There are in Bali several kinds of traditional healers. The closest to the Western idea of a doctor is the balian usada: his knowledge rests on the control and knowledge of sacred lontar books and on the availability of medicinal herbs he alone knows where to collect and how to concoct. Although the potency of the medicine he delivers is ultimately linked to the magical power of his family shrine (sanggah/merajan ), such a balian is on the side of “medical rationality”. He “knows” his herbs and the way they work. He is the pharmacist heir of centuries of accumulated trials and errors. Should we remind the reader that ‘quinine’, which protects from malaria, was a well-known favourite of Indonesian witch-doctors, before modern pharmacist made it into a respectable medicine.

Illustration by Wayan Sadha
Illustration by Wayan Sadha

In most cases, though, the role of the traditional healer is not so much to provide “medicine” as to restore unbalances at the level of the intangible (niskala) : if there is an illness the real cause is not thought to be an actual disease or accident, but to originate in an unbalance at the cosmic level. An error may have been made in the organisation of offerings, a neighbour might have brought about evil through magic, or a corpse may have been buried too long without a cremation and his lost soul be then demanding attention. Any unbalance is echoed throughout the whole system. Illnesses are such imbalances at the human level, and wars, volcanic eruptions and epidemics at the larger macro-cosmic level. Hence the function of rituals to maintain the cosmic balance, and the need to have “intermediaries” who warn of ongoing unbalances – the trance priests, who intercede with the niskala world to find healing procedures – the balian-taksu or witch-doctors.

The witch doctors sometimes intervene through trance, which they induce by inhaling incense. Then they become the intermediaries of spirits, lost ancestors souls or other bad influences which are the real cause of a person’s problems, physical or psychological. He may go into all sorts of details: “The one responsible for your disease is tall and often bare-chested,” he may say, “his hair is greyish and often lets loose” (Ane nyakitin jeegne landung, sai sai sing mabaju. Bokne uban, sai sai magambahan).

Most of the time the answers are related to the ancestor’s world. The balian-taksu might for example answer the question by saying: “The great-grandfather who is reincarnated in the child is so and so. He wishes a black headdress, a checkered sarong, a checkered sash and a shadow-puppet show. You haven’t provided him with these and he is showing his anger.”

Concretely, healers often combine indigenous knowledge and intervention of the divine. Imagine for example the case of Pan Kaler:

The place is a small damp room with a modest bunk in the corner. A middle-aged man, sitting on a small bamboo chair, is massaging a patient. His hand lightly touches the smooth body of the woman on the bunk. His fingers stop to knead the skin. The woman is emitting short incoherent shrieks, while the man carries on his task under the watchful eyes of the young patient’s mother.

Pan Kaler is “massaging”. Actually he is trying to “catch” from “within” the bebainan power that is holding sway over the girl’s mind. In modern parlance, we would call her mentally ill. She has been taken to Pan Kaler after numerous unsuccessful attempts at healing with a medical doctor. According to her mother, after only three visits to Pan Kaler, she already shows signs of improvement.

Pan Kaler works with massaging oil as well as ointments of which only he knows the secrets. According to what he says, these ointments are a combination of roots and ingredients made from rice powder, ginger, and bark from the kelor and jelema trees. The exact composition of the ointments is a secret. He says that massaging is his way to expel the evil magical power which lies beneath the skin.

Pan Kaler’s range of healing power goes well beyond mental disturbance. He can heal people with broken bones or displaced joints, and he is famous for helping barren women conceive. In such cases, what he massages is the patient’s lower abdomen, and he uses a different type of ointment, made from fruits such asdelima, kakap and kem.

When patients visit Pan Kaler, there is no compulsory payment. It is the “Balinese way” which prevails. They just bring a small offering with a sesari, which might be a simple Chinese coin or an amount of money, the sum of which can vary considerably from one patient to the next. While such a payment depends on the person’s means and sense of gratitude, the Balinese on the whole, in these kind of circumstances, would rather display over-generosity than stinginess.

Before he starts treating his patient, Pan Kaler will first offer the canang offering to Surya, the Sun God and to the god to whom he owes his healing power.

Pan Kaler says that he has not always been a healer. He was bestowed healing powers following an accident from when he fell from a coconut tree. He broke his hip and tibia and was taken to the Denpasar Sanglah hospital. While there, he was allocated a bed on an outside verandah, as the hospital was full. He was in this miserable state when a dream came to him in the middle of the night. In this dream an old man appeared before him and spoke these words. “Hey, Kaler, I will give you the power to heal your broken bones but do not stay here, unless you want to die.” So Pan Kaler collected his clothes and sheets and, with his wife’s help, he took the path to his house. There, the vision of the old man revisited him in more dreams and gave him the secrets of the magic medicines. Following the vision’s instructions, he used the medicines on himself, massaging himself, and after a few months, he was fit and completely healed.

The news of his new power soon spread through the village, and the villagers pestered him with demands for massages and advice. Since that day, Pan Kaler has become known as a famous healer, as can be witnessed today by the long line of cars in front of his house.

He lives in a village on the southern outskirts of Denpasar. Should you break your bones in Bali, it might be an option for you to visit him.

Jean Couteau

Jean Couteau

An observer of Bali for over 40 years, Jean Couteau is a graduate of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and former lecturer at the Denpasar Institut Seni Indonesia. He is a reputed specialist on Balinese culture, having authored: Puri Lukisan (2000), Un Autre Temps: Les Calendriers Tika de Bali (2004) Time, Rites and Festivals in Bali (2013, with Georges Breguet), and Myth, Magic and Mystery in Bali (2018) – to name but a few. He is a multilingual writer, contributing for Indonesia’s national paper, Kompas, with his column “Udar Rasa” published in the Sunday cultural page (in Bahasa Indonesia). He also contributes a monthly cultural piece for NOW! Bali.