The Power of Ritual
Two hundred moss-riddled steps snaked around the hillside and deep into the lush Indonesian jungle. As I paused and inhaled, I detected the faint trace of incense drifting on the dense air. We continued, and the growing squawk of gathered humans bounced off the steady rumble of falling water, suggesting the end was near. The canopy opened and my eyes turned to the cliffs that encircled us and our destination below – a holy Hindu waterpark.
Somewhat awkwardly, we entered a setting packed with sarong-clad Balinese people wielding incense and flowers. We’d arrived here, unplanned, on a Hindu holy day and in every direction people were in motion.
Within a small, gated area, devout Hindus sat cross-legged opposite various godly rock-cut shrines, before which they offered woven palm-leaf baskets packed full of symbolic goodies. After multiple sets of prayers, they placed a petal behind their ears. Finally, a priestly woman at the front wrapped up the formalities; with flowers dipped in water from a bowl, she sprinkled each partaker.
Behind this ceremony area stood the main attraction: a short, three-metre-wide waterfall draped with white and gold silk flags. Men, women and children stood close together with a shallow pool of running water lapping against their knees. One by one, they shrouded themselves with the curtain of falling water, obtaining melukat: a purification of body and soul.
Balinese Hindus believe that our world is a dance of opposites: of good and bad, light and dark, love and hate, a struggle and rest that ultimately creates a harmony in life. Throughout our lives, we absorb countless negative energies. Melukat is a purification ritual designed to expel these.
According to local mythology, the holy water flowing down this mountain holds the power to cleanse.
I surveyed the scene around me and while the analytical part of my brain tried to dissect the situation and categorise it as something rational, there was another part of me that just let go. I donned the traditional Balinese sarong, entered the pool and joined the queue.
There I was in the water surrounded by strangers, attempting to be all “travel” and embrace a foreign culture. But that thought led to others and suddenly I felt alone and unsure. “What am I doing here?”
The encouraging, excited faces all around quickly reassured me. They helped me understand that no matter how different we are from each other, showing interest in another’s culture and beliefs is generally understood as a compliment. Even if we don’t share the entirely same view, we humans appreciate and respect others’ attempts to understand us.
Looking past the religious aspect of this ceremony, I saw people simply coming together in homage to nature, to wash their egos, to reflect and hopefully understand a little more about themselves and, in turn, each other.
For aeons, ritual has acted like a fluffy psychological blanket, protecting and nurturing inherently human states of mind, such as love, fear and despair. The idea of ritual is to allocate proper time for reflection; to guide and give structure to vital feelings that might otherwise get lost in our busy schedules, possibly leaving us a little hollow or dissatisfied.
Over the rushing water, a man’s voice instructed me: “Empty your mind when you put your head under the water,” he said. “You will feel its power. We think we can control nature, but we can’t. Nature is everything. We are nothing.”
I crept closer and closer to the waterfall. The line became shorter until finally the man in front of me dunked under. For just a moment, I became like a child nervously sitting at the start of a waterslide, waiting for that light to change from red to green.
As the man finished his cleanse, the space emptied and I stepped forward. I grabbed hold of the rock face, and pulled myself forward and into the liquid curtain. The cold water pounded onto my crown and shoulders, and tumbled down over my back. Like the man had instructed, I emptied my mind. For a brief moment, engulfed by the boom of the falling water, my outside world was silenced.
Though we tend to forget, the need for ritual still very much exists in the West. But today, we live in a world where individualism and economic empowerment are championed, and the importance of symbolic community rituals has faded. We fend for ourselves, in our own time, without disrupting the 40-hour work week.
After cleansing, I thought about which rituals I partake in back home in Australia, and soon realised that most of them are fuelled by consumerism, alcohol, sport or all three. Don’t get me wrong – I do enjoy these parts of my culture. But they tend to fall short on a mental/spiritual level, and are a little less ambitious.
I’m not saying everyone needs to dunk their head under some off-beat, mystical waterfall to save the world. I’m merely suggesting that our instinctual need for ritual has never been extinguished. It seems like the sort of thing that could help define our culture, bring people together and, most importantly, teach us how to respect the little blue marble that is Planet Earth.
Cover by Pawel Szymankiewicz