My friend Agus invited me to a party on Saturday night: he promised there would be no bule there except for me, so I took him up on his invitation. We rode to Denpasar to meet a few of his friends, climbed into the back of a a truck, and drove two hours west to Tabanan, stopping only to eat some fried chicken; we were running late.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I asked Agus if I should pick up some Bin Tangs– he smiled and said no. I grew up in Canada, so I assume “party” means beer, so I figured it would be provided. I smiled at the prospect, and speculated as to whether I should have brought my bathing suit.
We pulled to the side of a dirt rode in the midst of several rice fields, and were greeted by the sound of Balinese music, which reminds me of Swordfishtrombone-era Tom Waits. The videos later on will feature some of the music, but for now here is a picture of the band.
Our hosts led us to a nice space under a canopy where we were served water, juice, fermented mushroom tea, and coffee, along with a nice spread of various fruits and other foods including many varieties of jelly. This was the first of many meals we enjoyed throughout the evening.
Though we arrived late, Agus assured me that the party would go on until at least 4 AM so I helped myself to a second and third cup of coffee.
I was surprised by the ages of those in attendance, especially considering how late I was promised the party would go. Children as young as three ran around, danced, and gambled (I don’t think many children here have bedtimes, which is refreshing). The oldest person there must have been pushing one hundred.
In Canada, most people disappear when they have children. Those who remain social only do so with their fellow breeders at gatherings ending no later than 7 PM. Here, people of all ages gather to eat, to worship, and to dance. I think we Westerners could take a few notes.
Dance played a central role at the party. Walking around Ubud, I’ve seen many dance performances. Five bucks gets you wonderful music and dance, replete with costumes and makeup comparable to what I saw on Saturday night.
Agus has told me, however, that such performances for are devoid of ceremonial context as they are created with tourists in mind. Running at an average of 120 minutes, these are also comparably short. The ceremony I saw on Saturday night ran from 7 PM until 5 AM: it included dance, a feast of wonderful food, several comedy acts, and a call to worship. There was never a dull moment.
Offerings were brought in ornate baskets and taken to the inner temple in a long line. Offerings are omnipresent in Bali. Every morning the women weave baskets from banana leaves. The baskets, along with flowers, rice, incense, and sometimes Ritz Crackers are placed around the house, in the street, and in front of businesses. The offerings brought to the party were much larger, however. Here is a video of the procession.
Costumes were the party’s most vibrant element. At once captivating and entrancing, these costumes had a profound affect on those who danced in and around them. Upon removing the masks, many of the performers rushed to the inner temple to free themselves of the spirits they managed, for a moment, to harness; some, exhausted, had to be carried.
I had a very close encounter with one such spirit, who seemed a bit perturbed by my presence. Have a look in the video below.
At about seven hours into the party, all of the spirits who visited us throughout the evening converged upon the stage. The line between “performer” (and I use this word hesitantly as I wonder if those in costumes were spiritual figures similar to shamans) and “spectator” was blurred. We all became participants in a cosmic drama.
I am no expert on Balinese religion. Part of my motivation for coming here was to see what Hinduism looks like in this, the only non-Muslim part of Indonesia. I took several classes in Hinduism during my undergrad, and the most important thing I learned about “it” is that is that it is not a cohesive, definable “religion”. Instead, Hinduism grafts itself into many religions, and cultural traditions, creating something entirely new.
From my conversations with Agus, I have learned that Balinese culture borrows aspects from both Chinese thought as well. Rather than engaging “light” exclusively, Balinese people strive for balance, much like Taoism. Agus used electricity as an example: without positive, and negative, there is no conductivity. Similarly, Balinese people serve as conduits between forces of good and evil, recognizing that both aspects must be recognized in order to maintain balance.
The most dramatic point of the evening served to elucidate this concept. Swords were drawn. Many humans attacked an evil spirit. People and spirits screamed alike. The man playing the spirit eventually removed his costume and the attacks became progressively disturbing.
The violence continued for what seemed like hours. Swords were scraped against the ground: we knew they were real,and yet they were unable to pierce the skin of evil.
People danced in the midst of all this mayhem. Their fluid gestures seemed all the more graceful for it.
Eventually, things calmed down. I was impressed by the fact that nobody was injured considering how many swords were wildly wielded. A number of aides were on hand to direct those clad in costume (I can’t imagine it is easy to see out of the elaborate masks), and to support those overcome by spirit. At about 4:30 AM, everyone assumed devout posture, and prayers were sung.
I was soon lulled to sleep by the music of laughter, and excited conversation between friends in the truck. I was nudged awake when we pulled into the garage. Agus’ friends all smiled, and shook my hand bidding me farell. I climbed onto the back of the motorcycle half asleep, and dreamed of all I’d seen. It occurred to me that I hadn’t craved a beer all night.