Another day of surreal stillness in Bali.
Celebrating this first evening of Passover, ensconced alone in my new Bali beachside digs (as of 2 days ago), I find myself contemplating distinctive Balinese religious rituals that came to light (for me) very recently, in this year of the virus-plague; and how curiously they parallel some traditional rites and practices of Judaism.
According to Jewish history or legend, the biblical story of Passover recounts how Jews lived as slaves in ancient Egypt, under the oppressive dictates of the Pharaoh. Their hard-won freedom came about as a result of ten plagues that harmed the local population, but spared the tribe of Israelites. The tenth plague was allegedly meant to decimate all first-born sons of Egyptian origin, while sparing the same born of Jews. As a protective measure, the Jews were instructed to smudge their doors with an offering – the blood of a sacrificial lamb – to alert the Hebrew god to their presence; god would then ‘pass over’ the homes of the Israelites, keeping them safe from harm. As the story goes, it was because of the massive death toll of the final plague among his people (and his fear of further retribution) that the Pharaoh finally relented and let the Jews go.
Last week, as the Balinese were coming to terms with the hovering presence (and devastating impact) of COVID19, the authorities had started to take the reins on repelling the virus. Aside from the many closures (of restaurants, cafes, and eventually hotels and resorts), and aside from the human-figure-like offerings that were placed inside and outside family compounds, another request landed in their WhatsApp threads: Since the Klungkung kulkul sounded on its own, and was believed to warning of imminent disaster, the Balinese had to ramp up protection in their homes so that the virus would… pass over Bali without causing harm.
The directive explained the function of seselat, which acts as a barrier or partition against evil spirits who threaten to disturb the serenity of mankind. Precise instructions were given on how to gather three prickly pandan leaves together with chili, onions, and Chinese coins; then tie them all together with tridatu threads (three-colored string bracelets that are worn for Balinese temple ceremonies). These talismans were then to be affixed outside the front entrance of family compounds – to protect the residents living inside.
Upon each leaf, and on the exterior doors or walls of each home, the tapa darak (a cross and symbol of safety) would have to be drawn by hand, using kapur sirih (lime betel). These posted amulets are another response to the presence of omens; another ceremonial rite. Protecting the inhabitants from the pandemic.
Similarities of religious ritual exist even without disaster striking. Among the many articles that define Jewish practice, the mezuzah is a religious amulet/case that contains within it a mini-scroll and is affixed (often, at a slight inward tilt) to the doorpost of each Jewish household as a reminder of the inextinguishable link between the residents and their god. Similarly, many years ago, when I took a long-term lease on a house in Ubud (a near-disaster that will forever remain a blight on my life on this island), a house-blessing ceremony took place early on, during which an offering of leaves, petals and string was affixed to the doorpost. Slightly tilted.
As I sit here on the eve of Passover, contemplating the idea of bondage, restricted movement, and suffering, I wonder what more the Balinese authorities have in store as a way of thwarting the destructive nature of this global virus. If the Hindu priestly caste has anything to say about it (and surely they will), there will no doubt be more ‘commandments,’ more offerings, more rituals and restrictions. May all these spiritually-based schemes somehow usher in miracles that are on the minds (and mouths) of my Hindu neighbours. Meanwhile, we wait – with masks in tow.
So early tomorrow morning (Bali time), as I Zoom the #stayhome seder (festive meal) with my family – self-isolating across 5 countries and 3 time zones – we’ll recount parts of the Passover tale and I may recount these stories of irony; about the parallels between Balinese and Jewish heritage, spiritual belief, protection and prayer.
No doubt, the others in my family will raise four (or more!) glasses of wine – while I guzzle down ginger kombucha. They’ll munch on matzah, as I nibble on tempeh chips. When we turn to the part about eating ‘bitter herbs,’ my relatives will reach for their slices of horseradish (chrein) – while I dare to drink as bitter an herbal remedy as they come: the strained liquid from a pot of boiled papaya and sambiloto leaves. If you have the option of chrein, trust me: take it, and be happy.
To those who celebrate this festival, in person or online, my wish is that we curb thoughts of isolation-as-bondage, and instead find the unexpected gifts and opportunities for awakening, awareness, reconciliation and connection during these times. Because this too shall pass. Over.