Balians; Bali’s traditional healers

In the five years that I have lived in Bali I have visited three different traditional healers, each providing a unique and profound experience that my western mind has struggled to fully comprehend. With my most recent treatment for a painfully damaged rib, I resolved to stop questioning “how” and “why,” and instead simply accept the experience for what it was and be grateful for it. I had gone to see one of the island’s well known healers, Pak Sircus who specialises in bone problems. The traditional Balinese compound was packed with people, and he worked from an open air pavilion in the corner, in full view of everyone. Each patient would take their turn and he would take his time chatting with them, often giving a massage and perhaps disappearing out the back to whip up a potion of some kind. The atmosphere was light hearted and relaxed, and Pak Sircus drank tea, smoked kretek cigarettes and told jokes throughout the sessions.

My turn eventually came. I was brittle and nervous, especially as I had noticed that most treatments seemed to involve a painful yelp or two from the patient. My friend had described it well, “He hurts the hell out of you – then you feel better.” As I sat down he pointed straight at my rib, “Its not broken,” he said, “but it is badly stressed.” I gingerly lay down and he massaged my side, it was painful but not too bad, and I tried to relax. After a while he tapped my shoulder and looked deep into my eyes. It’s hard to explain but I felt this incredible sense of connection, it was like he could see right into my soul, and in this moment he drew me out of myself and our energy melded into one. He smiled serenely and said, “Remind me, what is your name,” and my tension melted away as I took a breath and responded, smiling back at him. Right then he jabbed my rib with his fingers. I screamed – the shock of the pain sent me bolt upright. It was intense, but fleeting, and then I couldn’t stop laughing. “You tricked me,” I said. “I know,” he replied “and I know you understand,” and we laughed and laughed –with each peal of laughter a layer of pain fell away. I will not say that I was suddenly and miraculously cured – I still felt tender and sore, but it was as if the core of the pain had been removed, and most importantly, the depression that had accompanied it had been instantly lifted. Balance and harmony were restored and I felt like myself again.

It is this sense of harmony that lies at the heart of Balinese Hinduism – the constant struggle for balance between the opposing forces of darkness and light; sekala (the seen) and niskala (the unseen.) For most Balinese, sickness is deemed the result of an essential disharmony between a person and his/her surroundings. While natural herbal cures and western medicine are seen as appropriate for more tangible (sekala) forms of illness like a skin infection of a common cold, when it comes to less easily diagnosed, intangible (niskala) maladies, a traditional healer is generally the first point of call. Known as balians, these healers work on a number of levels, but generally practice an intuitive form of healing that is very different from a more western clinical style, and may have been learned from a parent or grandparent, of acquired directly from a Hindu deity. Some balians are essentially herbalists, while those like Pak Sircus, who specialise in bone problems may work with massage and manipulation. Some act as mediums or will contact the spirit world for guidance on certain issues related to your health, and you may end up having inscriptions drawn on your body or wads of chewed up herbs spat at you. A common thread with all these healing modalities is the opinion that sickness is often caused by the deeds of an individual, who might have acted disrespectfully or done something inappropriate. In this way, rather than providing a cure per se, a balian may grant atonement or neutralise bad intentions.

A balian usada, known as a literate balian is often in possession of sacred ‘lontar usada’ (healing books) that he may have studied with a guru to learn his craft. He might use natural medicine obtained from plants, which can be enhanced with amulets or ritualistic ceremonies. A balian tulang is a bone setter and will be called upon in emergencies to set dislocations or severe muscle sprains. A balian apun will generally work with massage, while a balian manak is a midwife. The role of a balian tasku is a little harder to define, they definitely work with niskala – the unseen forces – and are believed to take power from nature or holy spirits, and may create medicines from holy water, flowers and plants, or conduct cleansing rituals. The balian ketakson is generally a women who will communicate with spirits (often ancestral) to seek insight into an illness. This is particular useful for chronic illness when other treatments have failed. With knowledge gained through divine blessing, she may heal people through trance possession. Strictly speaking, not all balians are healers, but will provide advice and guidance on how to deal with troubles caused by unseen spirits, or even emotional problems that may be manifesting as physical illness.

My very first ‘healing’ experience in Bali perhaps fell into this category. Dressed in a sarong with a sarin canang (offering) in hand, I arrived at a house in Gianyar and was greeted by Cokorda Bagus Astawa, a wise and kindly man. We sat down facing each other. “Why are you here?” he asked softly “I can see there is nothing wrong with you.” I explained about the recurring problem with my chest – I struggled to breath and felt like I was suffocating. Assuming it was a chest infection I had taken three courses of antibiotics, but the problem remained. A year before I had ended a long-term relationship, “And now I feel lost, its like my spirit is broken,” I told him. “But of course,” he replied, “that is normal, you feel bad because your heart is aching, it will take time to heal.” And with these few simple words a huge weight was lifted, and I realised that I had been denying myself permission to grieve, and that this enormous sense of loss was necessary to honour the most significant relationship of my life. He told me I was storing sadness and negative emotions in my solar plexus, which was creating pressure in my chest. “This part I can help with,” he said reassuringly, as he stabbed my little toe with a stick. It felt like there was blood gushing from my toe, but actually it was emotions that were pouring out as this incredible sadness coursed through my body and passed out through my toe. It was such a relief to finally let go and surrender to this grief, and the pain in my chest disappeared immediately. Of course I still felt sad, but accepted that this was a necessary stage in my journey and learned to made peace with myself, in so doing I shifted into a greater state of harmony and the healing process began. He was right, when it comes to personal loss only time can heal, but you need to let it.

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With the book, and subsequent film, Eat Pray Love the spotlight shone brightly on Bali’s healers, with balian’s such as the books central character, Ketut becoming a ‘must see’ on many tourist itineraries. However, it’s important to remember that a balian is not a tourist attraction or object of curiosity, but rather a well respected member of the community with a crucial role to play, and should be respected accordingly. If you feel like you may benefit from a visit to a balian, find out if you need to make an appointment (not all balians will see tourists,) make sure to dress appropriately (cover your shoulders and legs,) and never point your feet at a healer as this is considered very rude. Most balians accept donations, but do not hand over money directly, either conceal it in a canang (offering) or place the donation in the family temple after the treatment. Be warned, not all healers are genuine so its best to go on personal recommendation and choose the correct type of healer for your predicament.

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Author: Alison Bone

A well seasoned travel writer, Alison arrived in Bali in 2008 and never got around to leaving. Trading global nomadic journeys for explorations of a culinary kind, she now writes about the island's ever-evolving dining scene. Alison also returns regularly to Fiji and has just completed her first book, The Faraway Islands, about her time living with a traditional community in the remote Yasawa Islands.

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