I Went to a Balinese Trance Ceremony
An unanticipated phone call in the afternoon alerts me that a Daratan ceremony is taking place in a matter of minutes at Pura Dalem Agung, a Hindu temple in the coastal mountains of Seraya Berat. Suddenly, I am beaming; I have been waiting to attend one of these ceremonies for years.
I uncurl from my stupor in the hammock and dash to my bedroom as if I am Beyoncé running late for the Met Gala. I plough through the cupboards for my ceremonial get-up, find my udeng (ceremonial hat) and slap it atop my frazzled hair at a crooked angle, throw a sarong around my waist and neglect to put underwear on – a favourite new trend of mine. I then dive into the car and haul-ass up a serpentine trail filled with potholes, frightened chickens and topless Balinese women.
I make it just in time.
The banten (offerings) have gone out to the gods; sembahyang (Balinese-Hindu prayers) have just ended; bakso (traditional Balinese soup) has been slurped; the local men have smoked their gudang garum cigarettes. I am the only foreigner present.
It all happens so fast. Drumming erupts and suddenly the Balinese villagers, hundreds of them, are scurrying atop the meadow grass towards the front of the temple – a towering structure of carved volcanic rock contorting skyward – all cheering and chanting as mankus (Balinese priests) stand atop the cracked cement steps, flicking holy water over the crowd with their bamboo sticks. I follow en masse, pretending I know what’s going on. Those of us who receive a douse of the cleansing liquid clamber backwards against the oncoming tide of villagers.
As I back away, an elderly woman catches my gaze. A cheeky grin of knowingness sweeps across her face, and I’m mesmerised as she moves into the centre of the field to join the other dancers. The crowd expands around the procession of dancers floating into the centre of the ringed space as the smoke from hundreds of incense sticks swirls into the air. The dancers begin moving their bodies to the riveting sound of 30 men bashing away at drums and gongs as the hubbub stirs through the crowd, leading to an eruption of cheers. The dancers’ hands twist in the air, their bodies twirl in a dream-like dance and their eyes goggle towards the heavens.
The drumming and cheering amplifies throughout the arena, the temple vibrates with energy, and darkness descends upon the crowd as the horizon flutters in a fiery haze from the dying sunset.
Then the dancing transforms into something else.
Daggers are passed around to some of the dancers, who wave the asymmetrical blades above them in trance. Music builds, surging through the murky air, and the dancers violently dig the points of the knives into their chests. Their faces tense up to expose every wrinkle and vein as their eyes and teeth lock shut. The blunted knives draw no blood, but form deep crevices in their skin as their bicep muscles pop out at either side.
The cosmic dance builds in energy and temperament as the dancers’ bodies contort and sway through the smoke. I am bedazzled by the array unfolding before me and feel high, as if someone has spiked my bakso with ecstasy.
Suddenly, two of the dancers loose all control of their bodies and hurl themselves into the surrounding crowd as onlookers scream, faces aghast, and catch the dancers from spilling out of the circle.
The elderly woman I saw earlier begins convulsing. Her body buckles as two mankus come to control her, propping her upright. She throws her arms out to her sides with immense ferocity, as if pegged to a cross, as her eyes widen and roll in her head. The mankus support her like this until she calms down, her head drooping to the floor and arms falling at her waist. She soon becomes alert again and ogles her surroundings as if staring through the world, not at it. The crowd cheers louder, and soon enough she is free of the mankus, dancing in cosmic bliss with her eyes closed once again.
Other dancers stagger to the floor at different moments and roll around in intractable fits; one of the dancing women stumbles out onto the road, hurling her arms into the air whilst staggering across the cement as the mankus lure her back into the grounds. Two of the dancers are taken into the temple to be settled and prayed for.
I watch these people losing control of their minds and bodies. They are either unconscious or they have left their bodies entirely, transitioning from hypnotism to complete loss of control, before coming back down to earth with the help of the mankus. Some extraordinary force is taking over, possessing them, and they are no longer themselves. There is no acting or bullshitting here – there’s not a doubt in my mind that this isn’t real.
When the ceremony ends two hours later and the people disperse, I find my friend Dewi and hurl questions at her. I discover that I’ve just watched a kris dance, kris being the name given to the ancient daggers, which hold spiritual and magical powers. By digging the daggers into their chests, the dancers are channelling the gods into their present being.
“Unless you can do the kris dance yourself,” Dewi explains, “you cannot understand what happens. I do not understand myself, and I never will. If the gods told me to dance, I would, but I have never had the feeling, so I do not do it.”
The dancers cannot be taught how to enter this state of possession. They simply listen to the music, dance in the temple, and feel the vibrations and energies flow through them. A feeling of euphoria embraces them. A fervent connection is formed with something intangible as transcendental powers take a hold of their mind, body and soul.
Daratan ceremonies and kris dances are held throughout Bali to honour religious or cultural events specific to each region, such as the anniversary of a temple or a wedding ceremony. For the Balinese, the ceremonies are a way of bringing divinity to their reality here on earth and drawing a sense of solidarity by acknowledging that the gods are always with them and a part of them.
Although, at times, the ceremony was confronting and chilling, there was something magical about it. Strangely enough, I felt comforted by the solemnisation, and somehow less alone in the world. I think even the most adamant atheist would be forced to rethink spirituality after witnessing a kris dance. I sure did.