In Bali, ancient ceremonies confront modern terror
Indonesian priests conduct the largest ritual sacrifice in memory, trying to ward off future terrorist attacks.
Sitting cross-legged in the courtyard of the Ocean Temple at sunset late last week, Ida Pedande Gede Putra Bajing, a Brahmin high priest, struggles to explain the importance of the ceremony he will help lead.Skip to next paragraph
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Around him are roughly three dozen lay priests from Kuta, the resort that was rocked by an Al Qaeda bomb blast that killed nearly 200 people on Oct. 12. Mr. Bajing is giving last-minute instructions.
The next day, they join hundreds of priests in the largest blood sacrifice any Balinese can recall - a bid to rebuild a spiritual order many here see as shattered by the bomb.
"This will be the first, and hopefully the last, ceremony of its kind," says Bajing, who helped a team of priests pore over ancient lontar palm scrolls to create the right ritual response to the attack.
Many here see it as a way to draw comfort out of a horrifying experience, much the way Americans did with ceremonies in New York and Washington after Sept. 11. "This is to make Bali neutral again, to cleanse the site of the blast, and to bring peace to the souls of the dead," Bajing says. Then the priest, whose salt-and-pepper hair is gathered in a topknot and adorned with a pendant and flowers, reaches into his shirt pocket and answers his cellphone.
Bali is a study in contradictions, a lush island where global tourist culture mingles with an ancient ritual world that governs almost every aspect of life.
In the aftermath of the attack, which destroyed the Sari Club and an Irish bar called Paddy's, that has meant trying to deal with the impact of global terrorism within the context of Balinese cosmology.
Throughout the island, Balinese - businessmen and farmers alike - wonder if a failure in regular ritual observance led to the attack. Some say mistakes in making offerings to the dark gods linked with the sea made the deaths inevitable.
That's something Bajing doesn't want to discuss; the high priests aren't supposed to deal with the dark forces the Balinese believe surround them. But Made Subawa, the head of the Kuta subdistrict, is less restrained. "This is to make sure the demons go - to satisfy them," he says, watching boats steam out beyond the reef to sacrifice two cows to the sea, the culmination of the sacrifice. "If we didn't, they might stay and eat people."
Subawa says he hopes that, after the ritual, Balinese will see their devastated tourist economy quickly recover.
On the day before the main ritual, spirit mediums and a gamelan orchestra of drums, symbols, and gongs prepared the site of the club, where a three-foot hole in the ground left by the initial blast has been transformed into an improvised temple of bamboo walls.
On the actual day, offerings are piled high, and incense is thick. Suddenly, the orchestra whips into a frenzy, and a young medium stumbles out of a crowd of hundreds of praying Balinese.
Swaying and screaming, he kills a black duckling. Onlookers are convinced he's possessed by a demon. It's the first of 80 sacrifices that day. "As long as we did this right, it won't happen again," says Wayang Sutama, a local man helping to guard the site. "There are many disturbed spirits around here, and we have to make it habitable for humans."
Indeed, guards insist Australian voices have been heard at night, screaming for help or trying to order drinks. It's hard to meet anyone who's had one of these experiences. Still, most of the island believes, and while the ritual might seem superstitious to some, it appears to have helped many deal with the attack.