Bali’s Jero Gede Mecaling,

The Spreader of Death and Disease

These hot and humid days are the most difficult times in Bali. But make no mistake. It is not because of the rainy season. It is because the guardians of hell are cleaning their cauldron.

Yes, they do a little housekeeping at this time of year. Suratma, who judges all souls at the gates of hell, and Jogormanik, the head torturer of very bad souls, have just expelled these souls for a month so that they can clean their cauldron, uninterrupted by screams of pain.

Do you know which souls I am talking about? Those poor residents of hell whose genitals are in flames, or whose brains have been pierced by daggers falling from trees.

Whatever their sufferings may be, on the sixth month of the Balinese calendar, or sasih kenam, those evil souls are freed for a month from those cauldrons of hell.  All these buta kala and other nasty demons from the invisible world rampage over the land. Some even take a visible form: you know, the worms you see on the beach. They are one of the signs that malevolenceis around. Better not eat them.

The most horrific menace of the whole month is a fanged monster with the appealing name of “the Honourable Fanged One,” or Jero Gede Mecaling. Don’t tell me he does not exist. Ask the Balinese, especially those who live along the Southern coast of Bali facing the two small islands of Nusa Penida and Nusa Lembongan. They all know him: some have seen him with their own eyes, while others have felt the bite of his fangs. He always comes ashore around sunrise, noon, or dusk. He takes advantage of the cosmic change under way to land surreptitiously. Don’t let anyone fall under his sway, especially children.

Actually, if things are properly handled, and if the land is otherwise in a normal spiritually healthy condition, he will not have any victims. If you like to walk on those island-facing beaches, you probably have seen the small altars – sometimes made of bamboo, sometimes of sandstone—that stand just outside temples. They are Jero Gede’s altars. It is where the locals ’feed’ him, most notably on dead moon days (tilem) and on Bali’s bi-weekly sacred day for cleansing (kajeng kliwon). Once he has had his fill of offerings, he usually leaves unnoticed, satiated. He goes back to where he belongs: to Nusa Penida, beyond the strait to the south.

Yet, sometimes, the offerings are not sufficient to satisfy his appetite, especially if there is something amiss in the world of Bali. If so, “The Honourable Fanged One” is not so honourable anymore. He becomes terrifying, and will claim his dues. When he runs amok, believe me, his thirst for blood is unquenchable.

The most recent occurrence of his wrath was in 2002. People in Bali were indeed misbehaving very-very badly then, especially some tourists in Kuta, revelling in drugs and sex. In their foolishness, they did not pay attention to Jero Gede and the danger of his fangs. He made those tourists regret it dearly. Do you know what many in Bali believe? That he took over the brains of some Moslem youths from Java. You have probably read about the Bali bombings: 202 people burned to death, killed to appease him and thus become his army of the dead, his ancangan – a legion of those who passed away before their time.

Yes, when Jero Gede does not get what is owed him to sustain the beneficial balance of the world, there is no way a few beach altars will stop him. He gets really mad: he is very morose (duka) people say, so he starts his “promenade” (melancaran), during which he invites all those he comes across to meet their death, thus adding each time to his ancangan army.

The Balinese know too well the dangers incurred by the wrath of the Fanged One. During hundreds of years, it was the grubug, the sudden disease epidemics or veils of death that would spread over the land and wipe out half the population in a matter of months. Usually it was diarrhea. Once you knew you had it, it was too late, whatever medicinal concoctions the traditional healers (the balian usada) would prepare for you. You would just liquefy to death in a matter of hours.

Yet, people want to believe there are ways to avoid falling prey to Jero Gede. If you put three colored strings (tridatu) around your wrist, for instance, you may be protected by the trinity of gods they symbolize – Brahma, Siwa and Wisnu. Yet the best way is to hold a big purification (peneduh) or exorcism (caru) ceremony on the dead moon (tilem) or on a cleansing (kajang-kliwon) day of the sixth month of the Balinese calendar — usually in December. This ceremony preserves villagers from the worst. Yet, in some villages they call the the village protector  (the Barong) to the rescue instead. He makes his own “promenade” (melancaran) around, this time in a visible form, to purify and not to kill. There is little the Fanged One can do against his arch-enemy, the Barong. When the two face off, Jero Gede usually ends up stealthily fleeing back to Nusa Penida. By then disease (grubug), diarrhea and other disasters have disappeared.

Yet, things are always more complicated than they seem in Bali. With proper offerings, the right attention and a good and learned healer (balian), you can also get Jero Gede on your side. But it is dangerous. You may get powers you are unable to control. Yet, if you really want a good teacher (guru) to take you through the intricacies of the Fanged One’s magical powers, ask one of the shabby hobos (gembel) you may see in the vicinity of the village, recognisable from their clumped and stuck hair. It is their job to deal with the monster. But beware, please.

Frankly, considering all the above, I don’t understand why tourists all want to find accommodations by the sea. Today, some of the altars addressed to Jero Gede look neglected, with no offerings anymore on their platforms. Does it mean that the danger is gone, that the “Fanged Monster” has returned for good to Nusa Penida, his island of birth. Or, on the contrary, does it mean that the besmirching of Bali has waited for too long, and that the Fanged Monster is hiding somewhere, ready to spread death and fear? There are ominous signs everywhere. What is wrong in Bali? Too many disrespectful foreigners? To many believers in prophets and messiahs? Must we wait for him to show his ugly fangs once again?

The story of Jero Gede Mecaling is a Balinese indigenous myth which has little to do with Hinduism as reformists define it today. But Jero Gede lies deep in the psyche of the Balinese and is emblematic of their fear of the outside world and the social and medical diseases this world is carrying. Yet there is a sign that this tradition is being integrated into the framework of modern Balinese Hinduism. Many people today will tell you that the most dangerous Jero Gede Mecaling is not the one who roams across the land bringing death and destruction, but the one everyone of us carries in his or her own self. Easier to deal with, isn’t it?