A village outside Ubud, Bali
I have no idea what’s happening. It’s about 3:00am, and it’s just starting to drizzle. The haunting tones of the gamelan and hypnotizing reverberation of the gong have been going steadily since 10pm, and I’m not even sure what planet I’m on anymore. My local friend and I have eaten all the mangosteens he bought for us, and the glass of tea he brought to help ease my lingering cough sits empty, waiting to be returned to the vendor stall just outside the temple, whenever we break our attention away enough to get up, or pass it back to someone behind us in the crowd. I can’t tell my blood sugar apart from my humming brain, and there are words being said, but I don’t know what they mean.
The rain does nothing to deter the ornately dressed comedians, who are now cracking jokes in Balinese, in the center of our ring of seated bodies. I don’t know any of the traditional language, but the few hundred people around me are all laughing. This is their home and their mother tongue, and I’m pretty sure these figures who look like something out of a royal palace 400 years ago, have now made numerous penis references.
The crowd seems mostly relaxed and subdued now, maybe beginning to get a little sleepy. They’re a far cry from the fluid, scrambling amoeba of energy they were a few hours ago, in the dramatic peak of the ceremony.
A couple hours before that, I had been sitting and eating Nasi Campur in my favorite local warung, and conversing with “Blackie” – who was born into a line of spiritual healers, but deigned the role himself, because he wanted the fun and freedom of a secular life. Another friend of his came in, and in the typical whirlwind of momentum that is life here in Ubud, next thing I know, I’ve accepted an invitation to a dance at a temple, and am whizzing away on the back this new friend’s motorbike.
We zipped off to his village, about 20 minutes outside the city, and along the ride I learned that this Calonarang was a special annual ceremony that only happened on this full moon, in this village. Like every day in Ubud, I thanked my lucky stars to be in some “right” place, at some “right” time, to somehow stumble into this invitation.
After a pit stop to laugh and smile and take pictures with his sister and nieces, as they played “oversized American Barbie” with me, and dressed me in all the proper temple finery I’d need to be allowed inside.
At the temple, rows and rows of motorbikes lined the street outside, and the temple grounds swarmed with every generation of families, food carts keeping the bodies fueled, and vendors selling all the light-up trinkets you could hope for at a nighttime special event. My new friend Nyoman took my hand, and lead me snaking through the ground, into the performance area, and found some earth to sit on, just on the edge of the action.
I should rephrase – “sit” is too relaxed a word. The energy of the night had already been building for a while, and there was a palpable intensity to the circle we made and the action inside. A dancer wearing a large demonic mask with waving hair that covered his whole form had been dancing intimidatingly in the middle of the ring, and was just starting to be approached by teenage boys who appeared to be warriors, sent to take it down. In the circle around the show, everyone was crouched, ready to spring up and flee, if the apparently unchoreographed fight got too close for their safety, which it did often.
I soon began to realize these were the performances I’d heard and wondered about. This was the Balinese omnipresent supernatural… these performers were all in trance. They raged and shouted and ran at each other, brandishing their daggers, and pouncing with the worked up intensity specially reserved for the high testosterone of youth, infused with a deep spiritual purpose by their Gods. The fight continued until, one by one, the young men started turning their daggers on themselves.
This was the bit I was most curious about. I strained to soak up as much information each moment as I could, as skeptical western mind met hopeful metaphysical heart. Local belief is that these performers are completely possessed by their Gods, and completely out of control through this portion of the ritual. I’d heard tales of the ferocity with which these men stabbed themselves, somehow never leaving any mark.
I can’t tell you if the dancers were actually trying to injure themselves, or if they had been socially conditioned over the years to know the motions. I can’t tell you if they were inhabited by otherworldly forces, but the flighty, exhilarated crowd was sure generating enough energy to create some sort of altered state in just about anyone sensitive to that sort of thing. I don’t know what made each young man drop to the ground, but one by one they did, and as the last one fell, the music immediately calmed, though keeping its persistent eerie beat and basic melody. The high priests of the village, and women baskets of rags and tinctures rushed in to the men, and began tending to them. Splashings of holy water, wipings of sweat, grounding, nurturing touch — all a gentle welcome back to the earth, out of their trance state.
We all sat spellbound and watched.
And then, soon the “stage” in the middle of the circle was cleared, and another traditional dance began… continuing to tell the story of the battle began in the first.
No more stabbings occurred that night. The bulk of the rest of the dances were feats of amazing control, dancers articulating fingers, necks, and eyeballs, precisely as needed for the traditional storytelling. A Whirl of fabrics woven with golden threads, dramatic brightly colored makeup, and flowers everywhere, ran past my eyes, scene by scene. Hours of spectacle enchanted the senses.
By around 3am, I couldn’t even be sure I was on planet Earth anymore. The ritual didn’t come to an end until near 4… long after the drizzle turned into a downpour, and the few hundred villagers and I stampeded under the nearby pavilion… long after the musicians and dancers continued the show as prescribed, undeterred by the showers pouring down on them.
I thought the event was complete when the music and dancing stopped, and we headed toward the motorbike once the rain stopped. Part of the way down the street though, Nyoman turned the bike quickly into a parked position and told me to jump off. Following his lead, I crouched with him next to the brick retainer wall nearby, unsure who we were hiding from, or what was going on.
Soon I saw the cloud of white fabric headed toward us. The priests I’d seen earlier lead the front row, flanking the demon who was now parading down the street. Throngs of young people followed, marching in a proud silent fullmoon parade.
Nyoman explained to me after they passed — the “demon” character actually contained an important high spirit, and it was important for the wellbeing of the village, to have your head lower than his as they passed. Once the procession had made its way past us, we were back on the bike and headed home.
Trying to wrap my head around the night, I googled Calonerang when I got home, and found a better understanding of the story, but no real insight on my own experience. Had I actually just witnessed metaphysical feats of the superhuman? My own nervous system certainly felt unusual, to say the least. I decided to wait until I’d gotten some sleep to try to figure it out.
“Some sleep” turned into nearly a week of barely leaving my bed. I was totally wiped. That sometimes happens during times of big transformation, when it feels like things are being rewired in my brain. I never did feel rested enough to try to intellectually understand the night I’d experienced.
And in the time since, I’ve had enough Ubud experiences to learn that this place isn’t about trying to compress live’s big messy confusing magic into our comfortable intellectual boxes. In this place, I’ve removed the crown of supremacy from the head of rationality, turning my worship back to the directness of experience. Maybe that Balinese ritual worked on me exactly the way it was supposed to.
Maybe it’s spiritually powerful for us to have no idea what the hell is going on.
I think there are those teachers that would say that’s the true state of things anyway, no matter how much we try to comfort ourselves with our knowledge.
Feels about right to me.
(Photo credit: Jorge Dalmau)