Thu, 12 Feb 2004

Balinese masseurs mix old and new therapy

Ni Luh Dian Purniawati, Contributor, Kuta

As the sun rises, I Wayan Sudra prepares himself for the work day, although the clock has not yet struck seven.

Someone has already been waiting a few hours outside Sudra's bale (bedroom). Within 15 minutes, Sudra is ready to serve his first client.

He appears with a tender smile and approaches his guest. "Are you feeling better now?." The young man grins. He had an accident three days ago, breaking his collarbone.

"I feel alright but there's a little pain here," he says as he points to his right shoulder. Sudra touches it gently and the man shouts out loud.

Sudra keeps rubbing and touching the man's shoulder, attempting to set his broken bone by massage. To distract his patient's attention from pain, he chats with him, often in a humorous vein. They discuss various hot topics from tajen (cockfighting) in the village to political rifts.

Sudra, popularly known as Pak Sirkus, is one of many traditional masseurs in Bali.

A resident of Tibubeneng village in Kerobokan, 10 kilometers west of Denpasar, Sudra started his profession as a balian manak (a traditional midwife). An unusual job for a man, some might say -- but not in Bali.

In l972, the Kerobokan area, now crowded with luxury villas and restaurants, was a remote village with only few asphalt roads and almost no healthcare facilities.

Thirty years ago, women preferred to deliver their babies at home and hired balian manak for help. Even in the 1980s, Denpasar only had a few hospitals and community health centers, most of which were unreachable by rural women.

Sudra helped women deliver their babies with his traditional medical knowledge inherited from his parents and grandparents.

After developing his massage skills he later roamed Bali's beaches as a traditional masseur.

In Bali, there are many people like Sudra. They are called balian tulang or bone setters. There are many other types of balian -- shaman or traditional healers.

There are the balian uwut the name originating from urat or muscle, which refers to a masseur who has mastered the traditional knowledge of human anatomy and is capable of healing muscle strains or any other bodily stiffness.

The Balinese also recognize balian ushada (shamans whose traditional medicinal knowledge is based on ancient lontar or papyrus inscriptions) and balian tenung (soothsayers who spiritually heal people affected by black magic).

The balian uwut, especially, still play a significant role in traditional Balinese medicine. Despite the fact modern doctors are practicing in rural areas, people still choose to go to balian uwut for help.

Researchers from the Teachers's Training Institute (IKIP) in Singaraja, North Bali carried out a comprehensive study of balian uwut, interviewing balian uwut and their patients throughout the island.

The study revealed the perceptions of most Balinese toward the balian had changed little during the past few decades, with many still seeking their help.

This is especially true in rural areas, where balian offer the best alternative medical source for villagers despite the prevalence of doctors and puskesmas (community health centers),

In urban Denpasar or in other big cities in Bali, many people still rely on balian for medication and flock to them to attend to their spiritual welfare.

This is not surprising if one knows the Balinese character.

The traditional Balinese view of illness is an imbalance or disharmony between the tangible and intangible worlds, between individuals and the larger surroundings. When a man falls off his motorbike or crashes a car, he associates the misfortune with his Hindu religion and customs.

Balinese often assume accidents occur because they have done something inappropriate or have violated a religious taboo.

While this diagnosis may not be valid for medical doctors, with Western-adopted knowledge, the balian provide the answers their patients want to hear.

In addition to physical treatments -- massage or loloh (herbal medicines) -- balian seek spiritual guidance to find the cause of a patient's sickness.

Receiving this holistic treatment gives patients a sense of spiritual and physical wellness they might not get at a clinic. And many Balinese swear by balian, who they say give quick, decisive cures for ailments.

Such treatments attract not only local patients but also foreigners.

Arthur Karvan, an Australian living in Bali, frequently visits Cokorda Gede Rai, a noted balian, in Negari village in Gianyar. He said he prefers to go to Cokorda for medication than visiting doctors nearby the village. He consider the balian's traditional medication more suitable to his needs with less side-effects.

The provincial government realizes balian are important doctors to many people in Bali. To introduce them to more modern and hygienic methods and complete their medical know-how, the province's health agency has regularly provided special training to many balian.

Hamidah, a balian uwut from Singaraja, expressed her enthusiasm over the training. "I now know various types of medicines such as antibiotics, analgesic pills and other relieving medications."

"In addition to my herbal concoctions, I often give my patient light analgesic pill to ease their pains," Hamidah said.

Karvan said a balian tulang practicing near Besakih temple in Karang Asem had already employed modern medical equipment like X- rays to determine the position of broken bones.

His patients came from countries as far away as the United States, Japan and Italy.

"He receives at least 40 patients every day. Each of the patients are treated comprehensively," Karvan, who visited the balian when his wrist was broken, said.

Sudra, however, has never studied Western medicine but has gleaned knowledge from his parents passed down from the ancient lontar scripts.

"I am also lucky to have a number of friends, medical doctors of different specialties," Sudra said. He was often involved in scientific discussions with his doctor friends.

Sudra also admits he frequently sends his patients to doctors. "There are many cases that cannot be solved by balians. On the other hand, doctors often recommend their patients to go to a balian when they can heal their patients' illnesses," he said.

It is almost midnight when Sudra finishes his work. Instead of going to bed, he strolls down to a nearby beach to go fishing.

"It's a way to relax and regain energy after a busy day," he says.