Balinese Full Moon Ceremony

My first day in Bali was so beautiful, educational, and overwhelming that I had to take a full day off to process it all. I spent some time trying to learn some basic Indonesian (hello, goodbye, how are you, can i please have that, table for one, what is the most delicious food here, my hovercraft is full of eels, etc) and it has immediately paid off. During the hour-long rainy cab ride to Ubud I befriended my cab driver Made (pronounced Mah-deh) and he was impressed by my Indonesian. He learned I was a photographer and interested in foreign culture and religion and he invited me to his village for a Balinese full moon ceremony. It was one of the most intriguing things I’ve seen in years.

To visitors – please feel free to leave comments if you know more about the particular dances and ceremonies! My Indonesian was poor since I have only been speaking it for two days and I did not understand much of what was said.

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Naturally my first instinct was “oh great, I’m already getting scammed on my first day, how much is this going to cost me, does this ceremony happen every night, and how many other tourists will be there?” It turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong. The ceremony only happened once every 6 months, I was the only non-Balinese there, and the only cost was that of the cab ride!

The first order of business was to change my outfit. He dressed me in his own three-layered ceremonial sarong and udeng (head wear – pronounced u-dong). At first I thought I would be disrespecting the religious ceremony by dressing up like a Balinese villager but he insisted and throughout the entire night not one child snickered and the older women smile at me and nodded in approval when I greeted them in Bahasa Indonesia. Yes, I’m thumbing a rusty old knife. Fun fact: Udang is shrimp in Bhasa Indonesian. An udeng is ceremonial head-gear. No wonder my waiter seemed confused today!

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I spoke with him at length about the effect tourists have had on Bali. On one hand he completely relies on tourists to pay the bills since he is a tour guide and driver. His mother works the rice fields every day. On the other hand he says tourism hurts the villages. Even the local village prices have gone from 3,000 to 18,000 Indonesian Rupia for a simple meal ($0.35 to $2) and the cost of education has gone up 15 fold which means fewer children can afford to get properly educated and end up working the fields while more educated Muslim Javanese come in and take the jobs for more educated people. Due to the inflated prices Made’s family still doesn’t have enough money to live and he tries to buy a cow at the end of each year (a pig if he didn’t make enough money) and the family takes care of it and sells it for twice as much the next year. Shrewd investment. He does this every year and always hopes he can afford a cow.

Made invited me to his home to eat and discuss the world and his culture. I met his younger brother and his mother provided us with a delicious home-made banana wrapped spicy vegetables, half a roast chicken from the village, and a heaping place of rice. It’s not a meal in Bali if there isn’t a heaping plate of rice

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I also learned the hard way that Made (mah-deh) is an extremely common name in Bali. I was quite shocked when I called out for my friend near the end of the ceremony and forty men turned their heads. Thankfully I had a picture of him on my camera and everyone from his village knew him. It turns out there are only 4 names in Bali – the first-born are all named Wayan, the second are named Made, the third are named Nyoman, and the fourth are named Ketut. Any children past the fourth just wrap around to Wayan again and repeat.

Asking for “Made” would not help here.

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After our meal he brought me to the ceremony and sat quietly in the corner with him while people showed up with their offerings – elaborate setups with fresh fruit, whole chickens, rice cakes, desserts, and more. Each family makes and brings one but I understand more affluent families can buy extremely elaborate ones.

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The women of the family carried these offerings in.

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Once the offerings were set up two men spent hours chanting and talking to each other over a microphone… my understanding from speaking with the locals given my one-day-of-Indonesian was that they were telling the story of a battle of good versus evil. Spoiler: Good wins in the end. Alternating between story telling and throaty singing, the men behind the performers sat motionless for hours.

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Made encouraged me to walk around and explore and take photos. At the rear I found a giant decorated roast pig head. Definitely not a kosher ceremony.

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Numerous tall umbrellas were in the temple. Reaching up to the sky seems to be a common theme in Balinese religious decorations.

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While exploring I met many wonderful children and spoke to them about the usual: Where am I from, where am I going, how old am I, and where is my wife?

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Women lined the offering tables, I assumed they were staying close to their family’s offerings.

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Mother and child near the offerings. This girl was watching me the entire time.

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Soon afterwards a large procession came through each area of the temple.

Mostly women but a few men carried the larger items. I wasn’t sure if these were offerings or just part of the ceremonies

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Prayers were next. I got a shot of incense lighting before I had to put the camera down to participate in the prayers.

The lead singer lights incense for an elderly man.

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I had lost sight of my friend and everyone sat down. I joined a family and sat in silence for a long time while the prayer leader sang songs until a bell rang. At that point everyone grabbed a small bundle of flowers, held it up to the sky in silent prayer until another bell rang, then placed the flowers behind their right ear. I started to worry because I had no flowers but a mother behind me tapped me on the shoulder and shared some with me. This repeated several times with varying flower positions. At the end of the prayer I had flowers behind each ears and tucked in many nooks and crannies of my udeng. I never saw rice applied where I was sitting but after the prayers I saw many women with rice on their foreheads and on the base of their necks.

This beautiful young girl had rice on her neck and forehead after prayers. You can also see the flowers behind her ear and in her hair. The men had flowers sticking out of their udengs.

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Then the dancing began! I wasn’t close to the dancing but I could make out four separate dances. On the left you can see a full band with drummers, flutes, and something like a xylophone. Unfortunately I could never get close enough to see what they were playing. Local young Balinese women performed the first dance.

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More local village girls dancing. Hand, feet, and eye motions seemed to be the most important.

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The local boys were quite delighted by all the young ladies dancing!

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The third dance seemed to be a young teenage male warrior dance and was much more aggressive. Since I was far away I thought the boys were wearing masks. When I switched to my telephoto lens I realized they were wearing fantastic face makeup.

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The final dance was between three extremely elaborately costumed adult men. The dances were intense and if I understood the villagers correctly these men were allowed to free style parts of the dance. I couldn’t get an explanation of the dance aside from “complex. many things.” but the best I could guess is that it was good versus evil and then an elder figure comes in to settle matters. The white mask almost looked like a joker or trickster though but that may just be my western interpretations.

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The “Elder” was a fantastic dancer. The children seemed to be scared of him and when he would turn his back the brave ones would run up and make faces and (rude?) hand gestures.

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During this dance many of the children got rowdy and were playing around a bit.

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Not all children were excited. This father was encouraging his kid to play but he wanted to stay with him instead.

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The young girls didn’t seem to be allowed to run free and frolic like the boys but they were just as enthralled with the dances.

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To the best of my understanding the dance concluded with all three working things out.

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The Balinese are a deeply religious people with beautiful and elaborate multi-hour ceremonies. The Balinese people have been some of the warmest I’ve ever met and seemed genuinely interested in including me and trying to explain their culture. Nearly everyone there took this event very seriously though one younger woman I spoke to was not a fan: “I do ceremony in morning, work fields all day, ceremonies at night. No time for Facebook!” Kids these days!

I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect introduction to the Balinese culture and people. I made many new friends and many promised to email me. The stars truly aligned to enable me to join this ceremony and I feel extremely blessed to have been a part of it.

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Closing photography note: the event was extremely dark and there were only a few light bulbs and overhead fluorescents lighting the entire space. The full moon provided enough light to dance and pray. This made photography challenging – most of my shots were at ISO 3200 and 1/10-1/15 of a second even at 200mm. Many shots were on full manual exposure and focus due to the poor lighting. I kept the yellowish hue to match what the evening actually looked like rather than overcorrecting the white balance as the evening was full of many rich yellow outfits, details, and lighting.