The Toothsome Brides of Bali
Another Bride, Another Root-Canal
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
In Bali, kidnapping the girl of your dreams – preferably with her consent – is the way to avoid the expense of marriage proposals. But, and here’s the catch, as long as you’ve been to the dentist first.
Because in Bali, couples have their teeth filed down before the wedding ceremony – partly for aesthetics, partly so as not to reincarnate as a dog. ERIC PASQUIER accompanies Déwa Putu and his bride-to-be Agung to the dentist.
The easiest and most common way of marrying a Balinese girl is to kidnap her. Otherwise, the process can be a long, drawn out and costly affair that may even end in heartache for officially the couple must belong to the same caste and the same social class. Déwa Putu for example despite his noble name of ‘God’ is nonetheless inferior to his beloved Agung – a ‘royal.’ In order to marry his princess, he knows that a one-way trip is the only solution.
Déwa’s father is also aware of the situation. One April day his father says: “Son, it’s time you kidnapped your girlfriend. The time is favourable. We are preparing the gifts.”
Déwa doesn’t need to be asked a second time and eagerly complies. Once the pair is under the parental roof, all that is needed to make the marriage valid is for it to consummate. This act needs then to be purified by some gifts and a little family ritual. When the deed is done – the princess shares her husband’s rank.
In September however, Déwa Putu sends me the following message: “I am getting married on the 29th of October. The same date I am having my teeth filed. I hope you can come. It is impossible to have the ceremony earlier, this is the date that the High Priest says is the most auspicious.”
This is less strange than it sounds, for people are very rarely satisfied with the obligatory family-only ritual and, as soon as they can, organise a proper ceremony. Apart from choosing the right time in the divine Balinese calendar - a complicated document, which only High Priests and a few specialists can understand - there are two other reasons for the late wedding.The father of the bridegroom explains: “Getting the teeth filed is a duty, the family’s last act of love towards its offspring.”
“In return, the child rewards us by taking care of our souls when we have passed away. It is an expensive job however and some can never afford to have it done if, for example, their parents died when they were young.” All that can then be done for them then is to give their teeth a final filing when they have already passed away. “Ideally,” Déwa’s father continues, “I should have had Déwa Putu’s teeth done when he was an adolescent but I could not afford it. So today I really wanted to do my utmost on the occasion of his wedding.”
He does not mention it, but we find out later that it took him six months to save the necessary amount for this double ceremony.
Déwa’s father has now been relieved of two burdens simultaneously: two rituals and 200 wedding invitations in one fell swoop.
It is costing him the equivalent of a year’s income. It is the first time his family has dared to celebrate in such a manner. “It is impossible to match the celebrations given by royalty. With the High Priest’s agreement, I gave a ceremony that was the highest I could allow with regard to my rank, social status and my financial means.
To be too restrained would appear miserly in the eyes of the ancestral gods, my sons and neighbours. To go too far would be dangerous and attract criticism from those who could not do the same.”
Preparations take weeks. The roof of the kitchen has even been redone and a temporary reception area set up at the neighbours to receive all the guests. Every evening, thirty-odd men come to cut up tree trunks into 3,000 bamboo skewers.
The women busy themselves with the gifts: plaiting leaves, shaping compacted rice into miniature figurines representing the cosmos - its life and history.
The two nights preceding October 29th, about a hundred men prepare the two traditional banquets where they are both guests and cooks. Until eleven o‘clock at night, they peel and chop mountains of spices. At three in the morning, everyone surfaces again and the pigs are sacrificed - their agonising squeals rising in the dark night.
From then on, nothing escapes the chopping board, various slicers and graters until all of the food is spread out in a variety of minced and sliced forms. It is very tasty. The portions -set out on banana leaves - are first presented to the gods and ancestors before the guests can start to eat…four people per two trays, with the princess sitting at the head of the table. A night’s work vanishes within a few minutes.
Each stage of the preparations has to be done on the appropriate day so that it is only at the last moment that awnings made from sticks and leaves are set up around the ritual tooth-filing pavilion. A small problem arises. Some of the guests believe that the light necessary for taking photographs will endanger the patient’s life while his teeth are being filed. The matter is quickly solved however when the village prince, a charismatic figure, agrees that “the roof may be opened a little.”
“Déwa Putu and Agung Sri the bride, are in a state of symbolic death during the ritual. Until the ritual is finished, they are vulnerable to the influences evil spirits or malevolent witches may exert over them. This is the reason behind all these protective rituals,” explains Déwa’s father, who sings sacred songs - his own spiritual weapons - during the whole ceremony.
The heads of the bride and groom, who are draped in seven layers of rich brocade, rest on a piece of protective, green material that is rare and costly and comes from the far-eastern side of the island. Opposite them amidst a pile of offerings is a little wooden house where angels and nymphs are believed to be watching them whilst a Brahman layman diligently works away at their teeth with a barbaric-looking file. “I felt as if it were drilling into my head, “admits Déwa. Agung Sri, the bride, could not hold back her tears - proof of how much she was suffering. Yet she did not make the slightest complaint.
Déwa Putu looks into the mirror several times before being satisfied with the result. His enhanced smile is not the most important thing, however: the ritual is aimed at symbolically destroying the remains of bestiality in man which, according to local belief, is one of the six cardinal sins. This is why the teeth – especially the canines – are filed to an equal length. If one were to enter hell with their canines in their original state, one would come back to earth as a dog – a very undesirable prospect for any Balinese person.
After a third banquet – organised this time for those who did not participate in the preparations (but come bearing gifts and leave once having eaten their fill), another lot of guests arrive for the second part of the ceremony: the wedding, that takes place primarily in the Brahman High Priest’s office.
For the moment, the married couple are shut in the pavilion where two hours will be spent dressing them according to traditional custom: kriss (a sword) on the young man’s back, a flowered and gilded headdress for the young girl, and silver brocade for both. In the temple that occupies the upper eastern corner of the enclosure, the High Priest is blessing the offerings with gestures and magical phrases derived from Hindu customs.
The entire ceremony is focused on a puppet theatre show performed in the western part of the residential enclosure relating an extract from the Indian epic Mahabbarata namely, the story of the “Marriage of Arjune.” This show adds a symbolic and a timeless dimension to the proceedings.
Most of the congregation chatter away during the whole of the ceremony. This is perfectly normal in Bali for religion is omnipresent and pragmatic acts such as offerings are more important than dutifully pious faces.
Following a sacrifice on the ground aimed at satisfying and neutralising the inferior powers that lurk ‘below the belt’ the couple will be blessed by the High Priest who during this ceremony incarnates the god Siwa (derived from the Hindu Shiva). The couple and their next-of-kin are showered with various sparkling waters from different temples. A delegation also went to fetch some water from the bride’s village as well as taking gifts to her parents and ancestors in a farewell ceremony worthy of her.
The parents of the bride have also attended the ceremony. Déwa’s father says with some satisfaction that “It is not customary, but by this gesture, they have shown us all that they accepted our son as their daughter’s husband. Family connections should continue despite the class gap.” Even in Bali, tradition and hierarchy have to bow to individual cases - to love that knows no bounds.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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