Balians: Traditional Healers of Bali

Book Review

Ni Wayan Murni
Hello Bali, December 2006

Balians: Traditional Healers of Bali
Edited by Bradford Keeney, PhD
Ringing Rocks Press, 2004


Balians, dukuns, traditional healers, shamans or witch doctors, whichever name you like to use, are a subject that never fails to arouse interest. This new book looks at some of Bali’s better known healers.

Bradford Keeney begins the book by recounting an incredible story. He and his crew arrived in Bali in 2000 to interview and photograph a number of Bali’s balians. The first problem was that their photographic equipment and luggage did not show up at the airport, then when he turned in for the night he woke up to a huge explosion and the sound of rocks and sand sliding down the outside of his room and a thunderous stomping of feet on the roof. He was terrified and called for help but nobody heard him. Bradford Keeney wondered what he should do.

He remembered that balians make magical drawings, so he decided to change the nature of the project and publish a book about these magical drawings. His guide could collect them and he could leave Bali immediately. Instantly the terrible noises stopped. His guide then took him to Mangku Alit, Bali’s top balian, who went into a trance and contacted the god for all shamans, Jero Gede Macaling. Later the luggage turned up without explanation. It was a good omen.

They visited various balians, all of whom confirmed approval of the project. The book contains interviews with six balians, Mangku Alit, Jero Sekar Manik, Jero Tapakan, Jero Mangku Srikandi, Mangku I. Made Pogog and I Gusti Gede Raka Antara. They are not terribly revealing. There is no analysis or explanation such as undertaken by Angela Hobart in Healing Performances of Bali, reviewed in July 2006. The interviews are short and reveal little beyond explaining that the Balinese visit them when they want protection. The balians go into trance and get the reasons for any misfortunes. Often they prescribe magical drawings. The vocation usually runs in the family.

The book’s strength and interest lies in fifty five magical drawings. There are also pages of wonderful black and white photographs, and although many do not appear to have anything to do with the subject matter, it’s not important. The drawings are in a unique Balinese style, probably influenced by Indian Hindu art. They are powerful and wildly surreal in appearance: deformed bodies, disembodied heads, multiple limbs, half human, half animal, snake like protuberances and tails, and flames emanating from heads, knees and feet.

Balians can be of the right or the left side – those on the right side use their powers for good. The drawings depicted in the book are all of the right. They are not frightening; they are just very strange. A page is devoted to each drawing and facing it is a brief description, how it is prepared and its purpose.

The magical drawings are usually drawn on white cloth with Chinese ink. They can also be engraved on gold, copper or tin plate, or even clay fragments. Some are worn in your pocket or belt for safety; some are attached to the entrance gate of a compound to stop evil forces or robbers from entering; and some are placed above the bedroom door to give long life or above the bed for protection. One is drawn on a betel leaf and spat at a person who needs protection from witches. Another is drawn on a turmeric root and swallowed to stop you being poisoned The most intriguing are those than can make you invisible or help you fly. Some protect animals; some prevent mice coming in; and some protect crops against disease.

The drawings are not art for art’s sake: they have a serious purpose and function. Indirectly they lay bare the innermost concerns of the Balinese. They remind me of the elegant, energetic, expressive drawings of the remarkable I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, who lived from 1862 to 1978. It would be good to know if he was influenced by them as he was known to be interested in sorcery.

The magical drawings of the balians were shrouded in secrecy. This book reveals a bit of that secret knowledge and provides us with a great opportunity to see them. Most people never get the chance.

Ubud, Bali

Balians: Traditional Healers of Bali