Tying the Knot (But Filing the Teeth First)

If you should ever find yourself in Bali, take care not to leave home (that is, your temporary home in town) without the following essential items in hand: a sarong (yes, that goes for you men too) and a camera. And I mean never. Why?

Because you never know when you might be surprised by a woman stopping you on the road to invite you to a ceremony – even one that she has nothing to do with, but just happens to be taking place around the corner from her home. If you find yourself in that position – invitation by proxy – you don’t want to be caught off guard, certainly not sarong-less. Note to self.

Which is exactly how and why I found myself, earlier this evening, attending the latter part of a wedding ceremony of a couple whose family I don’t know and whose compound I’d never visited before. Merely details, paling in comparison to the openness and richness of accepting the invitation. (I don’t think the concept of crashing even exists here!) First things first: I high-tailed it back to the guesthouse, picked up my sarong and camera; and coaxed Heri into dropping me off at the house of the woman who extended the invitation.

By the time Alit and I arrived at the groom’s family compound, the ceremony was in full swing. Alit preferred to stand on the road with her neighbors, but she urged me indoors – that is, inside the compound’s courtyard. Stepping through the gate, I found myself among a small group of men who were sitting on benches, not doing much of anything. All the pomp and circumstance was taking place further inside, a scene partially blocked from my vantage point.

I strained to see the high priest sitting inside the central pavilion, ringing his bell while praying in lotus position; surrounded by towers bursting with fruit, flowers and a multitude of colorful offerings. One of the younger men standing beside me, in pitch-perfect English, greeted me with the standard Balinese question: where are you from? 

Then I asked him to explain the ceremony that was taking place at the moment. They just finished the tooth-filing ceremony, he said; and, without skipping a beat, he threw in: Are you Jewish? Because this is our version of a bar-mitzvah. A rite of passage for the Balinese. He proceeded to describe the symbolism, which entailed a cursory ‘filing’ away of the front upper teeth, representing the childish, evil and rambunctious spirits of youth.

If a family could afford to do so, their children’s teeth would be file before they attained adulthood and marriage; if not, then anytime afterwards – as long as it occurred before death.  After the tooth-filing ceremony, continued the Balinese man, the groom and his male relatives undergo a purification ceremony, also led by the high priest; guiding them into the responsibilities of maturity and manhood.

Inching a bit closer to the inner sanctum, I observed the scenes around me: Even while the ceremonies were still underway, and mantras were being chanted, many of the women were seated in small groups together on folding chairs, flicking their flipflops about, noisily comparing hairstyles and lacy kebayas (traditional ceremonial blouses); teenage girls yawned, giggled with their friends, flirted through their Blackberries.

When the high priest removes his velvet crown; when the bride and groom are nearly finished being accosted by throngs of photographers; when the hush-hushing ends; when the women rise to leave, as if on command, almost by design; and, most audibly, when the toy plastic horns are suddenly blown – a high-pitched screeching that is met with peals of laughter – it’s a sure sign that the couple is about to be led out to the road, mounted on a cart led by a horse-as-piñata (or is that supposed to be a cow?); paraded through the streets, celebrants following in their footsteps, the music of the gamelan clanging gaily, spiraling up into night sky.

I joined the pilgrimage, not quite knowing where we were headed. Finally, spotting a non-Balinese woman in the crowd, I asked: Where to? The bride’s family’s compound of course, just around the corner… where more festivities, music and a dinner for all awaits.

Another day, another ceremony, in the ever-so-jam-packed Balinese calendar…

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