Secret of the Bali smile


P1070626Balinese people are famous for their beautiful smiles, and there is a reason: a religious custom that has cosmetic payoffs. But the tooth filing ritual comes at both a physical and economic cost. I won’t go into detail about the whys – there’s plenty to be read about it here, and here, and here.

Our village potong gigi (or, metatah) ceremony was held in conjunction with the cremation planning and involved 85 young people. It was a practical, as well as a religious decision, as the work area infrastructure was repurposed for the day. We hadn’t realised that the cremation requirements were not quite finished, as the next few days and nights after the tooth filing were back to the business of farewelling the deceased.

All this was a couple of weeks ago and things have quietened down considerably. Life is back to normal and people are less exhuasted, only having to be concerned with small ceremonies and offerings. For a while, anyhow.

Tooth filing is generally a rite of passage into adulthood but can happen at any age, even (rarely)  after death. No Hindu Balinese can be cremated without this ritual having been performed. Like any rite of passage ceremony, it is expensive, so some have to wait until they can afford it. Mostly it is required as a symbol of adulthood before marriage, but we know married women who have not yet had it done for financial reasons. But this village day shared costs and was for the young, all teenagers – the girls looking far more glamorous and mature than the boys.

In the morning no fewer than three High Priests were at work, symbolically, and in the afternoon it was the real thing, with participants queuing for their turn with one of five filers. I couldn’t help but wonder if some were more gentle than others and if already-nervous girls and boys were secretly hoping for this one and not that one to do their work.

As each person in the line had the work done, tested the bite and looked approvingly in a mirror, their parents approached with a beautifully wrapped gift. The coconut husk spittoon was carried away, perhaps to be buried in the family compound where their placenta lies after the birth ceremonies, but I’m not sure about that.

As members of the village we were honoured to be included and see the ceremony in full. We have been to previous metatah, but were very much on the edge of things. The photos will give you an indication of this remarkable ceremony.

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