Across the archipelago, traditional communities have a ceremony that welcomes a newborn to the world, usually six or more weeks after birth. Often mother and child remain in the traditional house prior to this ritual, with the child’s spirit seen as still being held in the womb of the ancestors. When infant and maternal mortality was much higher than it is now, this isolation both recognized that mother and child were “not quite here yet” and protected them from illnesses that might indeed take them back to the ancestral realm.
In Bali, after three months (105 days) the child is first introduced to the outside world and is said to first “touch the ground”. This ceremony is one of the most important in the life of the child and offerings are numerous and intricate. This Field Note documents one such ceremony for a girl child in Payangan, Bali, and the use of a keling cloth, a white gedogan cloth, an urab kecicang cloth, an atu atu cloth, and a prembon cloth, all of which are designated as bebali or ritual textiles.
The offering in this image carries the gold bracelets and anklets that the child wore for ongoing protection after the ceremony. From this offering, the bracelets and anklets were moved into an earthenware basin of water along with a necklace and a ring.
The earthenware basin was filled with water to represent the sea and all rivers. Water is so critical to the ritual life of Balinese who used to refer to their spiritual practice as the Way of Holy Water. The earthenware basin was wrapped in a stripped textile, called a keling, and within the water were offerings made in the shapes of a crayfish, a crab, and a small boat to represent the abundance of the universe that the child is embraced within. The girl was held so that she touched the water and the bracelets, anklets, necklace, and ring were plucked out as if the child had taken them.
The Balinese believe that a child is born with four spirit guardians. These are physically manifest during birth as the vernix caseosa (the white film over the baby’s skin), the blood, the amniotic fluid, and the placenta. During the three-month ceremony these guardians are represented respectively by an egg, a cucumber, a stone, and a banana flower. Specific Bebali cloths with continuous uncut warps are used to wrap each of these.
Each of the textiles is said to represent and evoke a protective spirit. Representing the vernix caseosa, the egg is wrapped in a white gedogan cloth and evokes Banaspati. The white cloth wraps the egg just as the white of an egg covers and protects its yellow yolk. Representing the blood, the cucumber is wrapped in a green stripped urab kecicang cloth to evoke Prajapati. Cucumbers have thousands of seeds reflecting vitality and the continuation of life.
In Bali a newborn is called Rare, an expression that suggests the child is still connected with the spirit realm of the ancestors. Representing the amniotic fluid, the stone is wrapped in a black-and-white atu atu cloth and evokes Angapati. Atu atu means rock and symbolizes the strength the child needs in life and the strength he or she will draw from touching the earth for the first time.
Representing the placenta, the banana flower was wrapped in a rainbow-coloured prembon textile to evoke Banaspati Raja. The placenta is believed to contain the source of our emotions because of the direct connection it made between the baby and the mother. The colours of the prembon textile relate to the nine directions (center-wards being a direction) and our connection to all aspects of nature.
As part of the three-month ceremony, the child also had a small heirloom gold or silver fontanelle piece placed on soft spot of the head. (A piece of red onion also suffices.) It is through the fontanelle that spirit flows into a human being and it is out of this that spirit leaves. This round ornament offers additional protection for the baby during the ceremony.