INDONESIA — At an “ancient” and “authentic” cacao ceremony in Ubud last spring, the crowd swayed as one to facilitators chanting in Sanskrit; nobody bothered to explain why these ancient Indian mantras had been repackaged into an ostensibly Native Mesoamerican ceremony on an Indonesian island. It wasn’t clear why the mostly Western, mostly female participants were earnestly praising Hindu elephant god Ganesha. After the sipping of “heart-opening” cacao, accompanied by the kind of enthusiastic acoustic guitar you might find at a church youth group, the event became an “ecstatic dance”. Participants moved and grinded unabashedly to a low-budget day rave, while a cacao-facilitator-cum-DJ overlayed Kirtan — more chanted Sanskrit mantras — onto sitar music and generic techno. The participants, young and old, were sweaty and mostly sober, dancing like nobody’s watching. There was little pretence anymore that this was an ancient, transcendent experience, but nobody seemed to mind.
Scenes like this are a far cry from those that have played out in Balinese villages for many generations. In the early 1980s, as the Western fascination with New Age spirituality waned in favour of capitalism and computers, anthropologist Linda Connor and filmmaker Timothy Asch were chronicling the work of Balinese healers a world away. Their films — legendary in ethnographic circles — document the life and work of Jero Tapakan, a balian (healer) based near the island’s centre.
We see Jero, a spirit medium and masseuse, guiding her visitors with trance as well as touch. She massages the aching belly of a man stricken by sorcery and voices the complaints of a family’s long-dead relatives. Her work, like that of other balian, is steeped in hundreds of years of spiritual tradition unique to the island.
In the decades since the films, Bali’s popularity as a tourist destination has exploded — at least in part because of its spiritual heritage. Sold as a place to “find yourself” by Julia Roberts in 2010’s Eat, Pray Love, it’s now home to a spiritual industrial complex to rival Tulum in Mexico or Machu Picchu in Peru. In the movie, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s book before it, Roberts’ character receives guidance from a real-life balian at his home in the central town of Ubud: a Balinese experience packaged relatively faithfully for Hollywood. According to some estimates, tourism increased by 400% in Ubud in the years following the movie; its local stars became minor celebrities. And it’s here that many Westerners have chosen to set up New Age spiritual businesses.
Ubud is the historic spiritual and cultural centre of the island. It is lush, green and rainy, and home to some of Bali’s most important temples, ceremonies and dances. It’s also where some New Age believers claim two prominent “ley lines” (strips of sacred power that circle the planet, popularised by the British hippy movement of the 1960s) intersect, creating an energy centre — if you’re into that sort of thing.
As tourist traffic has expanded from Eat Pray Love fans to crypto traders, bio hackers and digital nomads, Western-owned business have steadily adapted their offerings, selling a range of imported traditions — reiki, yoga, ecstatic dance and sound healing — through a mish-mash aesthetic of dated posters that look straight out of a Glastonbury head shop and Instagram-centric vaporwave ads.
While the digital marketplace is rife with ads for New Age healers, advertising is considered taboo by many balian, who typically gain clients by word of mouth alone. Although some traditional practitioners, including a well-known local priestess, have begun using social media to connect with clients, this is still a highly unusual practice.
Ubud-based Balinese healer Komang Darsita, who practises a traditional form of energy healing, says advertising would be at odds with his role in service to others.
“I don't need it. I never, ever use promotion. The energy is not good,” he says. “Just let people know from mouth to mouth, not by promotion on social media or whatever… for me this is egoistic. I don't want to be like this. It’s okay [if I have clients], but if not, this also doesn't matter.”
Those who’ve chosen to make the island their home for reasons other than spirituality often poke fun at the New Age “Ubud stuff.” Its reputation is regularly parodied online, whether it’s in posts on the “Ubud on Acid” Instagram account or in the satirical Bali Metaverse Quest game, where Fake Shamans and Divine Feminines battle Crypto Bros and Shitfluencers. Ironically — or perhaps grimly — this parody of monetization has itself been monetized: all of the characters can be purchased as NFTs, with listed prices reaching as high as £2,000 before the market collapsed. One of these — a trading card for a since-deported Christian influencer who performed a pseudo-Maori haka naked on the sacred Mount Batur — is rumoured to have been bought by the man it parodied.
Many locals, meanwhile, are bemused by the New Age Ubud scene. “I don’t get it,” says Jim, a scuba instructor from the seaside village of Amed. “Us Balinese, we don't believe in that.”
Jim is translating at the home of local balian Wayan Kasih, who has been working as a healer for 30 years. Wayan says he spent 15 of those learning his craft in Bali and neighbouring Lombok as he proudly shows off a government-issued traditional healer’s permit. The document says he can perform services like massage, and make and administer herbal remedies. Locally, he is known as a powerful rain-stopper: a prized skill during Bali’s often thunderous six-month wet season. And, if he performs the right prayers, he says he can withstand fire.
Wayan serves other villagers and visitors from further afield, including an impressive list of politicians, and the occasional foreign tourist.
Over the course of four hours on a rainy Friday in April, three guests arrive for treatment and prayers at his home. They sit on a raised platform in the yard as they converse with the healer, chickens racing all-the-while around the garden. Conversations are interrupted by the oinking of pigs reared for ceremonial use and the heavy splattering of rain on the tiled platform roof. Wayan’s wife, whose hair — uncut for years — hangs long and heavy down her back, greets guests with cheer and sweet, unfiltered coffee. Complete with homemade arak (a local spirit) and customary sarongs and selendangs (sashes), the picture couldn’t be further from those of the tourist centre in Ubud. As Jim explains, this kind of healing has barely changed for generations.