This past December was a dizzying month of festivities around Bali, and the major bi-annual celebrations of Galungan and Kuningan – this year overlapping with the Christmas and Chanukah holidays – wrapped up recently. Over the weeks, I eagerly participated in or otherwise observed from the sidelines. I wore sarong & sash, went to temples, ate Christmas lunch with visiting Spanish friends (at our favorite Balinese warung), watched fireworks and firecrackers (more on that in a later post) and feasted on local and Western fare. Whenever possible, because of the huge influx of tourists over the holiday season, I also home – far from the madding crowds; I practiced yoga, read, wrote, Skyped with family and friends, watched movies and ate well.
I also befriended a frog who has taken up temporary residence in my quarters. Which won’t be surprising to my friends, relatives and readers who’ve recognized my love of nature and its creatures, and have read about my growing fascination with observing the antics of ants, snails, geckos, spiders, frogs, flying dedalus and other crawling/flying/slithering inhabitants – but decidedly NOT snakes and cockroaches – in the tropics.
Which is why, earlier today, I watched with discomfort and sadness, a series of video clips that I recently filmed in a village outside Ubud: About a pig – and how it spends its final hours.
Balinese ceremonies are marked with offerings, processions, prayers, priests, visits to temples, family gatherings and – like most cultures – food. In daily life, the Balinese mainly eat rice with small bits of vegetables, tofu, tempeh or meat. But when the major holidays roll around, domestic animals are offered to the gods as a way of cleansing negativity from the environment and the inner world of humans. Which is when the almighty pig takes center stage; and when the locals feast on delicacies such as satay and babi guling (suckling pig).
Putu, my and driver and friend, invited me to help prepare chicken satay, see the bamboo penjor being decorated, watch women prepare and deliver offerings to their neighbours – and to attend the communal pig slaughter. What was I thinking? In retrospect, I know precisely why I went; to record one of the myriad cultural traditions that is still so widely practiced on Bali.
After months of fattening up, these once-they-were-piglets will have grown to such a formidable size and girth, that it often takes no less than six brawny (often tattooed) male adults to hoist and carry the beast. And much like most festivals and ceremonies on the island, preparing a pig for the feast entails many rites, rituals and procedures. In fact, what I’ve learned over time is that villagers don’t merely collaborate in getting the pig from pen to pot… but they do so with great gusto and joy.
It was a multi-sensory experience that brought together many of the locals, primarily young men and children. The guys huddled together, planned strategies for every step of the way: tying the pig to a bamboo pole, hoisting it over a wall, carrying it, tying it up (then untying, caging it and retying it), laying it down for a woman to lay offerings and pray; pulling out every last bit of its innards; scrubbing it clean in a stream; slicing, torching and singeing the hair, puncturing, chopping and slicing.
The appointed butcher, a local in striped shirt, straw hat and rubber boots, wore rings on his fingers and a gold watch on his wrist. He directed much of the action, finally pulling out 2 knives, comparing their relative sharpness – and doing the deed. Those gathered around watched with detached curiosity.
Through it all, and until its demise, whenever its snout was untied, the pig squealed and tried to free itself. All for naught.
From beginning to end, the men smoked, chatted, snickered, joked and laughed. They went at it for hours, calling it quits only after dividing every last bit of pig into 16 equal parts – ensuring equal portions by weighing each filled red plastic bag on an antique scale that hung from a tree branch.
Children watched with glee; even a baby held in the arms of her nenek (grandmother) gazed for awhile then appeared bored. No one batted an eye nor cringed. No one looked away… except for me. I tried to keep my nausea at bay, and my feelings to myself. But it was sickening to watch. So I’d point the camera, hold it steady, press the record button and turn my head away from the action.
But it’s so hard to turn away from the wider ramifications: Is the ritual and centuries-old practice of pig slaughter so deeply entrenched in the Balinese psyche that the locals are simply blind to the inescapable cruelty? Is this what defines an ‘uncivilized’ society?
Is it possible that they don’t realize how the pig’s panic and fear, that which permeates his entire being, is transferred into their own bodies?
As I looked around the gathered crowd, I wondered if there might be a lonely soul among them, a solitary voice so anguished by the practice, that he would risk ostracism and the threat of being outcast, to walk away from it all?
But herein lies the dilemma. I’m shaped as much by my Western sensibilities as the Balinese are by traditions handed down from their ancestors. Regardless of how long I live in Asia, I will view any experience through the lens of my own society and upbringing. But a wiser person will pause, reflect and curb judgment. She will acknowledge the unbridgeable differences, then practice compassion towards the butcher his aides; knowing that Balinese men, women and children don’t act out of ill-will, merely doing as they’ve seen and learned, following the precepts and practices that their fathers and forefathers did before them.