Becoming Beautiful in Bali

In high school, I attended my friend’s quinceañera for her 15th birthday. I still remember that party, and how lavish it all was. It was all so foreign and so fascinating. Each of the “court”, similar to bridesmaids at a wedding, were escorted in in beautifully bright party dresses. Then the birthday girl looked like an absolute princess. As she danced with her father, and the party lights bounced off every sequin, I found myself transported. My own Sweet 16 Celebration a year later literally paled in comparison. Pastel party balloons and a white frosted vanilla birthday cake never stood a chance.

Recently, in the part of the world that I now call home, I was able to attend a new type of coming of age celebration. On an island rich in culture and steeped in tradition, the Balinese of Indonesia have a unique way to welcome teens into adulthood. They have their canine teeth filed down flat to align them with the molars. According to Balinese Hindu beliefs, these canine teeth represent the animal side of their souls, like bad tempers, greediness, jealousy, pride, and anger. In order to help young people control their animal urges, they have these canine teeth filed.

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I was invited by our landlord. Their second daughter was having her teeth filed and of course, the entire community is invited. We showed up a little after the event had started, but quickly realized this was bigger than even we expected. The family temple was packed with 100 people or more. Sixteen children were having their teeth done today. Family members moved back and forth with their offerings held high. Mothers hovered around their children, wiping sweat from their face as they waited anxiously for their turn. It’s a solemn and somewhat silent event. Those who had not yet had their teeth filed appeared fearful, and those who were already finished appeared shy. Not only is this a physical process, of having the Balinese priest file down 2 of your teeth, but it’s spiritual as well. Balinese people have great respect and fear of evil spirits. Every offering, every prayer, and every ritual must be done perfectly in order to avoid the attention of the evil spirits. Menstruating women are even kept outside the temple center, just in case.

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It was easy to spot those for whom the ceremony honored. The young women were dressed in their best formal golden sarongs, with jewelry, elaborate makeup, and a towering golden headpiece. The young men, also wearing tasteful makeup, wore golden sarongs as well and fabric headpiece adorned with flowers and jewels.

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Once all the young people’s teeth are finished, then the priest continues to lead everyone in chants, prayers and blessings. One by one, the mother’s & grandmother’s file by past the priest for their blessing. Later, as the ceremony at the temple finishes, the party continues at each individual young person’s home. A large dinner party, complete with a babi guiling, or suckling pig, a Balinese cuisine speciality, will last long into the night.

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