My first Balinese portrait happened by accident. But then, that’s not unusual: you stumble upon someone quite by chance and strike up a conversation in the most unusual places, you catch someone’s eye and find intrigue. I was wandering down Jalan Pantai Sindhu, returning from the traditional pasar (market), aimlessly drifting along this familiar route to the beach. Jalan- Jalan, as the Indonesians call it, just walking. Sitting on a stool outside the doorway of a leather repair shop sat a man dressed in pure white: he was engrossed in conversation with a thin and rather oppressed looking younger man who was seated inside behind a sewing machine. I’m not sure why I stopped. Maybe I was drawn in by his striking appearance, his huge mass of jet black hair neatly arranged on the nape of his neck, or the many bracelets and heavy gem stone rings on his left hand. When closer I noticed the layer of old tattooing along his arms, thick indigo island tatts, barely visible under his long-sleeved crisp white shirt.
We chatted for some time about Bali in the past and then moved on to gemstones and bit into each other’s turquoise rings just to check that the stones were real. He was a Balinese priest, a Pemangku, and had just spent three days conducting ceremonies over at Kuta. After formal introductions, hand shaking and a photo, I went on my way, leaving him to further conduct his community duties. I could have happily stayed all day, there was so much more to learn. I doubt that I will run across him again.
Priests and Prieshood
‘There are two kinds of priests in Bali, the Pedanda, or high priest, and the Pemangku, or temple priest. Only a Brahman can become a pedanda; pemangku are recruited from the lower castes. There are about 20 times more pemangku than pedanda. Priests don’t hold political office and their economic power is limited, yet they’re the most respected members of Balinese society, their place the highest a mortal can achieve.
Balinese priests don’t stand between a worshipper and god; he’s there to make sure a person’s prayers are properly directed so the desired results may be achieved. Before a family moves into a new house or opens a losmen, a priest is asked to give god’s blessing. Priests purify people after an accident or illness, avert curses, and bring people out of spells and trances.
Every temple has its own pemangku, a lay priest who maintains the temple and officiates at everyday rituals. Even the most indigent Balinese will make a great effort to hire the services of a pemangku, especially when it comes to making sure dead loved ones are properly ushered into the spiritual world.’¹
Extracts on Balinese Priesthood taken from