It’s 10am and the town of Ubud is just waking up. Inside the gates of a temple, an old lady is swooshing an urn of incense. Not far away, outside another Balinese temple, a mother leans off her moped to lovingly tie a sash around her child’s sarong, for there’s no access without proper attire. In the car that’s whisking me away from the Chedi Club, I lean back and think about how ubiquitous ritual is on the Island of the Gods — as omnipresent and everyday, I think, as Italians at their espresso in the local sidewalk cafe.
We are on our way to meet a spiritual man, Ida Bagus Ketut Budi Armawa, also known as Brahman Keniten. The name Kentinen marks him as one of the five subcastes of this class of Hinduism reserved for the holy. Brahman (a term for the Hindu caste of priesthood and an honorific that he also answers to) will guide us through our mystical carving experience.
We pull up to our meeting point and the driver is already waiting for us. We pile into a Suzuki Splash, my dad crammed in front with his knees close to his chest, my mum and me in the back craning our necks for the rumors of aircon that might be wafting from vents upfront. Our driver makes chit chat as we start the 20-minute drive to the Mystic Carving shop.
Where are we from? How long have we been here? Where are we going? It’s no easy thing, giving up the indulgences of our luxury resort in Ubud on Bali, but there is the promise of something utterly different at hand. Our conversation continues. It’s not until we’re about 10-minutes into the ride that we actually make the connection that our driver is Brahman and he’ll be performing today’s ritual – creating a personalized talisman for each of us based on three intentions we sent in advance.
This is a ritual he’s been offering to visitors to Bali for more than two decades, but it’s a practice that goes back in his culture for close to a millennium. “Amulet culture here dates back around 900 years,” he explains. “They (amulets) have been carried by all walks of society, from farmers to warriors, traders to healers.” Talismen, by definition, are believed to repel harmful or evil forces. When we arrive at the shop we spy a Balinese calendar with today’s date in red. Brahman had told us it was an auspicious day. It turns out that it’s Pagerwesi, a day to “strengthen one’s fortifications against evil,” which strikes me as an incredible coincidence.
Brahman’s mother greets us as we enter the storefront. She doesn’t speak a lick of English but laughs from her belly each time she gestures in communication. Despite her 85 years, she’s manhandling furniture trying to get us to sit. I want to capture her smile on film. Though some of her teeth are missing, the imperfection only seems to enhance her beauty. She’s warm and authentic but she keeps her mouth sharply shut as I click the camera. My encouragements for her to grin are lost in translation.
After her son wraps each of us in a sarong he leads us through the compound by the shop and to his family’s temple. Caged birds chatter as we walk by and a Balinese windchime hoisted high on a bamboo poll harvests the breeze as a soundtrack.
We sit as offerings, known locally as canang sari, are prepared. These little palm leaf parcels to the divine are omnipresent throughout the island and I wonder how many gods I’ve angered already after accidentally standing on several.
The ceremony itself takes about 40 minutes. It’s part meditation (for us and for Brahman), part chanting (just for him) and part offering with different flowers and flower combinations being used as a gift to different gods. At some stages he chants alone. Our eyes are closed and we hear the sanskrit mantras softly spoken. On occasion we’re asked to take part. We meditate on our intentions as he chants incantations and circles the incense around areas of our body.
Part of the ceremony involves a rite of purification, where blessed water is both gently flicked upon us and sipped from our hands. Rice is also placed at the center of each of our foreheads for good fortune and a blessing bracelet of twisted thread is wrapped around each of our wrists; we’re told to wear it for the next 21 days.
“Twenty-one days is the time needed to unite the soul and spirit of the physical body to the universal energy and divine,” says Brahman. “It is enough time to set a positive program in your subconscious and aim you in the right direction.” All of this is a lead-in for creating the talisman designs.
“When I connect with the holy spirit I have inspiration for the symbols,” he tells us. The ceremony, for him, is a step to reach the divine.
One by one we focus on our intentions while holding our hands in a mudra (hand gesture) at our naval chakra, the energy center of the body associated with inner wisdom. At this time he begins sketching symbols onto a sheet of paper that will be used for our talisman design.
Familiar patterns emerge, including sanskrit symbols, blossoming flowers, chakra images, and a few unexpected designs, like a pair of frog-like legs that appear to be missing a body that make an appearance on my drawing as well as my father’s. There’s a lot going on and I wonder how he’s going to fit it all on a carving that is supposed to be small enough to fit around my neck.
When the ceremony is finished, we’re told they’ll make each carving and once again perform blessings before we are able to pick it up or get it delivered to our hotel for a small additional fee. It’ll take three days.
It’s past midday as we make our way back into the hub of Ubud. Remnants of rice still cling to our foreheads, and the yarn bracelet acts as a reminder of the morning’s excursion.
In town those early glimpses of local Balinese life have been replaced with a predominantly foreign crowd but every so often we catch a glimpse of a blessing bracelet around a wrist or see a canang sari on the ground. Reminders of ritual remain.
Three days later I find myself on a different spiritual journey. I’m in savasana at a retreat center in Canggu, on the other side of the island. My schedule is full with yoga, workshops, and a few indulgent massages. As I start to come out of the resting pose I hear my name faintly called. I look up and my mum is standing at the entrance to the shala holding my talisman.
There’d been a mix up and it had gone to her hotel instead of mine. She’d messaged me all morning, before her flight back to New Zealand, to see what I wanted to do but I hadn’t seen my phone. On a whim, and with her not being entirely sure about the name of the place I was now staying, she’d decided to just come and drop it off. It was also a chance for one last goodbye since we live in different countries.
She had arrived at the very moment that I finished my class and in perfect time for the only break that I’d have for the next few hours. Her timing seemed so serendipitous…or just maybe she had a little guidance from the talisman.
Text by Karryn Miller for GHM Journeys.
Featured image: The mystic carver works in myriad mediums, including bone.