by Ibu Kat

The River People are getting annoyed.

Their domain is the deep ravines that slash Bali’s topography from north to south. These dark and mysterious realms are the crucible of niskala – the unseen dimension of things here in Bali. And it’s a busy place.

The Balinese love a ghost story. When I first approached some Balinese friends to ask whether it was in fact appropriate for a tamu (literally ‘guest’) to write about spirits (wong), they egged me on. Several of them launched into stories of their own. My notes grew longer and my brow more furrowed. This is a many layered subject and my friends had different interpretations and descriptions. I’m still not clear about who’s who.

I first became aware of the Niskala 15 years ago when I moved into a rather nasty little cottage up the Andong road, right on the edge of a river bank. I’d lived in an old part of Singapore for 10 years so was not unaccustomed to disturbances. But this was different.


A dark, goggle-eyed little face would appear in the corner of my office window, nodding slowly until I shooed it away. Things would disappear from my fenced and gated compound. The spirits were particularly fond of tools. If I was using a hammer or screwdriver outside and put it down to go in and answer the phone it would be gone when I came out, never to reappear. There was an inexplicable house fire one night.

My current house is on the edge of the ravine of the same river, further south. It’s a busy place. Some nights the dogs and I watch as huge, ghostly faces rise up out of the ravine, then dissolve into pixels in the humid darkness. Years ago there were problems with my dogs until I built a wall to establish a polite boundary between the River Spirit territory and mine. We make offerings, but some of my things are just too tempting; a beautiful black cockerel disappeared from his firmly locked and snake/alu/luwak-proof cage one night.

“Everything has its own place, and in order to have a peaceful life boundaries must be clear,” explained   Padangtegal community leader Kadek Gunarta. “Ceremonies to ‘open the land’ take place to relocate spirits before building begins.

“But with all this development the spirits are being dislocated and squeezed into smaller areas. This creates an imbalance. The Balinese are experiencing a lot of social and economic tension these days, and that is surely being reflected in the Niskala. There is imbalance in the spirit world; we are taking up their space. Rivers are their highways and homes. Now the riverbanks are being built on and some villas don’t even have a padma; no offerings are made. Rivers are polluted with garbage.”

No wonder the River People are disturbed.

Tonya are communities of spirits that inhabit the rivers and ravines. “As a kid I used to hear them play the river,” said writer and musician Ketut Yuliarsa . “They would bang their hands on the water, making real music with many notes.

“The Tonya were blamed for children disappearing. When I was young it was quite common for kids to go missing from their homes for several hours and be found wandering in the rice fields. But mysticism has a function,” he pointed out. “In Balinese society there’s little privacy. Sometimes people will use the excuse of a Tonya to cover up a human affair.”

Tonya are said to be more active during the day. They live in villages as humans do and in fact resemble us exactly except that they lack the indentation between nose and upper lip.

Then there are the Memedi, hairy red humanoids that dwell in big trees and bamboo groves close to villages. They were also said to steal children, and parents threatened their kids with the Memedi to make them behave.


Tuyul are naughty child spirits. A friend who built a house in Pejeng between the river and the road found that all kinds of things would be broken in the house during the night, and Tuyul were blamed. A small ceremony and their own offering place in the garden placated them.

Another friend also built near a river in Tebesaya. She is seldom here and the house is usually empty (never a good thing in Bali, by the way). On her last trip odd things began to happen at night. She was woken several times with a heavy hand on her throat, and a massive teak table was overturned in her room. She moved into a homestay nearby while a balian was summoned. He told her that before she’d built her house a large tree had been cut down nearby without appropriate offerings being made, and the spirits (probably Tonya) who lived there were now homeless. This was quickly addressed and there were no more problems.

My friend next door has a huge tree on her land, and several people have seen a female spirit there. When the tree requires pruning it is done with the greatest respect and many offerings.

Then there are the Dete or Moro, which can take the form of real or mythical animals, or may resemble the carved stone temple guardians. I was told that before encountering one, there is a strange smell.


Leyak are humans who practice black magic and can take the form of animals. Wayan Manis tells me that her relative has toyed with this dangerous practice, and under the influence of the magic saw his sleeping grandchildren appear as succulent babi guling. The Leyak are associated with death; they haunt graveyards and practice cannibalism. Appearing as ordinary humans by day, they transform into flying monsters by night.

Related are the Lulut Mas, a seething pile of yellow worms that appear in front of gates or near water sources and indicate uncleanness. I know a couple of people who have had these, and ceremonies to clear them are quite expensive. Since Lulut Mas are the only manifestations of Niskala that seem to exist in the physical realm, I’d be very interested in seeing a detailed photo.

Really, it’s no wonder the Balinese are so superstitious.

Cultural scholar I Made Surya told me about a friend of his who wanted to build on a small piece of family land on the river Oongan in Denpasar. Before he started he brought in a Mangku who specialised in Tonya, just in case there might be an issue. The Mangku detected no fewer than 5,000 Tonya and kindly negotiated with them until they agreed to move to a tree across the river if a purification ceremony as done.   A week later when the offerings were brought (there are 216 special offerings for unseen beings), the big tree across the river spontaneously burst into flame and burned to the ground.

There are new regulations against building along the edges of rivers (Sempadan  Sungai) but these are ignored in several parts of Bali. Big old trees, home of ancient spirits, are being cut down. Villas and hotels are being constructed right in the territory of the Tonya. It wouldn’t be surprising if the increasingly irritated River Spirits began to take enforcement into their own unseen hands. Let me know if you need the number of a good balian.


text ©Cat Wheeler  

 All illustrations are details of Ketut Budiana’s paintings.

Images are ©Ketut Budiana (Padang Tegal)