tooth filing ceremony (mepandes)

Applying for Brown University, where she now studies, Diahndra Kemala Ningrat, Princess Mirah’s daughter, wrote a college application essay. Here are some excerpts that speaks of Diahndra’s experience of the tooth-filing ceremony, mepandes:

In the far east of Bali the full moon hung portentously over Puri Agung Karangasem Royal Palace. The scent of sandalwood and jasmine carried us through the palace’s dark, narrow passages until we reached a courtyard where family and priests were gathered around a golden pavilion. Tonight would begin my rite of passage, my mepandes, the tooth-filing ceremony during which my vices would be removed and my soul reborn.

A shriek shattered the quiet. My heart pumped as I felt the night charged with a magic I did not fully comprehend. I looked at my cousins, some were pale, others scared. An old woman in trance began singing the hymns of the gods and goddesses.

My name was called. My parents were waiting for me by the bed. I knelt on the ground and kissed their feet in the traditional symbolic gesture asking for their permission to leave this world. As I lay on the bed, the priest whispered a secret mantra in Sanskrit to protect me from evil spirits endeavoring to steal my soul and leave my body as an empty shell. My grandmother had told me that the moment I lay on that bed, covered by the holy cloth, I would be dead. “Without the mantra,” she said, “you may never wake up.” 

As Balinese we believe we are born with animal characteristics – symbolized by our fangs – which must be removed to allow us to become enlightened human beings. My mother Princess Mirah held my hand firmly as the file began to grind on my upper teeth. After some vigorous shifting back and forth the priest held up a mirror for me to see my new teeth. I smiled as I looked into the mirror. I saw my cousins were smiling too. It was a feeling of inner peace.

The sun rose behind the palace, filtering into the courtyard. Inside the King’s living room we were dressed in luxuriant silk cloths and tall, golden tiaras. I saw guests streaming in through the gates, being welcomed by family and entertained by dancers and the gamelan orchestra.

Finally, we were led out through the carved Chinese doors and onto the stage, where in our royal costumes, we were presented as the princesses of Puri Agung Karangasem. Hundreds stared at us, smiling and commenting.

As I sat in front of the audience, I thought of my great-grandfather, the last Raja of Bali, how some of his children and grandchildren stayed at home to take care of family traditions, while others went abroad, to Europe, to become doctors and lawyers. It was then I realized the responsibility that lay on my shoulders. I am ready to leave for the West to continue my studies, to bring what I have learned here to America, and to bring back the knowledge to help my beloved Bali survive in a modern world.