Trance and possession in Bali

Nov 25, 2019

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I always say, when speaking about these subjects, that in Bali, one doesn’t need to have faith – just to watch. 

Western people make this awkward mental distinction when confronted with something they cannot logically explain (meaning, “supernatural”): “Is it real”? They will then try to prove it is not real so their logics remain unaltered. 

The Balinese, like many other cultures, don’t bother to prove anything. They accept things as they are, without needing much explanation.

I had heard many stories about Leyaks – humans who are able to leave their own bodies at home and fly everywhere, at night, sometimes incorporating different animals or elements. Then, had seen videos on people suspended by hooks carved into their back, dancing in a trance condition in the jungle, without feeling any pain. I had listened to fortune tellers, with a high degree of accuracy; submitted my body to traditional healers, with inexplicable processes and skills; until the day I happened to be near Pemuteran, for a diving trip. At my homestay, after sunset, I could listen to a music, varying in tone and intensity. Thought it was a rehearsal, in a nearby Banjar. My colleague, more experienced, told me it was not – there was a real ceremony nearby. So I picked my camera, with a long tele, and followed the sound, expecting to shoot the ceremony from a distance. 

As I reached a small village among the rice fields and vegetable gardens, there were some people dancing to the sound, though they didn’t seem normal. Others were spraying holy water in the ground or giving offerings to a small stone temple in a corner. On the opposite side, the gambelan orchestra played in a different way than I was used to listen: it was, somehow, hypnotic. Sometimes, slow and quiet, and then speeding up to a frantic loud rhythm. Soon I realised there was, at least, a man and a woman in trance, dancing, and I found myself a shooting position.

Two priests realised I was there and, instead of asking me to move away, they invited me in, finding me a place in the centre of the action. I was touched by gratitude but, at the same time, mad, as I didn’t bring a suitable lens for such a short distance. Needless to say, I still did my best, thought that sound and energy got me to a point I couldn’t really focus on shooting.  This whole episode is mentioned in the novel “Isabelle’s Redemption” find it in here.

Here are some of the images, from that day. (Sorry for the low quality but, unfortunately, the hard-drive was ruined, and I had to retrieve them from Facebook.)

That was the Kris dance, where people in trance pick these curvy daggers and stick them to their chests. If all goes well, they will remain unharmed, but stories about injuries and death circulate, for the ones not acting according to the rules.  Notice how the children aren’t scared at all. Instead, they follower the adults, dancing and having fun.

Some years later, I was invited by Pak Widana from Widana Dive Service (with whom I had been diving with) to the Barong dance, where people also commonly went in trance. It happened in Autumn at Fridays, every two weeks, and that specific one was taken care by his Banjar. Unfortunately it rained copiously, so it couldn’t happen, but later at night, there was the Rangda dance: a story about the queen of the leyaks and her servants. 

Here is the film on it.

After two weeks, the weather was a bit more stable, and the Barong dance really took place. The Barong figure itself is made of chicken feathers, so one can imagine the handwork fo produce such a big one. According to Pak Widana (and the movie itself), people dance, without knowing how to dance, some will behave like animals, eating offerings or anything available from the ground, jumping, crying and screaming. I couldn’t be everywhere and film everyone but, even from a single spot, there is a fairly good image of what was going on.  This wasn’t at all staged, villagers are not actors. You may ask yourself why this only happens to certain persons in a specific time and ceremony. You may doubt if it’s really possession or just an altered state of mind or hysteria. I don’t have an explanation. Just leaned to accept it. Enjoy the video below. 

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