Healing Performances of Bali

Book Review: Healing Performances of Bali

Book Review

Ni Wayan Murni
Hello Bali, July 2006

Healing Performances of Bali
Angela Hobart
Berghahn Books, 2005


As far as I know this is the first book of its kind. It is a study of the traditional healers whom we in Bali do not often speak about but all visit from time to time. I met Dr Angela Hobart on one of her many trips here and was delighted to learn that she speaks High Balinese. This is rare for a Westerner as it is not an easy language. It is, however, a vital attribute to carry out research into this arcane area properly.

There are many types of traditional healers in Bali, who are mostly consulted at times of illness or trouble. They are a bridge between the seen and the unseen worlds and are highly esteemed by us. Whereas Western trained doctors cure illnesses from natural causes, traditional healers or ‘balian’ cure illnesses from supernatural causes. They communicate with the spirits of the unseen world through trance.

They are also consulted on the causes of family problems. We believe that such matters have specific causes and the balian can ascertain them. Angela Hobart sets out a number of case studies and explains the rituals and mechanisms at work. She also examines the wider healing processes of whole villages through a discussion of the roles of the Barong and Randa masked figures during religious ceremonies.

Balian advise how to rectify mental or physical problems. There is no conflict between the work of a balian and a scientifically trained doctor. If we suspect our illness has been caused by the unseen world, we go to a balian and if we suspect it comes from the seen world, we go to a doctor. As Angela Hobart points out, they refer patients to each other. She sets out a table of their separate roles.

Balian often prescribe herbal medicines, provide amulets for the patient to wear and hand out protective drawings with sacred syllables on them. Angela Hobart says that knowledge about traditional medicine is dying out. It is a lot easier to go to the pharmacy and get a pill than make up concoctions of roots and leaves mixed with egg white and honey.

Many people are sceptical about traditional healers but balian do have successes. Patients believe in them and that goes a long way. Angela Hobart explains that they can shift a patient’s consciousness and change his attitudes, so that he engages more fully with his family, enemies and community. After a session the patient or victim of bad luck sees things differently. He’s on his way to being cured. She gives various examples of successful treatments.

Even in the West placebos work in mysterious ways in curing various illnesses. A person’s beliefs and hopes about a treatment can have a significant biochemical effect. It seems to be a case of mind over molecules. Changed behaviour and attitudes, how one feels, and how one acts, can even affect one’s body chemistry.

I am pleased that Angela Hobart has written this interesting book and highlighted the balian’s role in Bali. Few tourists who see the lion-like Barong parade through Balinese villages to the sounds of the gamelan orchestra appreciate the forces at stake, but if they read this book, they will. I also hope that it is read by those who may be able to support the role of the balian in Balinese society.

Ubud, Bali

Healing Performances of Bali