“Ketut Liyer? You mean Ketut Liar?” is apparently a commonly repeated joke in Bali, although I did meet a couple of Ubud residents who were concerned that this healer from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love was ripping off Western tourists. But competition between healers in Bali (specifically Ubud) is rife and reputations are always being tarnished. Healing is big business. The internet is full of concerns about healers and ‘boundaries’ that are being crossed or that certain Balians just aren’t genuine.
Yet others were quick to defend him, and Ketut’s own son announced that Ketut can receive around one thousand guests for a large ceremony such as Sarasvati Day. You don’t become a real Balian Usada (a Balinese traditional healer) without extensive training and dedication – this is because it is believed that their god-given powers may decide to abandon the impure and there are many rules about how to maintain such purity. So was Ketut Liyer genuine? I was lucky to discover a golden nugget at Ubud’s Pondok Pekak Library & Learning Centre – a real-life account of this Balian Usada, Ketut Liyer. On a dusty shelf was a hand-written document by Samantha Eir Camera-Smith (one of Pondok Pekak’s students), written in 1993, thirteen years before Elizabeth Gilbert’s cult classic was published.
At this point I should probably explain that Gilbert’s story was a memoir based on her experiences of recovering from a divorce by experiencing pleasure (eating) in Italy, being devoted (praying) in India and finding love in Bali where she was on a quest to find a balance between worldly pleasure and spiritual devotion under the guidance of Ketut Liyer.
The 2010 film of the same name starred Julia Roberts and James Franco and it was produced by Brad Pitt. Ketut, in the film, was played by an actor, but in real life Ketut invited Elizabeth to study with him and she taught him English. Elizabeth was unable to ascertain Ketut’s age, although she did discover that he was born on “a Thursday.” The medical student Samantha Eir Camera-Smith got somewhat closer, believing that he was seventy-four at the time of her study – meaning that he is ninety-five years old this year.
“The mysticism found within the spiritual, magical aspects of Balinese healing has attracted many Westerners to the home of Ketut Liyer,” Samantha continued. A Balian believes that sickness is caused by an unbalanced situation and the first Balian Usada, Budha Kocapi, was bestowed with knowledge by the goddess Sarasvati. These wisdoms were disseminated on lontars (manuscripts made from palm leaves, written in Balinese Sanskrit) and Sarasvati must be prayed to daily. “If I do not pray to her three times a day, or if I misuse my powers, she will revoke my knowledge of the lontars,” Ketut told Samantha. As the ninth generation of healers, Ketut had an extensive library and “over fifty different lontars.”
Ketut usually performed cleansing ceremonies, palm reading, creating magic paintings and performing love magic. Believing that everyone possessed a natural beauty, Ketut explained that all he did to perform love magic was to turn the energy on, “So that it becomes visible to other people.” He even received letters from people who had gotten married because of successful ‘love magic’.
But I am naturally dubious. I’ve seen Eat, Pray, Love and I’ve read the book, yet still I couldn’t shake off my snobbish pre-conceptions. So I decided to meet him.
In the waiting room is a glum tourist from Düsseldorf. She’s been here since eight in the morning. I try to prise some more information out of her but I can’t. She’s an impenetrable stone and giving up, I look at the fish pond for a while. Two Korean tourists are glided inside by a tour guide who seems a little too familiar with the scene. Finally, the German lady is called up for a palm reading and I’m surprised – I hear laughter. This skill alone impresses me.
Now it’s my turn to discover what all the fuss is about – and I see it immediately – it’s his smile. I am flooded with happiness. We sit down for a while and Ketut is laughing and then he shows me his ceremonial bell. Before I know it, a mantra is bursting out of his mouth and I close my eyes; it is extraordinarily beautiful. I didn’t ask a single question. This interview was certainly different.
Ketut is a man who, according to Elizabeth, “has never been off the island of Bali in his life. He has spent very little time, actually, off his porch.” And you might remember Ketut’s answer when Elizabeth asked if he would like to visit her in America, after he resignedly shakes his head, “Don’t have enough teeth to travel on airplane.”
And Ketut gave me time – his most precious resource. Dentists get paid for their time; doctors get paid for their time too. I do not understand why donating to healers should be a problem. In fact, as Ketut shared his stories, the tour guide who had brought the two Korean girls kept looking at me with rolling hints of ‘come on Ms. Julia Roberts’ and I felt guilty for taking up everyone’s time. But each time I excused myself, Ketut would excitedly say, “Wait a moment,” as he read through one of the fragile lontars. The first spell was about curing someone of cetik (poison) which may give a person homicidal urges – the best cure was burnt cow manure wiped on the feet – although I may not have understood that correctly. Please don’t try it at home.
Even Ketut’s son was sacrificing his time for others as he gently rocked a peaceful baby, whose mother and father were busy studying and working. Later, his son explained that Ketut must cleanse himself every morning by repeating up to 2,000 mantras. He worked hard for his happiness and maintaining this ‘balance’. “The energy he exerts working twelve hours a day, treating people still at the age of ninety-five never ceases to amaze me. The respect I hold for him is very quickly overriding my initial scepticism,” says Samantha.
I cannot disagree, although I’m not advocating that thousands of tourists flock to Ubud for some healing. The thing I respected most about Ketut was his dedication; he only expected things from himself, not others. He worked hard to do one of those rare things; to give the world a smile and actually know its value.