Sacred Metal (& Mourning)

This past Saturday evening, satiated from another jam-packed day at the Ubud Writers Festival, and fatigued by the blazing sun, I turned in for the night around 10 pm – completely unaware that, at that very same moment, in a time zone half a world away, a bloody massacre was under way. Targeting Jews, like me.

By the time I reached the festival site yesterday (Sunday) morning, the news of shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue was fast unspooling across all media – and forming dark and worrisome clouds in my mind. Not only because the attack happened in a community that had become familiar to me, first decades ago, when handfuls of children and youth from the Squirrel Hill neighborhood had descended, as I had, on a summer camp in the wilds of central Ontario. But, even more strikingly, because the particular Balinese ceremony that had taken place around the island that very morning, Saturday October 27th, contrasted in such a surreal and ironic way with the events that would unfold merely 12 hours later, when the Sabbath morning dawned in Pittsburgh: Here, weapons and tools had been brought out of storage, to be honored and blessed; while in America, a rifle was being readied for murder.

At the crack of dawn that Saturday morning, here in Bali, I was out the door, craving a sunrise rice-field walk just north of Ubud. Nearing the main road of the village, I spotted women dressed in traditional costume carrying large baskets of offerings on their heads. I turned the corner and came upon a common sight in Bali: villagers congregating at the side of road, while a handful of women contribute homemade floral elements to the already existing patchwork of offerings, all laid out on a sarong stretched across the hood of a car. Other women placed offerings on motorbikes parked nearby, and knelt to place yet more on a sarong spread on the road, festooned with offerings and an assortment of utensils and tools. It was Tumpek Landep, after all.

On the holy day of Tumpek Landep, occurring every 210 days according to the Balinese calendar system, Hindu locals make offerings and chant blessings over all items made of metals such as iron, bronze, gold, etc. They also pray for protection from Ida Sang Hyang Pasupati, the god who has created all tools made of metal. Originally, this ceremony was meant to pay homage to items of ancestral lineage such as daggers and spears – for example, the keris, a ceremonial knife.

But, in modern times, locals will bless any and all items made of metal; including cars, motorcycles, bicycles, computers and kitchen appliances. Bells and bowls too. It’s not unusual to see palm frond offerings affixed to gas ranges and dangling from refrigerators. I’ve seen ornate offerings tied to tricycles, scissors, and hammers. Even gardening tools are dressed up in palm and flowers. I’ve been told that, at the airport, in government offices, jails and police stations, guns too get the holy treatment.

Yes, Virginia, there are guns in Bali. And I’d be lying (or naïve) if I wrote that deadly weapons are exclusively in the hands of police and military personnel. But I’ve never been privy to a conversation about gun laws in all the years I’ve lived on this island; and I cannot recall if I have ever heard of a shooting over this time.

I spent the next few hours in a daze, silently intoning prayers of hope mixed with mourning. I found distraction in walking aimlessly through the festival’s pop-up book store and food kiosks, up and down aisles of a nearby supermarket, catching up with a friend over lunch. But still, my soul sank, mired in the depths of sadness. I mulled and mulled…

Why has the mourning over deaths from shootings become almost routine in the US, whereas here it is almost unheard of? I can’t explain it. Except that, maybe it has to do with the customary blessings and offerings that are so deeply woven through Hindu culture – with an ingrained veneration for the sanctity of human life, the environment, and yes, for weapons great and small. On holy days like Tumpek Landep we’re reminded that guns and knives are endowed with a sacred energy that is not to be toyed with lightly. If only some of this reverence could rub off half a world away… the lives of 11 human beings might have been spared.

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