This morning I went to one of the most important ceremonies in a Balinese person’s life: the mapandes or matatah, a tooth-filing ceremony performed partly for beautification — fanged teeth are unattractive and coarse to the Balinese eye — but also to symbolically balance-out an individual’s personality. (Skip straight to the bottom if you’d just like to see the video.)
The family compound of Gede, the fiance of our pembantu Yanti, was draped in fine, colourful decorations, with an entire room packed with offerings: babi guling, fruit, other foods and flowers were all laid out in abundance.
Snack boxes and drinks greeted the guests arriving, while the main meal was still being set up for serving after the ceremony.
As we waited for the pedanda or priest to arrive, a gender wayang, a smaller and more subdued version of the gamelan orchestra you’ll see say accompanying dances, entertained the growing crowd as it sprawled across the courtyard and perched on red plastic chairs.
Behind the scenes, preparations were completed for the ceremony.
A Balinese person’s life is usually marked out by 13 manusa yadnya ceremonies, or ceremonies that seek to protect and purify the individual — including this one, the tooth-filing ceremony.
According to Fred B. Eiseman in the excellent Bali Sekala and Niskala, the manusa yadnya are a crucial category of the panca yadna, or five rituals, that every Balinese Hindu must have performed to ensure their spirit moves easily from birth to death to reincarnation. Six to 18 years old are the ideal ages for tooth filing or at the least before marriage, though some people have it in their 60s or even after death.
Filing protruding canine teeth is believed to reduce the uncouth behaviour they are said to represent; but far more important is the religious substance of the ceremony, which involves ridding the spirit of its six negative traits, or sad ripu: lust, greed, anger, drunkenness, confusion and jealousy.
“Reducing the influence of these six will help an individual live a healthy, well-adjusted existence as part of a closely knit family and community, and this behaviour will ensure reincarnation into a better future life,” Eiseman writes.
Sugarcane was wedged between Gede’s teeth to keep his jaws open, then the pedanda got to work with a file called a kikir to smooth his six top teeth, representing the ripu.
During the actual ceremony, the teeth and the individual are symbolically “killed” during the tooth-filing procedure. “This is a moment of weakness — when enemies can do harm — and the one getting filed needs all the support he or she can get,” Eiseman adds.
Indeed Yanti turned to me at this point to whisper that this was a dangerous time and if people thought ill of Gede, they could reach him in this vulnerable state. His parents and relatives surrounded him, holding him down; it was to give him moral and spiritual support, but it kind of looked like it was also to stop Gede writhing in pain. Typical of any Balinese ceremony, moments of levity lightened the mood though, too.
Afterwards the teeth were brought to life again with another mantra; the danger was over, and Gede was now, well, ready for marriage and anything else life is set to throw at him.
Main ceremony over, it was time for some final blessings before the feast began.
Here’s a minute-long take of the ceremony (complete with complaining children in the audio):
By Samantha Brown
Last updated on 25th September, 2011.