Galungan is one of the most important holidays on the Balinese Hindu calendar. It signifies a time when ancestral spirits return to the earth, and so, is a time for the Balinese to return home to visit family and participate in various ceremonies. Special offerings and prayers are necessary to accommodate these incorporeal guests.
I went to a large gathering at the picturesque Padang Padang beach, poised on the souther tip of Bali. The small white sand beach is hemmed in by low, overhanging limestone cliffs draped in jungle foliage - the perfect place for an exorcism!
Passing a few of the less devoted men rowdily betting on a cock fight, I made my way down the steep stone steps. Standing trepidatiously at the back of the beach beside battered fishing boats, I was unsure if I should move in closer or keep my distance. The ceremony was already in progress. Throngs of patrons were dressed in dazzling white and seated facing the water with hands lifted to their foreheads, pressed together in prayer, eyes lowered, gazing at the sand. Cleansing the devotees, the priests dipped a bamboo brush into a golden pot adorned with carvings filled with holy water, then touched the brush to each persons forehead while delivering a prayer.
I struck up a quiet conversation with a man beside me, asking about the ceremony. In his words, Galungan represents the struggle between dharma and adharma (good vs evil) with dharma being the victor. In this particular ceremony on the beach, people have come to cleanse their souls and get rid of any bad spirits which may be inhabiting them. The first stage is the purification with holy water and a blessing, which we could see happening. Next was the more intense exorcism through entrancement in prayer.
A large circle formed around a bamboo mat sprinkled with colourful flowers and ritualistic offerings of food. A central priest lit a red bowl full of incense. As the thick grey smoke rose from the bowl, he wafting smoke into the faces of those sitting cross legged in the circle with their eyes closed. Each chanting softly, rocking gently back and forth with the goal of this spiritual trance being possession by one of the many deities patrolling the circle.
Suddenly, a man violently shot up from the sand knocking people sitting behind him to the ground as he squirmed, trying to release himself from the grip of the many helping hands that were now upon him, trying to hold him down. There was an intense yet blank look of horror in his giant eyes as fear gripped the man and you could tell he was witnessing a battle within and not registering his outer worldly surroundings. Then another, and another - bodies lurching and faces clinched in pain and disillusionment, all experiencing struggles unseen by the onlookers outside of this inner circle.
- November 2008