Priests in Bali

When you visit the island of Bali, at some time or another you are bound to come across a religious procession, a cremation or even a temple festival. On these occasions you will always see a priest presiding over the ceremony.

In general, visitors to the island think there is only one priest whereas in fact there are two kinds of priest, and to a lesser role, a third – each assigned to various factors of daily life in Bali.

Priests do not hold any kind of office, whether it be political or otherwise, but are the most respected in Balinese society.
They are sought out to bless new premises, cure illnesses, to purify people, avert a curse, and to bring people out of a trance or perhaps a spell. Their duties are many-fold. They are the intermediaries between the worshipers and the Gods. Priests ensure the prayers are directed so that the desired result is achieved.

The pedanda are the high priests considered to be scholarly and are from the Brahman caste in Balinese society. In fact they claim a linear heritage from the highest of all priests, Wau Rauh of the Majapahit Empire. Easily recognisable, they are dressed in all-white clothing, generally old and gentle in appearance, and thin in stature.

Pedanda are more involved with family matters although they are called upon at times to officiate at temple ceremonies. It is the pedanda who prepare the holy water, essential for any religious occasion.

The pedanda’s are at the highest level and may be seen as guardians of mythical history and of course, sacred knowledge. They have an intimate knowledge of the Balinese Calendar and are consulted to determine lucky days. It is interesting to note that all this knowledge is more often than not passed down from father to son. It is to the higher caste families that the pedanda are called into service to officiate and give blessings with matters such as cremations, births and marriages. At times their services are called upon to bless a new building or structure.

The second kind of priest is a pemangku. These are the temple priests who are recruited from the lower castes.

Pemangku officiate at everyday temple rituals and maintain the temple with the help of the villagers. It is generally known that the higher priests (pedanda) regard pemangku as merely ‘cleaners’ or ‘sweepers’ in a temple. Where pedanda direct prayers in the right direction, the pemangku have direct contact with the ancestors and able to exorcise demons and evil spirits.

Pemangku, often dress in white, are a gentler person and generally live near the temple and live ordinary lives. It is the pemangku who becomes the absolute centre of attention during temple celebrations such as odalan (festival to celebrate a temple’s origin). Pemangku play an important part in the daily lives of ordinary folk.

I mentioned a third kind of priest who has a lesser role in Balinese society but an important one nonetheless. He is a ‘specialist’ known as a sanghuhu. His duties are envied by none!.

Sanghuhu are lower caste priests whose principle duties are to appease the malignant buta and kala. The buta are vile demons or sprits spreading disease or illness, and the kala being an invisible demon causing evil and believed to haunt such places as forests, crossroads and desolate places.