As things seem to go here, my intended Bali coffee date with the Sipu spiraled into a weekend- long affair. Still sore from Batur, on Saturday I embarked on the two hour motorbike drive there with one of Gusti’s brothers. Padang Kerta is a quiet and traditional village in the Karangasem region. It is one of the few places left in Bali where people eat collectively and all share one plate together. It is also one of the few places where most people don’t speak Indonesian, but different forms of Balinese that vary across caste. Gusti has four brothers and many nieces and nephews, all of whom were incredibly generous in opening their home in Padang Kerta to me. We spent the day at the wedding of one of Gusti’s cousins, visiting the water palace Tirta Gangga (a sacred site for Balinese Hindus that was supposedly built in 1946 by the King of Karangasem), looking out on some beautiful rice paddies in the area (Gusti’s twenty-two year old nephew told me this was his favorite spot to sit and think), haggling to get me a room at a homestay/motel nearby that had never had a westerner stay there and cost the equivalent of $7 (this involved several phone calls from the owner of the homestay to Gusti’s family saying it was okay, I was with them, and there would NOT be a man in the room with me), playing with Gusti’s many nephews, and discussing stereotypes of European tourists over fried fish.
And then, finally, I met the Sipu of Padang Kerta. Gusti told me to come prepared with a list of questions and we all sat around the Sipu’s family temple with some of his eleven grown children drifting in and out and helping to translate the high-caste Balinese that the Sipu spoke.
I learned that in Padang Kerta the method of using incense to choose a name isn’t practiced. Instead, when the mother is pregnant, an elder (like the Sipu) determines who the baby will be a reincarnation of. The Sipu told me a story about one of his own eleven children. When his wife was pregnant, she talked in her sleep about her mother who had passed away a few years ago. As a result, when the baby was born, they decided his real name (fourth name) should be “Wira”, which, according to the Sipu means “calm.” The mother the baby is a reincarnation of was apparently a very calm person, and the baby’s name should reflect her spirit, just as the baby himself does.
Tika jumped in with a story about her youngest nephew, Danu. It is said that Danu is a reincarnation of one of Gusti’s brothers who died in a motorbike accident in Germany. His family had a feeling when his mother was pregnant with Danu that he would be a reincarnation of this brother. Sure enough, when the baby was born, he looked uncannily like Gusti’s dead brother. And, perhaps even more eerily, when the baby is upset, all you need to do is play the song Mr. Jones by Counting Crows and he will immediately stop crying. No other song seems to work. Mr. Jones was Gusti’s brother’s favorite song.
In Padang Kerta, unlike some other villages, before the baby is given a name at the three month ceremony, they are not referred to as “I Barat” (blood) but instead are given a nickname according to their personality or physicality. The Sipu said nicknames like “Tiny” or “Noisy” or “Chubby” were common.
I also talked to the Sipu about what happens if a name is wrong for a person. As I’d heard elsewhere in Bali, this happens all the time. If a child is unusually aggressive or frequently falls ill, parents will come to the Sipu. The Sipu will go into a trance and call upon the ancestor who the baby is a reincarnation of. This ancestor will then speak through the Sipu. One of the first questions the Sipu asks is if the baby is acting out because he or she is being called by the wrong name.
The Sipu told me a story about his niece who was named “Rati” which represents the moon. She was getting sick frequently, and the Sipu channeled the deceased relative she is a reincarnation of and through that spirit, suggested her name be changed to “Ratni”, meaning “flower.” The Sipu believes the name Rati is “too heavy” a name for a child. He doesn’t like names like Rati or Bintang (meaning “star”, and also, unfortunately, the largest brand of beer in Bali) because he believes these cosmic names are putting people “too close to the gods.” The name “Ratni” helped plant the girl’s feet on the ground and was a more humble name.
The Sipu also talked to me about caste names. He told me that the caste names used by royalty (“Anak Agung” ) are actually at the same level as those who use family names, like “Gusti.” The difference is that apparently “Anak Agung” was a prefix given by Dutch colonists meaning “great man/man of honor.” He said that these names were given by the Dutch to certain Balinese people who aided them as a way of honoring them, and, as the Sipu aptly pointed out, getting them to cooperate. Today, you can tell if someone uses that prefix, their family did not fight against the Dutch
I asked the Sipu, out of curiosity, why he thought Balinese people are able to maintain such a strong and distinct culture despite increasing technology and masses of tourists. He told me that he thinks it's simply because of karma. The Sipu says that because Balinese people so strongly believe that their current actions will have a direct influence on who they are reincarnated as in their next life, they feel the desire to go to ceremonies, to give offerings and to act respectfully.
I thought about this on the ride home, as Gusti’s brother stopped along the highway to make an offering for a safe journey. I thought about this when I got back to Gusti’s compound and saw that his family was having a ceremony to bless their new motorbike so that it would carry them safely from place to place. I thought about it when I was a woman’s first customer at the market and she touched the money I handed her on all of her goods as a way of bringing luck to her sales for the rest of the day. I wonder if there is a way of inspiring people to show respect for one another and for the environment around them even without a unifying religious influence.
Before I left, the Sipu wanted to know what my religion was. I was ashamed to admit that I didn’t identify with any religion in particular. I told the Sipu I wasn’t sure how to explain what I believed exactly, except that I believed in the power of other people, our relationships with each other, and the immense capability of the human heart and the human mind. As one of his sons translated this, I nervously awaited his response. To my surprise, the Sipu smiled. His son translated. “He says that’s good. He said that religion isn’t the point. It’s all about your heart and having respect in your heart. Having a religion and believing in gods is just a way of finding that. It doesn’t matter how you get there.”