Sun, 28 May 2000

Traditional tooth filing ceremony in today's Bali

By Degung Santikarma

DENPASAR (JP): A small army of Balinese, dressed in traditional sarongs and headdresses and sporting walkie-talkies and lighted batons, have been deployed to direct traffic. From behind barricades that warn -- "be careful - religious ritual" -- they wave cars of arriving guests through the gates of a lavish home.

Stepping out of expensive sedans and passing beneath banners painted with sacred symbols and messages in Sanskrit, the guests are dressed expensively. Wearing silks and brocades with heavy gold sparkling from wrists and ears and mobile phones hanging importantly from ceremonial sashes about their waists, they form a virtual parade of wealth and style.

After being greeted at the door with a palms together gesture and a solemn om swastiastu (peace be with you), the host invites the guests to be seated in a forest of rented chairs. Musicians and dancers entertain the guests until time for the ceremony.

As the priest finishes reciting his mantras and the gamelan orchestra fades to silence, the head of the family picks up a portable microphone and steps to the front of the crowd. Speaking in most refined Balinese, he gives a formal speech of thanks to the guests, and introduces his children, carefully stressing their titles: Engineer MBA, Doctor MPH, Lieutenant Colonel MSc.

He explains that this traditional tooth filing ritual, which his children are about to experience, is a sign of the continuing vitality of Balinese culture, and ends by inviting the guests to enjoy the lavish buffet that has been prepared by one of Bali's best caterers, complete with traditional roast suckling pig and European ice cream.

According to the anthropology books, tooth filing - metatah in Balinese or potong gigi in Indonesian - is one of the most important of the manusia yadnya, rituals that mark the transition from one stage of life to the next. By filing down the pointed canine teeth, which symbolize coarse animal passions, the ritual is supposed to rid humans of the sad ripu or six destructive desires: loba, or greed; kama, or lust; krodha, or anger; mada, or drunkenness; moha, or confusion; and matsarya, or jealousy.

Spiritually strengthened against such vice and temptation, the person whose teeth have been filed can then take his proper place in the adult community, helping to ensure a harmonious Balinese society.

Because tooth filing is so important, not only to an individual's character but to a smoothly functioning cultural whole, no parent would consider letting their children grow to adulthood with unfiled teeth.

For those who lack the material means to arrange an expensive ritual, Balinese Hinduism offers three categories of ceremony: nista, the small scale; madya, the medium scale; and utama, the most elaborate scale, any of which is said to be sufficient in the eyes of God.

But tooth filing - like most things Balinese - seems to be changing with the times. In contemporary Bali, rituals are not simple, serious ceremonies intended to engender traditional values and create appropriately cultured members of society, but comparative events, which communicate new divisions of wealth, status and outlook.

Rituals like tooth filing have become an occasion not just for fulfilling religious requirements or cementing community solidarity, but for displaying one's broader social networks to an assembled audience. These days, it is often the number of politicians, journalists, public relations executives, entrepreneurs - or even paying tourists - on the guest list that determines the "level" of the ritual in the eyes of onlookers.

Ceremonies have become opportunities for gossip, for comparisons, and for political commentary.

And so, as the priest gets out his file and begins to work, a hum of conversation fills the air. "How much do you think they paid for the catering?" asks one woman to her friend. "I don't know, but look at those offerings - apples and oranges imported from Australia!" comes the reply.

"But this tooth filing doesn't compare to the one at Pak Sangka's house last month," comments one man. "Yes, but that ritual was the excuse they gave for selling their family land to a hotel developer," claims another one cynically.

"All the children having their teeth filed here today have good jobs - not like Pak Widya's sons, whose teeth were filed last year. All of them dropped out of school because of drugs," notes another guest.

"We need to keep our children away from that sort of thing. As long as we keep holding rituals we can preserve our culture against outside influence and protect our traditional values," concludes another.

As the file scrapes down the pointed teeth, so temptations and tensions are smoothed away. Or so the anthropology books say.