“When you think of a Brahman, what do you picture?” my guide asks.
I’ve just arrived in Bali, Indonesia at 2:00 am that morning. It’s now 11:00 am and I’m groggy and full of anticipation. My first experience in Bali is a meeting with the Brahman, Ida Bagus to have a “mystical” experience.
Bali is a largely a Hindu country and many people travel to the island to have spiritual encounters. From meditating in sacred caves to water healing Ritual ceremonies, the mystical realm is part of their tourism. Regardless of one’s personal faith or leanings, you can’t separate the spiritual from the cultural there. It’s all closely tied and many of the most historical sites are Hindu temples.
“I imagine someone wise” I answer. Brahmans are indeed often old and wise but they are also different ages and genders. The one I met was in his mid-thirties. There is even a younger, female Brahman, that you can do a traditional healing ceremony you can visit. The guide (we call her IBU, a respectful way of addressing both Mother and Madam) that has helped organize the journey I’m about to embark on takes me under her wing. I instantly feel like I’ve gained a cool, older sister to show me the ropes on my first day in Bali.
We arrive at the shop where I am to meet the Brahman. Once we meet, he is to draw a yantra (a sacred drawing) based on three intentions I had sent him ahead of time. He also bases the yantra on the energy of one’s name, date and place of birth, making the Talisman really unique to each individual. He then turns that yantra into a carving on either buffalo bone or mammoth tusk. A specific mantra is chiseled in the back of the Talisman, to activate our intentions. The perfect talisman, for the perfect journey.
Brahman Ida Bagus, a man with welcoming eyes, a sweet smile and a shy disposition, has a radiant energy. We exchange greetings and I watch mesmerized as he works on my drawing. The end result is beautiful, personal and powerful. After the yantra is drawn, the group agrees to visit the near-by 12th Century Temple, with its chambers carved in a cliff overlooking a river.
When asking him, why someone might come to see him, he say’s it’s to “find a connection to the divine”. That he is “a facilitator for healing and helping people draw from their personal power”. He believes “everything is connected” and that we already have all the tools we need within us and having such experiences help us tap into those.
We end up getting stuck in a thunderous rainstorm, under the temple awning. The rain is pouring so hard, that we all have to huddle together to stay dry. Suddenly, it feels like we are all at a sleep away camp, sharing stories about our pasts and giggling over boy stuff/ girl stuff. Except the things we begin to explore are about menstruation and placentas.
Travel has this magical ability to keep you on your toes. You have an idea of an event or experience looking a certain way and then it goes a totally different direction. Sometimes to the chagrin of the sojourner, but often it ends up being better than you could have anticipated. This was one of those times.
The conversation surrounding the female body began with the question of why women can’t enter a temple during menstruation. The Brahman related to us that it was because the woman is considered “out of balance” during that time. Of course, this irks my western sensibilities but this is a culture that worships female goddesses, so I let it go.
We then move to the question of birth, another ‘hot’ body politics topic. Here in the US, we are debating how much control women should have over their bodies, specifically when it comes to childbirth. In Bali, men also try to get the woman pregnant first -before marrying – to make sure she is fertile and will bear offspring. In fact, if you do get a girl pregnant and don’t marry her, you or he can be sent to jail. The placenta is considered as a chakra, an energy center, a ‘guardian angel’, which makes sense as it feeds a new life for 9 months… After the birth, a tiny piece of the umbilical cord is kept in a silver jewel around the baby’s neck, as a sign of protection – and the placenta itself is ritually buried by the main entrance of the house (on the right for a boy and the left for a girl).
At this point, my head is spinning with all of the rally cries from the Women’s March in D.C. this past January. Most women in the states have the opposite problem. I’ll make no comments on which of these pathways in life are better. We also have little to no connection to the placenta after birth. It often is discarded and some even view it as “gross”. While the odd female here or there will encapsulate the placenta as a supplementary measure, there is really no core connection to this life vessel.
Bali is very much alive in many ways. To me, this highlights that. Beyond the natural forces the island presents (active volcanoes and earthquakes) everything has meaning or has a ceremony surrounding it. The Balinese ask the Gods for permission for just about everything. There are three rituals a day that the matriarch of the family must perform at the family temple. Hinduism believes that genuine prayer leads to blessings and that prayer and ritual are the foundations of success.
I start to long for a ceremony in my own life and scan my daily routine for something that could be considered a semblance of that. Meditation, yoga, attending church or some other spiritual ritual can certainly provide ceremony, for many. What I crave and subsequently decided to adopt in that moment, was the notion of asking permission. We live in a very ego-centric society. Though I don’t subscribe to the Hindu Gods, I like the idea of asking internal permission from a place or culture before interacting with it. That is after all, very much in line with the idea of sustainability. Instead of assuming that we can continue to act how we do back at home; when traveling one must attempt to observe and apply a place’s customs and cultures in a respectful manner. Sometimes that means stepping out of your comfort zone. In this case, it meant letting go of my own ideas of birth and menstruation culture.
We started to close the conversation with chatting about other offerings and traditions that are unique to the Balinese. Once you turn 18 you must have your canine teeth filed. This symbolizes the letting go of your animal spirit and finally becoming a human. By doing this coming of age ritual, one “cuts down” on the six negative traits: lust, greed, wrath, pride, jealousy, and intoxication, similar to the Seven Deadly Sins in Christianity. The High Priest just lightly grazes the canine with a piece of bamboo to file the teeth.
I shared how in the U.S., we get braces as our own right-of-passage.