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Postcard from Bali: my new friend the witch doctor

February 19, 2019

Mecaling, Bali’s demon king

Every time I visit a country more than once, it seems as though another layer, big or small, peels off. On the first day of the trip we’ve just finished, Bali revealed something new to this stranger. On the last day, the aspect that I’d not encountered before was massively reinforced.

We stayed in three locations in the island. On our way to Canggu, our first stop, we mentioned to our driver that we were heading to a hotel in Kuta for our last week. Ah, he said, my father worked there for many years. He worked his way up from maintenance to HR. Is he still there, we asked? No, he said. He passed away three years ago.

We said we were sorry to hear that. It turned out that he was only fifty-three. What caused his death, we asked? Our driver replied that someone at the hotel was jealous of him, and used black magic to put a curse on him.

So people can kill using black magic? Oh yes, he said. It happens sometimes. That was the end of the conversation. But it left too many questions simply to ignore.

Anyone who’s been to Bali will know that the Balinese, who are mostly Hindu, are a deeply spiritual people. Wherever you go there are temples large and small, decorated with statues of the Hindu pantheon. Every home and commercial enterprise has its shrine. And everywhere you will find offerings of rice and flowers on little trays, some with burning incense sticks. There seem to be few boundaries between belief in spirits and what we in the West would call superstition.

So I did a little light browsing, using the search term “Black Magic in Bali”, and came up with plenty of stuff, almost all written by Westerners. This piece is particularly interesting. Strangely enough, the locals don’t seem as keen to discuss the subject, at least not in the English language.

While I was convinced that many Balinese believe in black magic, I mentally filed the conversation with the taxi driver for future reference, and got on with the holiday.

Until, that is, my wife and I actually got to meet someone claiming to be a witch doctor.

It happened at the end of the trip. After several visits to the same hotel (the one with the malevolent employee) we’d become friendly with some of the members of staff. We were chatting with one of them about our favourite restaurants in the area. We mentioned one name, and she told us that it was owned by her brother and named after her father.

We’d decided to eat there on our last night, and promised to look him up. Which we duly did. Within five minutes of meeting us, without prompting, Made (not his real name) told us he was a witch doctor. The more benign Western term for what he does is spirit healer. No, he says, he doesn’t practice black magic, but knows people who do. He frequently helps people who believe they have had spells cast on them by countering the effect of the black magic. I suppose you could also call him a white witch. When I suggested that description, he readily agreed.

For the next hour or so, Made told us his story. He came from a family that owned much of the land in the area. They were wealthy enough to send him to university, where he studied accountancy. He had a successful career that stumbled a few years ago when he succumbed to drink, drugs and gambling.

All the while he knew he had the gift of healing. His great grandfather was a well-known holy man and healer. Made is convinced that his spirit is incarnated in him. Three years ago he went into a trance. He was sure that his ancestor was communicating with him. He spent days in a state of collapse. It was then that he decided to answer his great grandfather’s calling. His health started improving as he underwent training at the local temple. At one stage he experienced what he described as a spectacular physical manifestation of his healing. He vomited a mass of bloody tissue through his mouth and nose.

Shortly afterwards, following a ceremony at the temple, he began his career as a witch doctor.

Since then, he not only runs two restaurants and a B&B but has built a country-wide reputation as a healer. He doesn’t charge a fee for his work, and he doesn’t advertise his gift. People come to him. Do Muslims come to you, I asked, having worked in a country, Saudi Arabia, where “sorcerers” are put to death? Of course, he said, and Buddhists too.

He shared a few case histories. He told the story of a Polish guy who had persistent outbreaks of boils on his back. This guy had a Venezuelan girlfriend whom he treated badly and eventually left. Since then, the boils kept reappearing and there didn’t seem to be any cure. A Balinese friend referred him to our new friend, who suspected that the girlfriend was responsible. It seems that there is also some pretty powerful black magic in Venezuela. After the session with Made, the boils never reappeared.

Made took us to what he calls his office, which is actually a small room containing a shrine full of pictures and objects that are significant to his work. They include a kris, a Balinese ceremonial dagger, and a huge snake fang which he said he had inherited from his great grandfather. On the wall was a terrifying picture of an entity I subsequently recognised as Mecaling, Bali’s demon king.

When Made practices his healing he goes into a trance and runs the snake fang over the affected area  – for diabetes sufferers the pancreas, for heart patients the cardiac arteries, and so on. He claims he can diagnose the problem and cure it without invasive surgery purely by use of the four-inch long fang.

He is, apparently, the only one of his ten siblings to have inherited the gift of healing.

As we parted company, I told him that I wished I had known him five years ago when I first came to Bali. Two prolapsed discs at the beginning of our trip left me in a wheelchair for the duration of the holiday and for a while afterwards. Could he have cured me? For sure, he said.

Afterwards I thought back on a couple of aspects of his story. His sudden collapse when he was “visited” by the spirit of his great grandfather reminds me of the tradition surrounding God’s first revelation to the Prophet Mohammed through the angel Gabriel. Mohammed was terrified. Clearly in shock, he went back home and asked his wife to cover him in a blanket. The revelation of supernatural forces was clearly a traumatic event in both cases.

As for Made’s vomiting, the logical explanation would be that he was suffering from a stomach ulcer as the result of excessive drinking. But there are also accounts of vomiting by those undergoing the Catholic ceremony of exorcism.

I’m no more or less convinced by the power of black magic after our hour with Made. But clearly there are many in Bali, despite the island’s modern infrastructure and institutions, for whom it’s integral to their belief systems. And we’re not just talking about villagers with little formal education.

One thing I do know is that I will not knowingly get into an argument with a Balinese person for no good reason. Nor will I cut leaves from trees. Apparently they have power too, and they object to being mutilated.

But it’s a comfort to know that if I do run into any trouble on our next trip to Bali, I can always turn to Made for assistance. Provided of course that my heart is pure and I mean no harm. Karma is a powerful thing, after all. I may still be a sceptic, but the golden rule must surely be to respect what you don’t understand.

One last thought: was it a coincidence that my curiosity, aroused by a casual conversation three weeks ago, should be so unexpectedly revived at the end of the trip? I leave that to you to figure out.

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