Hello, High Priestess of Bali

I’ve been floored by divinity, and I’m not a particularly spiritual person.

I met her in a gold-trimmed room with no walls somewhere in the middle of Bali. We were hours away from the 5-star resorts and yoga studios and blonde tourists from far-off lands. I’d come through miles of hazy, chaotic roads and rice fields to find — unexpectedly — a sumptuous Asian courtyard straight out of a painting.

With the grandfather clock in the corner, the carefully manicured plants, and the crisp, colorful paint, she appeared quite well-off. In other cultures, such grandeur may indeed be indicative for her post as ratu pedanda, or Brahmana high priestess, but Hindu priests are not paid. Any income comes only in the form of offerings from the people.

All that shone around me was testament to her value and reverence.

Jugs of powerful holy water (tirta) from surrounding villages are stored in the temple for future ceremonies. (Photos: Schmoo Theune)

Meeting her was a turning point in my photographic and emotional journey. I’d been in Indonesia for several days observing the spirituality of its people as an outsider. As neither a true Asian nor American nor European, nobody had known what to make of me. I have always approached religion with a scientific and psychological interest. Perhaps this detachment and my innate strangeness prevented me from connecting and feeling.

But when she came out of her quarters and stepped up into the room and placed herself on the ground in the most humble fashion, she took my breath away. Her gait was difficult and hunched, her legs and feet far more accustomed to being folded beneath her. It was clear she spent more of her time seated than in motion. And as her family brought us cups of hot, sweet tea and went about their duties of laundry and ceremonial preparation, this was proven certainly true.

Ratu pendanda, one of the few female Brahmana high priests in Bali, humbly describes her life while in her home. (Photo: Schmoo Theune)

While I sat in a throne-like chair below the priestess and listened to my translator conversing with her, I had all the time in the world to take it all in. Beautiful pet roosters with firework plumes crowed in their ornamental cages, adding a wild country atmosphere to the existing twitter of songbirds and the morning sun.

The priestess welcomed us, strangers, with all her heart. She was swathed in modest white and blue, her feet comfortably bare and knobbed beneath her sarong, her high forehead and earlobes daubed with a pinch of sacred rice. Priestesses in Bali twist their hair in complicated knots, indicating their position in society, adorned with the fresh flowers that are everywhere in the damp tropical climate.

“How old are you?” I asked, via my translator.

“67 years,” she replied, “and earlier, and ongoing.”

From simple to complex, offerings of rice, flowers, and food appease spirits that reside around the Balinese home. (Photo: Schmoo Theune)

But beyond her elder beauty was an unshakeable grace and delicacy. Such a quiet, humble woman who at the same time radiated immense power. Her hands were a dancer’s hands, long elegant fingers that were born to command. I’d later see those hands in motion, adorned with ceremonial gemstones, holding blossoms to her lips in prayer, and weaving twists of incense smoke from the earthly world to the one above.

The priestess prepares herself before leading prayers at a mass cremation. Each crystal possesses spiritual significance. (Photo: Schmoo Theune)

Those hands would cover her mouth when she laughed. Her laugh was an unexpectedly young giggle, so charmingly sweet and different from the otherwise serious woman she had become.

She, who has devoted her entire life to her spirituality, wanted to know all about us and how we came to be here.

She, the embodiment of divine power, gave us a complete and open invitation to photograph everything she needed to do over the next few days for her people.

She, chosen as the most recent in the ever-turning cycle of lives, shared all the stories of her previous life: her father, her late husband, the prophecy of her dreams.

Images of personal importance to ratu pedanda: younger versions of herself and her family. (Photo: Schmoo Theune)

She introduced us to her son, in training to become the next priest, and her daughter, a hairdresser come home to repent for building a temple without divine permission. This is a harsh reality for an American atheist to hear, but a powerful message about Balinese culture and the ties that bind one’s family and the gods.

Ratu pedanda leads prayers at a mass cremation ceremony in Tabanan, Bali. Because such ceremonies are expensive, a village may wait years to pool money together and later perform a single ceremony over coconut leaf effigies of their loved ones. (Photos: Schmoo Theune)

Balinese priests live two lives: They are both the vessel of divine communication as well as ordinary people who live ordinary lives with their families.

Unlike Hinduism in other countries, there is no “untouchability” in Balinese castes. She was embodying this to the fullest degree in opening her life’s doors to me. When the pouring rains doused the cremation ceremony, she paused chanting her prayers to ensure someone fetched me an umbrella.

Ratu pedanda leaving a mass cremation ceremony with her assistants near Tabanan, Bali. (Photo: Schmoo Theune)

I was tremendously honored to not just have found a female spiritual leader in a land with specific and traditional gender roles, but to also be invited to witness her work. While it is true that the people of Bali nearly always smile at us “guests,” that smile is not always the permission it seems.

One may never walk off the beaten path due to fear, lack of time, or simply a lack of interest. But this singular experience of being inspired by Tabanan’s high priestess while capturing a photo story on Balinese women is a reminder that taking such detours will certainly be worth the risk.

Schmoo Theune is a freelance photographer who hails from nowhere in particular in the USA, although she currently resides in Germany.