I enter a crowded temple, the white tiled floors carpeted with incense ash, flower petals and offerings. Men and Women wander around the temple in traditional Balinese dress, mingling among themselves; excited for the ceremony. The surrounding air trembles as the chanting priest accompanies the constant ringing of the Gamalan music. The crowd remains relentless, as I attempt to push through the chaos and reach the front to experience this unique celebration.
I find myself stood on a risen section of the temple, looking down upon the temple drifters, hypnotized by all that surrounds me. I can feel the nervousness of those getting their teeth filed, I can see the pride in their parents and relatives, the deep curiosity of the few foreigners in the crowd, and the immense appreciation of all those involved in the ceremony, as it is a privilege to witness. There lies a long table in the midst of the crowd, covered in yellow, white, orange, and red fabric, where about six people (boys and girls) lie at once, each having their teeth filed simultaneously.
Each subject is paired with a priest of who carries out the filing, while the chanting continues, and the others wait their turn patiently. Tears, smiles, moans, and cries accompany the filing, as each person experiences a different sensation. The filing itself lasts about five to ten minutes, and I begin to focus on the quaint bells ringing as the prayers continue. As a parent or relative watches their child approach the table, I notice their nervous expressions strengthen.
Around 100 people had their teeth filed that day, each crossing a threshold into adulthood. The end of the ceremony arrived, however the celebrations didn’t. As I watched the colorful crowd exit the temple from above, I continued to notice the bells, still ringing. The size of the temple became clear once emptied; It’s amazing how quickly hundreds of people can move in and out of such a space. The color drained from the temple as the people continued on to their next celebration, the only evidence of the ceremony being the trampled offerings and empty clothed tables.
About the Tooth Filing Ceremony
A tooth filing ceremony, traditionally called Potong Gigi, is an example of a coming of age ceremony that the Balinese undergo, like a Bar Mitzvah, a Sweet 16, or a Quinceañera. Depending on the economic status of the family, the ceremony will take place either once they hit puberty, or at the latest, when they die. However it is intended to take place once the subject has hit puberty. The ceremonies will take place on days of the year that have been specially blessed by a priest, and often more than one person has their tooth filed at once-This also helps the families who are less financially fortunate, as larger ceremonies are more affordable.
This tooth filing itself is a very specific procedure, where a priest would smooth down the sharper teeth at the back. It’s purpose is to eliminate the bad aspects of people, like gluttony, arrogance, and deceit, which every human being possesses. Kadek, a ninth grader, talks about how some people are possessed with black magic, and have died during the tooth filing ceremony, which arises some fear and caution when attending. Also, often times, the tooth filing itself is quite painful, which also brings about fear in those who haven’t yet experienced it.
Here is a video of Kadek speaking of his personal experience with the ceremony:
This is footage from a tooth filing ceremony I watched in Monkey Forest, Ubud. This shot is of all the women exiting the temple to conclude the ceremony-All their teeth have been filed.
Other footage from Kadek and his sister’s ceremony taken by Stephen Stine: