I witnessed Ngeruk during a trance ceremony in Bali, which is a self-stabbing ritual performed by the local Hindu devotees to express their gratitude to the Gods. It was nothing short of eerie and magical. Despite the appearance of horror, the ceremony made me understand about the balance between my inner light and darkness a lot better.
"The ceremony I had witnessed is the metaphor of the eternal struggle between the good and the evil."
It happened at a Hindu temple at Canggu village on my second trip to Bali, near where we stayed at The Chillhouse Yoga, Surf and Lifestyle Retreat. I had visited the area once before and returned again to know the place a bit better.
Dressing for the part
The adventure began when my sister, Salina, and I decided to wear our traditional kebaya dress for a day out to Ubud, south of Bali. I adore the beautiful Balinese kebaya dresses that the women wear on daily basis. Our grandfather was from the island of Java, so we thought it would nice to celebrate our Indonesian heritage. We tried to converse in Indonesian with the locals as much as possible to understand more about their culture.
Our driver, Pak Ketut, was a village elder that provides tour guides to visitors. He saw our attires and said: “You both look great, like you are ready to attend a special ceremony. Would you like to see a trance ceremony tomorrow at our temple?” Salina is an anthropologist, so we accepted the generous invitation without hesitation. I asked if I could bring my camera. “Yes, of course,” said Pak Ketut. The dress code to enter the temples in Bali is pretty strict, where visitors are expected to respect the "adat" or local custom by covering elbows and legs.
"I adore the beautiful Balinese kebaya dresses that the women wear on daily basis."
It turned out that we were in Canggu in the middle of a very important annual “odalan” or the village temple ceremony. This occasion was to mark the temple’s birthday according to the Balinese Pawukon calendar. The Gods were invited from Mount Agung to accept the offerings in the forms of food, flowers and performances.
The temple was 100 metres away from our hotel, and we could hear the bells chiming early in the morning. The bell-like sound probably came from the gamelan instruments that were being played by the locals, as a part of the prayer ceremony.
By afternoon we headed out to the temple, where Pak Ketut greeted us with a wide smile. “You are here!” he said, genuinely pleased to see us in our traditional costume. Of course our kebayas are nothing compared to the beautiful white and yellow lace kebayas donned by the Balinese ladies.
He showed us to our chairs among the ladies. I felt awkward at first because I had a huge Nikon around my neck. But the worshippers smiled encouragingly at me, so that put me at ease.
Initially, everything seemed like a harmless musical theatre. Flowers and food offerings were put forward in front of the effigies of the Barong beast and the Buddhist deity, Gwan Yin, who was dressed in a kebaya. I pointed my lens to the skilful youths who were playing the gamelan music. Some of them posed excitedly, as most teenagers would. They were probably between 11 to 16 years old.
Entering the trance
Suddenly a wailing started. A woman dressed in white lace fell on the ground. And then I heard another long wail. And another, until several devotees were on the ground, rolling around with their arms outstretched as if possessed by evil spirits. One-by-one the other worshippers around them started to enter a state of collective hysteria; screaming, crying or whispering to an invisible presence. Several ladies started dancing with eyes closed, while smiling to themselves. It was like a scene in The Exorcist.
A village elder walked into the circle of trance. I thought he wanted to revive the worshippers, but instead he handed out several long kris or daggers to the wailing party. Holy shit, I thought. I struggled against my instinct not to bolt out of the temple’s compound. I retreated to the back of the temple, so I could photograph the whole scene from a safe distance.
"A village elder walked into the circle of trance. I thought he wanted to revive the worshippers, but instead he handed out several long kris or daggers to the wailing party."
The worshippers proceeded to stab themselves with the daggers. I mean, they were really going for it. A man lurched into the pointed end he aimed at himself. A few bystanders who were not under the influence grabbed hold of him, preventing him from injuring himself. Soon it became an orgy of frenzied self-stabbings, possessed wailings, with the soundtrack of the gamelan music in the background. I thought I was going to pass out at one point.
“Could you please hold me back if I start to lost the plot?” I whispered to my sister. Much to my confusion, I felt drawn to the act of trance. It was fucking with my head. I looked around to distract myself, and saw little children playing with their smartphones, paying little attention to the delirious adults in front of them.
Curiously no blood was spilled. The worshippers clothes remained white and pristine. Is this an illusion? I thought. At the corner of my eyes I saw a man holding a tiny duckling that was swathed in a yellow cloth. I tried not to think about the fate of the creature.
"Much to my confusion, I felt drawn to the act of trance. It was fucking with my head."
After a while the music wound down. Water was sprinkled on the faces of the worshippers as they slowly woke up from the trance. I could see that some of them are really exhausted. The gentle and friendly expressions returned to their faces again. The event lasted through to midnight, where we could hear the distant sound of wailings and gamelan chimes from our resort. It was not unwelcomed, however, as it created an air of mystery about the place.
Balancing light and darkness
Later, it was explained to me that while the devotees entered the state of trance, they were possessed by the spirits of Barong and Rangda. Barong is the good mythical beast, despite his scary appearance; and Rangda is the evil queen who sought to destroy him. Some say the origin of the myth could be traced back to the ancient war between the Balinese and a widow queen from Java (Rangda means “widow” in Javanese). Using black magic, she possessed the bodies of the Balinese soldiers and made them stab themselves with their own weapons. Barong, the king of spirits of Bali, then entered the soldiers’ bodies to make their flesh impenetrable from the blades.
The ceremony I had witnessed is the metaphor of the eternal struggle between the good and the evil. The Balinese practised a type of Hindu-Buddhism, which recognised the functions of light and darkness in mankind. Instead of abolishing the darkness completely, like many religions would advocate, rituals like Ngeruk showed that people should achieve inner balance instead.
Maybe it’s a drastic way to teach a spiritual lesson, but it was full of drama and certainly made a lasting impression on me.
Perhaps that’s why travellers like me will keep returning to Bali. It’s a paradise full of mystery. With each door we unlock, we learn a little bit more about ourselves too.
Words and photography by Zarina Holmes. All photography © Zarina Holmes