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Home » Religion

Tooth Filing  

by on Friday, 16 January 2009One Comment | 9,402 views

THE NAME OF THE CEREMONY IS DESCRIPTIVE, but hardly explanatory. This is, perhaps, why the wife of a visiting foreign dignitary, when told of this practice, exclaimed: “Oh, do they still do that here?”

Yes, they still do that in Bali. To everyone. But do not confuse tooth filing with some sinister vision of Dracula-like sharpened teeth. In fact, the procedure produces just the opposite, dulling the front teeth to diminish the savage characteristics of their owner. The ceremony is called matatah, £rom the word natah, to “chisel” or “carve”. The same word in high Balinese is mapandes, and another common synonym is masangih, from sangih, to “file”. Sometimes the Indonesian potong gigi – “to cut teeth” – will be used. The person who files the teeth is called sangging, the same word used for “painter” or “artist”.

Tooth Filling

Tooth filing, together with prenatal rites, birth ceremonies, various ceremonies for the young baby, and marriage, is one of the rituals known as manusa yadnya. These are an important category of the Panca Yadna (“Five Rituals”) that every Balinese Hindu absolutely must have performed to insure an orderly transition of his or her spirit from birth to death and later reincarnation. Six to 18 years old is considered the best age for tooth filing – before marriage, for girls, after the first menstruation. Better late than never though, and it is not unusual for people in their 60s to have their teeth filed. If a person dies before having held the ceremony, the family sometimes has it done to the corpse before burial. It is that necessary.

Why is matatah so important? As a group, the Balinese look with disgust and fear upon coarse behavior, coarse appearance, and coarse feelings. The Balinese word is kasar. It is quite synonymous with “bad”, even “evil”. The opposite adjective is alus – “refined” – characteristic of a lofty being. One needs only to glance at any of the old style wood or stone carvings, paintings, or wayang kulit puppets to see what characterizes good guys and bad guys in the Balinese mind. The bad ones look coarse, and sport long fangs and bulging eyes and bellies. The refined ones are gentle looking, effeminate, with dainty features.

Of course animals are coarse – in aspect, behavior, and position (on the ground, the place of the lowest of the low) – and Balinese animals, except for the cow, are not loved and coddled. Some, like dogs, are tolerated for their usefulness. Anything resembling animal behavior is frowned upon even a baby crawling on all fours. A special coarse language is reserved for talking about animal activities, such as eating, and it would be a gross insult to use this language to refer to a human being’s actions.

Balinese Hinduism can be very highly symbolic, and the one characteristic that epitomizes uncivilized, uncouth, coarse disposition is protruding canine teeth. The Balinese call them caling, “fangs”. If one wishes to be rid of his coarse behavior, then it is only natural that this be done symbolically by filing the canine teeth until all kasar traces have been smoothed out.

According to tradition and the lontars, a sangging for tooth filing must be of the Brahmana caste. Today lower caste people, even Sudras, will perform the ceremony and balians – special low caste shamans – regularly perform the task. However, most families still prefer to call in one of their Brahmana suryas (patrons) to do the job. After all, the filing of the teeth is but a slight modification of the buana alit, the temporary shell of the spirit. Much more important is the religious substance of the ceremony – ridding the individual’s spirit of its negative traits, the sad ripu -literally, the “six enemies.”

Balinese Hindus believe that the disposition of an individual is controlled by three gunas, called the Triguna Sakti. The Guna Satwam results in a disposition that is calm, quiet, and directed toward honesty, wisdom, righteousness, and nobility; the Guna Rajas causes dynamic, lustful, vain, violent, disturbing behavior; and the Guna Tamas makes one passive and lazy, enjoying the benefit of the work that others do without wanting to work oneself.

From these last two come the “six enemies” which will lead a person into misery, grief, and suffering, both in this world and the next. Something like Saint Gregory’s Seven Deadly Sins, the sad ripu are essentially weaknesses of the flesh: kama (“lust”), loba (“greed”), krodha (“anger”), mada (“drunkeness”), moha (“confusion”), and matsarya (“jealousy”). Reducing the influence of these six will help an individual live a healthy, well-adjusted existence as part of a closely knit family and community, and this behavior will insure reincarnation into a better future life.

SINCE TOOTH FlUNG IS SO IMPORTANT, no expense is spared to turn the ceremony into an elaborate and festive event. The deified ancestors of the family are invited to attend and lend their support. The house compound is decked out to the limit of the family’s finances. Guests are invited; visitors from out of town accommodated; musicians hired; offerings made; a high caste tooth filer – perhaps even a high priest – is invited to supervise the proceedings; and the finest clothing is provided for those who are to participate. The matatah, in short, is very expensive. Because of the cost, today tooth filing is almost always an adjunct, although an important adjunct, of another ceremony – perhaps a wedding or cremation.

The ceremony has implications beyond Hindu doctrine. The Balinese, male and female alike, just don’t find long canine teeth aesthetically pleasing. Tooth filing is a kind of beautification rite. Of course, like everything else in Bali, there is a god of beauty, Dewa Kama, or Sanghyang Semara Ratih. The god of tooth filing, both male and female, is an image of Dewa Kama – Arda Nare Swari. Arda Nare Swari has many names, shapes, colors, places of residence and attributes. The picture of Arda Nare Swari shows Ananga in the East, colored white; Sanghyang Semara, with a symbolism of mixed colors, in the center; and Dewa Kama, or Dewi Ratih, golden yellow and armed with a bow and arrow, at the nadir.



Dewa Kama is believed to bring success in all efforts, cure sickness, chase away evil, and provide the beauty of flowers. In honor of this god, the matatah ceremony should take place in a bale gading, literally, “ivory pavilion.” Gading means “ivory,” and it also means “canine tooth.” A special teteg offering accompanies the ceremony, larger than usual and shaped like Dewa Kama. This offering, often called Semara Ratih, is a gift to widiadara-widiadari which, freely translated, means “knowledge of male and female.” The widiadara and widiadari are sort of male and female spirits. The matatah both lessens the sad ripu and symbolically and physically – prepares the person undergoing the ceremony to attract someone of the opposite sex.


No Balinese schedules an event as important as a tooth filing without consulting someone to choose an auspicious day. When this has been done, the extended family picks those who are to participate. Tooth filings are not held very often, and in a large family there may be dozens of candidates, perhaps even a hundred or more remote cousins, in-laws, children, and siblings. A ceremony of this size will require the services of several tooth filers and involve half a day or more of work.

On the day of the matatah, the house compound is gaily decorated, the bale wrapped and hung with gold cloth. A gong plays, and when the actual ceremony takes place one or a pair of gender wayang, the instruments used to accompany the shadow puppet shows, take over. White cardboard boxes of snacks and a bottle of tea are proffered to guests at the door. Friends of the family each bring a small present and sign the guest register. Men may be reading from the sacred [ontars. An army of community members is chopping away at enough meat and spices to feed a hundred or more later on. Offerings are everywhere. Guests are greeted by the family in a kind of receiving line. It is a noisy, colorful gathering.

The filees are dressed in their very finest traditional clothing. Boys are wrapped in a wide piece of songket, gold brocade, that reaches from armpits to knees, with a sash of yellow tied around the waist and a kris dagger slung across the back. Girls wear their lovely traditional kambens, their upper bodies wrapped tightly in many meters of cloth strips. They are crowned with fragrant flowers and gold leaves are wound in their hair. Both boys and girls may wear makeup. Parents bustle here and there dressing their children, most of whom are full of nervous apprehension.

If a pedanda presides he summons the group of boys and girls and blesses them with a mantra and holy water. The teeth and the individual are symbolically “killed” during the tooth-filing procedure. This is a moment of weakness – when enemies can do harm – and the one getting filed needs all the support he or she can get. There are stories of people who had all of their teeth drop out shortly after the ceremony. One is, in short, vulnerable and needs help and protection. Friends and relatives stay close by.


The sangging or pedanda kills the teeth by tapping with a small hammer a little metal rod, a peet, that he places upon one of the upper teeth. Peet is the word for a carver’s chisel. The pedanda also draws the symbol ang on the right upper canine and ah on the left, symbolizing male and female, mother and father. The “drawing” is really a symbolic gesture, done with a ring called bungkung masasoca mirah, or bungkung mamata mirah. The real killing is done by a mantra. The pedanda goes through this procedure for each candidate as he or she files up to him for blessings and holy water.


The boys and girls lie on a woven mat upon which has been inscribed the figure of Semara Ratih, also representing male and female. Semara is the moon; Candra is male and Ratih is female. The inscriptions today are done with a rather untraditional felt marker. The sangging opens a yellow coconut, empties it of its water, and inscribes upon it the magic symbol, the ongkara. Tools are laid out, mouthwash is made ready, and a large offering, the canang oyodan, is brought close by. The coconut acts as a spittoon nearby. A silver bowl of holy water and a white cloth are at the ready.


Each candidate stands at the end of the bed opposite from where the sangging will work. They hold out their hands to receive a prayer, and waft the essence of the offerings toward themselves. The kris worn by the boy must be removed. The candidate takes off his or her sandals, climbs onto the bed, and receives another mantra and more holy water. He or she then lies down on the bed and is covered with decorated cloths. Parents and close relatives crowd around to put their hands on the boy or girl to ward off evil.

Meanwhile the guests have assembled below the elevated bale, chatting, perhaps taking pictures, and listening to the gender wayang. This is a pair of xylophone-like percussion instruments with a softer tone and a more peaceful sonority than the sharp, ringing notes of the usual village gong. Gender are used in the performance of the wayang kulit shadow play. And in the tooth-filing ceremony they provide a calming accompaniment for the events that are unfolding.

The sangging puts a small cylinder of sugarcane in the patient’s mouth, wedged betWeen the teeth, to keep the jaws open and prevent an inadvertent display of sad ripu upon his fingers. As with most Balinese ceremonies, it is not a solemn moment. The sangging may joke with his patient as he works – the equivalent of a dentist making small talk to divert the attention of the patient. He then takes his small file, kikir, and with his index finger on the flat of the file, sets to work filing. The only teeth that are modified are the two canine teeth in the upper jaw and the four incisors between them – six teeth, one for each ripu.




THE AMOUNT OF FILING DONE depends upon the wishes of the individual. The gesture is purely symbolic, and can consist of just a few quick strokes. Some people use the opportunity to really have their teeth filed even. If so, the sangging proceeds in easy stages, allowing the person to sit up occasionally and view the progress in a mirror. When it is over, and it takes only a few minutes, the boy or girl spits the saliva containing the filings into the yellow coconut. If there is any bleeding, the sangging rubs betel leaf on the teeth to staunch it, and then he brings the teeth to life once again with a mantra. The much-relieved patient receives a mouthwash of honey, sandalwood powder, lime, turmeric, areca nut, betel leaf, gambir, and water. Part is swallowed and part spat into the coconut. In some places the newly filed person is required to step down from the bale upon a large round offering called peningkeben. And, although ceremonies are to follow, he or she must change clothes – it would not do to celebrate in the same clothes in which one has “died”.


After prayers in the family temple, the ceremony ends for the boys and girls. Traditionally there were, and sometimes today still are, preludes and postludes to a tooth filing, traditions left over from another era when jobs and school did not interfere. A person whose teeth were to be filed was isolated for three days before the ceremony and given a mixture of rice powder and spices to rub on his or her body to clean it. After the ceremony one had to eat a traditional food called padamal, consisting of foods of the six different tastes: pait (“bitter”), manis (“sweet”), pakeh (“salty”), lalah (“spicy”), masem (“sour”), and nyangluh (“burned taste”). And for the three days following the ceremony, a person could not go out, nor could he or she drink or eat hot things because this would cause the teeth to take a bad shape. The Balinese use a word here that means “wrinkled”. The yellow coconut with the filings and saliva must be buried near the most important shrine in the family temple which insures that its power will always be close to the individual.

I WENT THROUGH THE CEREMONY DESCRIBED ABOVE. People have asked me why I had my teeth filed. I have adopted Balinese Hinduism and decided to probe rather deeply into its philosophical depths. Those who helped me, especially those in the Department of Religion, felt that I should be suitably fortified and purified lest what I was learning could harm me. They suggested that I have a pawintenan ceremony performed over me by the same pedanda who inducted me into Hinduism several years ago. A pawintenan is a kind of purification, generally only performed for adults who are exposing themselves to potentially dangerous situations.

I went to my pedanda, Ida Pedanda Gede Manuaba Sidantha, at Geriya Panti in Denpasar, and explained the situation. He agreed to perform the ceremony. But he pointed out that performing one of the more advanced purification ceremonies on a person who has not had the preliminaries is rather like building the roof of a house before its foundation. He would, he said, only perform the pawintenan if he could also perform first all of the other preliminary ceremonies that Balinese undergo trom conception to the normal adult time of pawintenan. One of these preliminaries was the tooth filing.

Source: Bali, Sekala & Niskala by Fred B. Eisemen, Jr.

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