and accidentally surprised a lady bathing under a tap. In true Balinese fashion she laughed it off, as did her friends, and so did I.

Our priest, an elderly man with the long white beard of a sage and eyes bright with empathy and compassion, and his assistant make preparations for the first part of the ceremony. This takes place at taman sari, the lower grounds of a temple that’s been here since the 11th century. Moss overwhelms the stone sculptures, and the whole place reminds me of Tomb Raider, except for Angelina Jolie’s skimpy shorts.

The ceremony begins with the priest chanting Sanskrit mantras, the words so ancient my guide cannot translate. I assume he’s blessing the water and each flower that’s placed in it. We’re invited inside and my part in the process begins. I glance sideways and follow the assistant’s lead. We kneel and pray multiple times, with a slight variation at each step - no flowers in hand to both open and close the ceremony, once with a white frangipani for the god of the sun, another time with a small array of tropical flowers for the multiple gods - Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. Each time we cleanse our hands and the flowers in the smoke of the incense before bringing our palms together. With prayers complete it’s time to get wet.

The water here purifies in multiple ways. First the priest flicks the water on my face, then I cup my hands and drink it three times, then there’s a round of wiping it through my hair. I’m wet but not soaked and so far the water hasn’t gone below my neck. The water from a young coconut, that represents a seed, is then used for the next round. Through its use we’re planting a seed for a good start. It’s the same with the rice that is used in the second part of the ceremony that takes place at the main temple, manik mas. Whole pieces of rice, never broken ones, are picked to plant a seed of prosperity.

The manik mas was built in homage to the golden tiger centuries ago. As in the lower grounds, moss has devoured these spires and statues, rendering the tigers more green than gold. Here, in the manik mas, a similar ceremony is repeated but instead of finishing with coconut water the priest presses rice on my forehead and temples and feeds me a few grains.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, my guide collects the offerings to take back to the resort. The money, which forms part of our gift to the spirits, remains at the temple but the fruits and food that are presented don’t stay. It’s understandable given the number of ceremonies performed.

We linger a while before making our way back up from the valley, chatting with the priest. I learn that despite his age he’s only been the priest here for three years. Priesthood is passed down through the family and he took over when his father passed away. I leave feeling a little lighter in spirit, cleansed, and with a feeling that I’ve peeled back another layer of Balinese culture.


submitted by -- Gayle

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