An extraordinary Hindu-Balinese ritual to cleanse the soul
“If one disciplined soul proffers to me with love a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water, I accept this offering of love from him.”
– Major Book Six, Minor Book 63, Chapter 9, Verse 26 of the Bhagavad-Gita
In Bali, holy water traces its liturgical and theological roots from this simple two-liner uttered by Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita. Essentially ordinary water that has been blessed and thus transformed into a divine state, it is revered for its ability to consecrate, cleanse and purify, and it forms the basis of just about every act and occasion in Hindu-Balinese worship—whether a christening, a cremation, the entry into a new home or the start a new job, or even the first step of a long journey.
Of course, not all holy water is created equally. Much depends on the source of the original water, who blesses the water, the location of the blessing and even the intended use of the water. Generally, the process involves a priest entering a state of almost holy trance (the better to commune with and channel the authority of the gods) while chanting specific mantras over water drawn from a temple well or river. Infused with arcane rituals, the blessing is completely incomprehensible to outsiders in its religious nuances.
Once the water has been charged with mystic power, it is ready to be used, and one of the most fundamental ceremonies in the Hindu-Balinese canon is the melukat, in which the blessed water is poured over the supplicant.
While numerous Hindu priests across Bali perform the ceremony, increasing numbers of devotees—both locals and international alike—are arriving at Tanggahan Tengah to take part in a melukat with Ida Panditha Mpu Bhuda Maharesi Alit Parama Dalasa, better known to devotees by her shortened moniker Ida Resi Alit.
Attending the ceremony with her is, to be frank, a quest, especially since the village where she lives, about an hour’s drive from Ubud through emerald green rice fields and tree-clad hills, is not on the usual tourist trail. Once you arrive, there are no obvious markers on the charming one-street strip that’s lined with period architecture and squads of laughing, small-boned children. What’s more, the temple will only confirm her schedule three days in advance. It took six months and considerable effort by Vijaya, the resident healer at my hotel Amankila, to finalise a session.
What’s particularly remarkable about the 31-year-old Ida Maharesi Alit is that she was born into a family of farmers, and not the priest caste. All things being equal, she would have become a secretary or some such, or been married off into a life of relative domesticity. But one evening, she fell into an almost death-like coma. And when she awoke in the early hours of the following morning, she was, inexplicably, completely fluent in the holy Sanskrit texts and mudras. To cut a long story short, following a period of meditation and examination by a council of high priests, she was ordained as Bali’s youngest high priestess. She had just turned 21.
A decade later, every morning, the young and old, toddlers and octogenarians, able-bodied and the infirmed, Balinese and Westerners alike arrive at Ida Maharesi Alit’s narrow family compound turned religious sanctuary. And every day, the young priestess emerges at the top of the stairs of her home at around 11am, petite, enigmatic and immaculate in her pakaiian adat Bali, an almost startled smile on her face. She is a still presence: calm, assured and commanding.
She climbs a high dais surrounded by the paraphernalia of her craft—trays of flowers, brass implements and pots—and begins the melukat with an hour of chanting during which she rings a constant melody of bells and recites Sanskrit sutras in a low, almost guttural litany. The mantra of choice is the Gayatri mantra, one of the most powerful for its invocation of the five elements, and for its dedication to the Hindu goddess of knowledge and mother of Rama, Vishnu and Shiva. Her delicate hands move over water containers in a hypnotic series of fluid mudras—mystic gestures that connect the physical world with the spiritual realms.
One by one, we step up and stand beneath the dais, surrendering ourselves to her care. Over soothing chants, she gently pours ornate silver jugs filled with holy water over supplicants, many of whom, including this writer, experience states of euphoria and deep emotional release. A man in a wheelchair moans, while another supplicant shakes and whimpers. Occasionally, Ida Maharesi Alit breaks her ululating chants and leans down. “Breathe deeply and let go,” she whispers in fluent English. “Stamp your feet.”
Much later, when we’ve dried off and changed into dry clothes, the high priestess sits awhile with us to shoot the breeze. Though she awoke from her coma with a complete download of her new knowledge, she has never been formally trained. However, through daily repetition of the rituals and deep meditation over the past decade, she now understands the intentions behind the words and the gestures, even if the literal meanings may elude her.
“A melukat is a blessing,” she says. “You could think of it as taking a shower, but instead of cleaning the body, the ceremony cleanses the soul. You don’t need a special reason for doing it. Come whenever you feel low.”
Later, back in the quiet coolness of my room at Amankila, I can still feel the shock of the first wash of holy water hitting my head and the chilled wave drenching the body and the ensuing sensation of calm stillness. I also remember the noise in the compound, children laughing and running from scolding mothers and temple staff casually walking in and out of the adjoining shrine while chatting softly on their mobile phones. Unlike so many other religious rituals, no one is hushed or cowed by the ceremony in progress. As it turns out, in Bali, a melukat—for all its deep spiritual significance and importance, and the extraordinary presence of its young high priestess—is just a stich in the life of a family home. It’s a particularly remarkable phenomenon even on an island where the mystical and quotidian co-exist so naturally.
Tanggahan Tengah Village, Grya Agung Budha Salahin, Bali. Tel: +62 813 3824 6186. Given the language difficulties and obscure location of the temple, it’s best to leave the logistics—including donations and temple gifts of canang sari—with a local resort like Amankila.
By Daven Wu