The Balinese Response to COVID19 – The Early Days…

20200403_062651It started the day before Nyepi, when a bell in East Bali sounded by itself. The culprit (or perhaps, victim?) was neither a doorbell nor your regular, run-of-the-mill kind of priest’s bell (yes, there are those); it was the traditional kulkul of the Puri Agung Klungkung (Klungkung Palace), a sacred relic with a history of its own. Significantly, it wasn’t the first time that it rang without the presence of a human bell-ringer: This kulkul was known to have self-clanged on the eve of prior catastrophes; before the volcanic eruption of Mount Agung, before the bombings, before the massive earthquake on Lombok. Many Balinese, recalling this phenomenon as the harbinger of impending calamity that it has been, triggered fear and panic.

In times of distress, the Balinese, first and foremost, turn for guidance to their spiritual advisors (and, to a lesser degree, their government). Total lockdown was har20200403_060437dly an option; the Balinese are a close-knit people, living in close proximity to relatives and neighbors; and their daily routine includes food shopping each morning at the public markets. To put an end to that would be virtually impossible.

Unsurprisingly, early directives from government authorities were designed to uphold rather than squelch the religious rituals of the Balinese; notwithstanding COVID19, ceremonies and daily offerings must go on.

According to Putu Astawa (Head of the Bali Tourism Office), prayer in the Hindu religious tradition is commonly done when facing a major natural disaster. So, in early response to news of the possessed kulkul, the island’s Hindu authorities asked the Balinese to hold a “Nunas Ica” ceremo20200403_071001ny – which roughly translates to “gather and pray for the gift of protection” (although translations vary). Operative word: gather. Even when COVID19 is known to be present and accounted for. As one news source noted: “No less than 50 people participated in prayers at temples…” Oh dear.

Aside from the official event, where political dignitaries and priests joined together at a temple i20200403_071314n the capital of Denpasar, the Hindu communities were instructed to pray inside their family temples as well. A powerful reminder of the collective nature of life on this island.

Then, a few days ago, in addition to communal prayer, the Balinese people received a special correspondence from the island’s governor – disseminated locally by the chief of each hamlet: Believing the sounds to be whispers or cues from supernatural forces, the Balinese were instructed to create offerings to repel evil spirits and disasters.

20200403_072005Multi-coloured offerings made of rice – in the form of human figures – were to be created and placed in family temples; then, placed in front of the gates leading into their compounds, right at the roadsides. To guide Balinese in designing disaster-repelling offerings, directives were typically specific, including the following (in translation):20200403_071239

“In the yard: make wong-wongan rice, ginger onion and uyah (salt) rice, grounded with banana leaves with the following conditions: head (white color), right hand (red), left hand (yellow), body (color), feet (black)…”

Aside from the four sacred Balinese colours listed, numbers, and the orientation of four directions had to be followed to a T. Such is the extraordinary spiritual life on this island, with a tactile response that has the power, even in these darkened and worrisome days, to unite them all.

To be cont’d…

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