Full moon: trance and dance in Bali & Java — draft

Magic is a working mystery,

no ma’am sorry, that’s not history    

–Camper van Beethoven

[If only blogs were driven by the moon, like the tides. Regardless, I figure it has been exactly three years since I wrote a post about my experience at a holier-than-average and “totally authentic” full moon temple ceremony near Sanur, Bali. And posts by Made Wijaya (now there’s a blogger you can set your clocks by) reminded me of that. Meanwhile, my original photos (including, I should hope, a shot of holy rollers Frank Morgan and Leonard Lueras throwing dice under the big, hairy banyan outside the temple) were stored on blog that has been retired. So re-connecting with that is on the to-do list (due in 2015 ; ) For now, the score for this post is as follows: text, 90 % non-new and all dates refer to April 2009; pictures, 100% new (semi-sorted) and don’t relate (directly) to the text — ED]


I’m not sure what Om Frankie and Om Leonard like most about the three-day full moon ceremony at the Mertasari temple just down the beach from their cozy seaside villas in Sanur. May be the elegantly dressed women, the in-temple beer concessions, or the trance dance.

Could be, on the other hand, the holy gaming tables laid out under a massive banyan tree and the full moon. They provide a lot more action than a roulette wheel. It’s almost eerie how that little ball bounces around. And so back they came, night after night.

With buddies and a backstage pass, Miss S and I also made to all three sessions, too. Night one was topeng — stand-up routines in Balinese and in drag — over my head. Night two was a Balinese version of Baile de la Conquista with the Dutch and Chinese playing the Spanish. Whoa.

Night three of the party did not disappoint — trance dance, dramatically violent movements, that fearsome Balinese barong beast with Chinese characteristics, the moon, the ancient temple on the magic beach — complete.

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So you’ll notice I’ve skipped all the background on “where the Barong dance came from,” etc. because, where doesn’t it come from. It’s one of those things that — with apologies to the Dude — at one time probably neatly tied together the whole of Balinese culture [although trance dance is alive and well in Java, too and that’s the provenance of all the horsey-type trance dancers pictured]. It’s way beyond background, actually, cuz no one really understands what gets into these people, not even them.

Anyway, what I saw was that the adult-strength Barong dance got started slowly. It was really hard to see, as all the locals wanted in, creating a bit of a crowd scene. The gamelan music was nothing unusual. The big barong seemed a bit stoned. After some witches came in, people started flipped out (individually or in groups). And in an instant it was over. I guess that came as as a relief to both the possessed and those restraining them. Forty minutes is a long time to play scarecrow [refers to a photo from the original post which is similar to lady-on-the-cross photo in current slideshow]. It would be even worse if a big guy flipped out.

What I saw was about a dozen Balinese of mixed age and gender out there in the holy mosh pit — paralyzed, wild-eyed, thrashing about, maniacally laughing . But nobody (besides them) was really phased.

Made Wijaya narrates his tale of  working as a “temple bouncer” during a full moon trance dance event like this:

Last full moon, the spooky Telek dancers of Banjar Taman in Sanur — Dayu Siti’s old troupe — performed an incredible dance in the outer court of Pura Mertasari Temple, just south of my home.

The running of this temple festival has been hijacked by fierce Brahmans from North Sanur so I rarely go anymore, but this year I heard the magic tabuh tetelekan gamelan music — the theme music of the pixie world — competing with the barks of the local expats’ Rottweilers. I whipped on a batik and headdress and sped down the sandy lane.

Sanur-Intaran’s mighty Barong was at one end of the open-air stage; his consort, the evil, hairy witch Rangda, was at the other. In the middle danced two troupes of celestial nymphs, called telek, or sandaran.

The telek had fans and gilt Burmese-style crowns with yellow flags poking out. I observed the front row of teenagers, all entranced by the show.

Anyway, the Balinese themselves were very into it. Clearly it was a time for being together with friends and family and supporting people who had come together to make something ancient and exciting happen. Well, except for a few heavyweights drinking beer behind the gaming tables. Too rich, educated or drunk to get into it at a spiritual level, they consumed it enthusiastically at the social level. (The priest had to shush them a few times.) Without exception the Balinese wore their temple clothing to the temple all three nights.

In the early a.m. when everyone filed out of the temple in procession, S. and I kind of got trapped. There is no way to sneak by hundreds of solemn Balinese men escorting magical mystery monsters down the road under a full moon. We just killed the motorbike’s headlight and rolled along lock-step with ’em . These guys were meanwhile accompanied by a no-nonsense security detail of about 10 more Balinese manly-men, wearing impressive black jacket- and-sarong uniforms and carrying radios.

Harm reduction, dude. You know the drill. Balinese religion is wild and free and every group has its lunatics.

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