Rituals (Merrett, 2003)

Below article is a 24 minute documentary made on the Island of Nusa Penida between 2000 and 2003. The film gives a brief overview of the island and documents two rituals (tooth filing and cremation) that are rites of passage for all Balinese Hindus. The narrative is indicated separately for each scene, and was written by Mark Merrett. Narrative by Susan Merrett.

Tradition and ritual in Nusa Penida

Scene 1: Leaving Kusamba, South-East Bali, Traditional Port of Access to Nusa Penida, June 2001

"The island of Nusa Penida is located ten miles south of the Balinese mainland. You still make the crossing in a traditional cargo prahu. Bali is a predominantly Hindu society and constant interaction of religion and everyday life was evident even on this short crossing."

Scene 2. Arriving in Sampalan and the Island of Nusa Penida

"Nusa Penida has no deep water harbor. Passengers and goods alike come ashore through the surf. The island, ten miles long and seven miles wide, is fringed with sandy beaches on the northern shore. Gunung Agung, an active volcano.

on the Balinese mainland and the home of Bali's Hindu Gods is a constant powerful presence. The southern shore terminates abruptly in towering cliffs. Rugged and spectacular they face the Indian Ocean.Penida beach on the island's western shore has a freshwater pool where people come to water and wash their animals. The island's only export industry is the commercial growing of seaweed. About nine hundred families make their livelihood from this difficult and labor-intensive activity. Crafts, such as boat making and weaving are also carried on in the traditional manner but the great majority of the 45,000 people who inhabit this sparse but beautiful island make their living from small scale family-run fishing and farming operations, scattered among hundreds of traditional villages, many of them in the islands interior."

Scene 3: Ceremony and Ritual. Attending a Wedding Ceremony

"The majority of the population lives quiet rural lives. Though poor by western standards they are rich in spirit and quality of life. Their everyday lives are embedded in ceremony and ritual, which, because of the island's isolation, have remained almost entirely free of the influence of the outside world. In many ways, Nusa Penida today resembles the unspoiled Bali that was popularized in the 1930's by writers such as Margaret Mead, Colin McPhee and Miguel Covarrubias,

At this wedding ceremony the bride sits with her betrothed, quietly waiting for her "Matatah" or tooth filing preparations to be completed. Tooth filing is one of the five sacred rituals that every Balinese must have performed to ensure the transition from birth to death and later reincarnation. It is a costly affair - musicians and dancers must be hired, priests paid and elaborate offerings carried out. "

Scene 4. Matatah (Tooth Filing Ceremony)

"Because of the expense, tooth filing is often incorporated into a marriage ceremony. The purpose of this and all Balinese rituals - is to protect and purify the recipient and provide her with the necessary spiritual energy to exist peacefully, productively and healthfully in a dangerous world. Tooth filing achieves this by reducing the animal - like negative traits that everyone possesses to some degree.

The ceremony starts with a ritual foot washing. During the ceremony the bride will experience a ceremonial death making her particularly vulnerable to attack by harmful spirits. To offer her protection she is covered with a decorated cloth and given magical items to hold. As an additional precaution the bride is given money to hold and her relatives are urged to stay close to her to help her through this dangerous time. A representation of Semara Ratih, the Goddess of love, is then placed on the bride to chase away evil spirits. To prop the jaws open and prevent the priest from touching her teeth with his hands, a small cylinder of sugarcane is placed in the corners of the bride's mouth. In final preparation, the priest inscribes magic symbols on the bride's tongue and forehead.

The front two upper canines are then filed even with the upper incisors, in a ceremony that takes only five or ten minutes. The power of the ritual is neither increased nor diminished by the amount of filing that is done – this depends on the wishes of the individual. The ritual itself is the important thing. In this case the filing is almost entirely symbolic. In the background the village gamelan tunes its instruments and roosters crow. At the conclusion of the ceremony the bride's teeth are tapped back into life and she is "revived". Her anxious relatives prevent her from stepping off the platform and making contact with the ground, before being splashed with holy water and receiving a final mantra to complete her symbolic rebirth.

Tooth filing is one of a group of rituals known as "Manusa Yadnia" - sacred rituals devoted to man."

Scene 5 Membersihkan (Ritual Cleansing of Disinterred Remains)

"Another group of rituals is devoted to purifying the bodies of the deceased and releasing the soul through cremation to become one with God. 'Membersihkan', the ritual cleansing of disinterred remains, is a station in this process. Even a modest cremation costs thousands of dollars so all but the most affluent families routinely bury their dead until a properly grand cremation can be held. Ten or twenty years may elapse before a family can afford to carry out this final obligation.

The disinterred remains are ritually cleaned using an eclectic mix of holy water and modern cleansing materials to the accompaniment of ritual incantations. More family groups begin the process and soon the entire area is bustling with activity. In Bali ritual is by definition a communal activity involving the entire village or extended family group. Everyone knows everyone, everyone participates and everybody has an opinion. The remains are then packed with ritual items to ensure a smooth passage to heaven. After carefully wrapping the purified remains, they are identified with the name of the deceased and finally loaded into the "Wadah" or cremation tower for their wild journey to the cremation grounds."

Scene 6: Ngaben (Cremation Ceremony) "The Dance of the Wadah" (Cremation Tower)

"On it's way to the cremation grounds the bull sarcophagi and the tower containing the ancestor's remains are whirled and spun to the accompaniment of music and shouting to confuse the ancestor's spirit and make sure it cannot find it's way back to haunt the family. In contrast to the sadness and solemnity of most Western funerals, a Balinese cremation is a joyful event as the soul of a dead ancestor is released from the impure and temporary container of the body. It is a time of great relief for the family as they are finally able to give their ancestor an appropriate send-off from the physical world to continue the cycle of birth, life, death and reincarnation. Any display of sadness would only impede the soul's release. At times, the combination of intense physical effort and the gravity of the moment propel participants into a trance-like state where they are temporarily unaware of their surroundings."

Scene 7. Unloading the Wadah

"The wadah and sarcophagi are finally lowered to the ground and a long ramp is put in place. The young boys who have been riding high in the Wadah during its tumultuous journey are carefully retrieved. Firewood is then loaded around the funeral pyre. The bulls are sawn open to admit the ancestor's remains, he bundles are carefully handed down to a family member who joins the long line of other relatives waiting for their bundles to be loaded into the sarcophagi. In the background a priest rings his bell and chants mantras to prepare the soul of the departed for its journey to heaven. The assembled families wait patiently as the bundles are slowly packed into the bulls. After the bull have been loaded and the many offerings added to the funeral pyre the crowd steps back."

Scene 8: Ngaben: The Cremation

"Almost casually, the fires are ignited, to the approval of the assembled crowd - for this is a joyful moment - the family's duties to the ancestor are being fulfilled and the bodies five elements of air, earth, fire, water and space are being returned to the cosmos. The soul can soon depart and find its way to a new life through reincarnation. Within minutes months of work and preparation and thousands of dollars of expense are reduced to a fiery blaze. Remains that tumble down are carefully poked back into the flames to speed their dissolution. As the flames die down larger bones that have not been consumed are returned to the heat of the fire. The ashes of the deceased are collected and placed in a bowl and then ground up into a fine mixture. The ground-up ashes are then placed inside a yellow coconut representing the final container of the ancestor's soul. After a further round of blessings and prayer the relatives leave clutching their precious bundles."

Scene 9: Ngaben: Return to the Sea

"At dusk these remains are returned to the sea. Now the spirits of the deceased have been released to continue their journey to either reincarnation or a state of ultimate oneness with God. The inaccessibility of Nusa Penida has kept traditions such as these almost entirely free from the modernizing influences of tourism and the outside world. However, this isolation is coming to an end. The government of Bali has targeted Nusa Penida as a tourist development zone. Speculators are buying up desirable beachfront property and a deep-water harbor, capable of accommodating modern shipping is under construction.

For better or worse Nusa Penida is destined to be drawn into closer contact with the modern world."


  • Merrett, Mark & Susan, Video filmed & edited by Mark Merrett; Narrated by Susan Merrett; Produced 2000-2003; Copyright: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike; Length 24 minutes.

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