It's estimated that Bali has 8,000 balians, almost four times as many doctors. Loosely translating as ‘healer’, balians are well-respected members of the community and perform a wide range of functions. Some specialise in massage, others are midwives or set broken bones.
A balian taksu draws power from nature or spirits and creates medicine from holy water, flowers and plants; while a balian ketakson will communicate with spirits to seek insight into an illness, sometimes going into a trance to heal people.
Like most aspects of daily life, the island’s ancient healing arts are intrinsically linked to Balinese Hinduism, which is all about maintaining balance. When a person falls ill they are deemed to be out of balance, either due to internal or external factors.
These days, a doctor may be called on to treat sekala (tangible) ailments, like motor bike injuries or disease; but when it comes to niskala (intangible) problems, the role of a balian is crucial.
Applying a deeply intuitive, holistic approach, they will consider physical symptoms as well as a patient’s mental and emotional state. Treatment is seen as a journey where the individual’s willingness to heal is an integral part of the process, and may include ritual cleansing ceremonies, herbal potions or inscriptions drawn on the body.
Superstition is rife and social structures complex, so many people will seek out a balian for advice on troubles deemed to be caused by black magic, unseen spirits, or perhaps emotional problems that manifest as physical illness.
Several years ago a doctor diagnosed me with a chest infection, but three successive courses of antibiotics made no difference; and so I found myself sitting face to face with a wise old balian in his family house in Ubud. I described the feeling of constriction in my chest, and also confessed to a deep sadness following the recent demise of a ten-year relationship.
With a pointy wooden stick, he jabbed my fourth toe, seemingly opening a portal through which poured waves and waves of sadness.
“Of course you are sad,” he said with a knowing smile, “that is normal, your heart is aching, it will take time to heal.” He added that I was storing negative emotions in my solar plexus, which was creating pressure in my chest and making me sick.
With a pointy wooden stick, he jabbed my fourth toe, seemingly opening a portal through which poured waves and waves of sadness. It was the most unusual experience, and one that my Western mind struggled to understand, but for the first time since the break up my tears flowed unabated and the pain in my chest disappeared. The grief was still there – he was right, only time can heal heartache – but in letting go of my emotional attachment to it, the healing process had begun.
Recently, I damaged a rib and went to see Pak Sircus, who is well known for curing injuries involving bones, and for his cheeky sense of humour. As with many balians, he performs in public and a number of people were already sitting cross-legged in the family compound, watching as they waited.
Pak Sircus was ensconced in an open-sided pavilion in the centre – seeing individuals and family groups, all the while chatting, drinking tea and smoking clove cigarettes. Hours later my turn finally came. He pointed to my rib, and instructed me to lie down. I was wary; there had been more than a few yelps of pain emanating from the pavilion – usually followed by laughter from the onlookers.
“What is your name?” he asked softly, and I relaxed – deeply drawn into his dark piercing eyes. And then he poked me really hard in my side and it was my turn to yelp. He laughed and laughed. “You tricked me,” I said. “I know,” he replied and laughed even louder. I still felt sore, but something had shifted, perhaps the rib had been returned to its rightful place, and by the next morning the pain had totally subsided.
"People are realising they can make a living from these things and are reconnecting with old traditions, thus keeping them alive."
Traditionally healing in Bali has been offered with a pure heart, in exchange for a discreet donation, but much has changed according to Kadek Gunarta, co-founder of Bali Spirit Festival. Gunarta was born and raised in Ubud – now a holistic mecca of global proportions, where Western healers ply their craft alongside the island’s balians.
“Healing is more commercial these days,” he says. “In old traditions it was about donations and offerings. Now, with a Western concept, the exchange is sometimes about money. It’s all about how much and what do I get for that price? This is confusing for us, but as with everything there are two sides to the blade. This trend has also stimulated locals and rekindled their own interest in healing and meditation. People are realising they can make a living from these things and are reconnecting with old traditions, thus keeping them alive.”
A balian’s first duty is to community, but in these days of spiritual tourism, Instagram and blogging, many have become unwittingly famous – a must-see on tourist itineraries.
Mikaku Doliveck founder of Bali Floating Leaf Eco Luxury Retreat remarks, “We have seen far too many times when a balian has been popularised in the media. Subsequently they become flooded with tourists taking his or her time and energy, depriving the community of their healer.”
The blockbuster movie Eat Pray Love saw entire busloads of female tourists rock up to the house of one of the book’s central characters, healer Ketut Liyer, expecting a Liz Gilbert-style transformative experience, only to be disappointed when they were charged RP 350,000 (AUD $40) for a generic palm reading. Already in his 90s, and suffering from dementia when the movie came out, Liyer recently retired.
If you are thinking of embarking on a healing journey it should be a deeply personal experience, and will be most successful if you do your research, follow personal recommendations and take your own path. If you are merely checking boxes on your ‘to do in Bali’ list, you are unlikely to experience anything too profound.
Dos and don’ts when visiting a balian
1. Ask yourself first if you actually need to be healed
The internet is littered with blog accounts of those who have gone to see a balian because they are “curious” or as one woman writes, “A medicine man on the side just seemed unique and adventurous”. Balians are not a side show, and it is unfair to take up their valuable time unless you are genuinely in need of healing.
2. Dress respectfully
A skimpy sun frock or tattered Bintang singlet is not appropriate attire. Depending on who the healer is, you may need to wear a sarong and temple sash, or at the very least cover your arms and legs. Find out before you go. And don’t point your feet at a balian, as feet are considered unclean.
Balians are not a side show, and it is unfair to take up their valuable time unless you are genuinely in need of healing.
3. Make an appointment
Some balians will only be seen by appointment; others you can just turn up and wait. Again find out before you go.
Never hand money direct to a healer. Inquire first if payment is by donation or a fee, and place it in an envelope or a canang (flower offering) and leave it with a member of the family or in the family temple.
5. Choose your balian wisely
Balians work with different maladies, so it is best to find one that specialises in your particular ailment, and follow personal recommendations. Healing is a booming industry in Bali, and one which has its fair share of charlatans.
Some of the island’s better-known balians
Pak Sirkus: Not for the faint-hearted! As the saying goes, “First he hurts you and then you feel better.” Pak Sircus specialises in problems associated with muscles and bones.
Jalan Subak Sari, Berawa + 62 361739538.
Pak Made Partha: Generally works with vigorous deep-tissue massage, ideal for sports injuries, back problems and sprains. He can also set broken bones.
Banjar Bantan Buah, near Ubud + 62 81338430224.
Cokorda Bagus Astawa: A traditional Balinese healer who specialises in readings and mystical illnesses. He works with herbal tinctures and massage and energy healing to remove blocks.
Singapadu, Gianyar +62 81338533037.
Pak Man: One of the island’s better-known energy healers, Pak Man mostly works with healing massage and makes his own medicinal oils. He treats everything from depression to diabetes, drug addiction, black magic and broken bones.
Ubud, + 62 81338935369.
Ida Resi Alit: Bali’s youngest high priestess can be found in Bangli and offers ritual water purification ceremonies that will leave you feeling spiritually cleansed.
Ibu Jero: A high priestess descended from five generations of healers, Ibu Jero specialises in energy cleansing and Balinese shamanic massage. She also offers a healing melukat ceremony which includes a blessing, offering and chakra clearing ritual to cleanse the mind body and spirit. A minimum of five people are required.
Jimbaran , +62 81337649367.
Fivelements: A serene eco resort in Mambal with several powerful Balinese healers on site, each descended from a long line of healers. Chakra balancing sessions with Pak Dewa are particularly powerful.
Mambal +62 361 569206.
Floating Leaf: Specialises in customised retreats, including a five-day transformational healing retreat that incorporates a purification ritual, healing blessing ceremony, and session with a Balinese healer specifically chosen according to your particular ailment.
Sukawati +62 8113891842.
Images by Mikaku Doliveck (Floating Leaf Eco Luxury retreat.