A little less than a year ago we published a review of David Stuart-Fox’s book on Jero Mangku Ketut Liyer – “Pray, Magic, Heal”. It was the product of researcher Stuart-Fox’s decades long friendship with Liyer. David reminisces briefly on his passing….
by David J. Stuart-Fox
The news when it came was no surprise. The final passing of Jero Mangku Liyer marked the end of a long and saddening farewell. The last time I visited his home earlier this year I did not see him. He received no visitors and spent his time inside the main dwelling house which earlier, before it was rebuilt, was where his mother spent her final years.
During an earlier visit in 2015 we sat together on the verandah of his house. I held his hand. He smiled sweetly but he did not know me anymore. There was no point in even mentioning my book about him which was about to be published, for he could not relate to it. His mind, once so sharp, had withdrawn into his own demented world. I do not think he suffered, at least no suffering showed on his face that day.
Those first signs of dementia were already starting to appear in 2012. I had come to show him a copy of an early trial printing. The back cover of Pray, Magic, Heal carries a photograph of that meeting. I remember it took him quite some time to recognize me. And it was really only the drawings which he recognized as his own that awakened something of his former self.
It is that former self, the ‘real’ Ketut Liyer, that I remember and cherish with great affection. It is this ‘real’ Liyer that has been almost totally overshadowed by his last years after Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love totally transformed his life when he was already an old man, over 80.
Like most older Balinese he did not know the date of his birth, only what day it was according to the Balinese calendar. He thought he was about 20 (he once suggested 17), when the Japanese arrived in 1942. So he was born around 1922 at the earliest. Other sources give 1924. On his death he was certainly in his 90s, but not as some suggest 100 or more.
Ketut Liyer was born into a family of healers or balian, going back several generations; mythologizing has extended this to nine generations. His forbears were healers of the kind known in Bali as balian usada, the term usada referring to traditional medical treatises written on palm leaf books called lontar. He lived his whole life in the same home compound in the village of Pengosekan, just south of Ubud. In that sense his was an uneventful life. But he lived through times of great change in his island community: Dutch colonialism, Japanese occupation, the struggle of Indonesian independence, the terrible anti-Communist massacres of late 1965 and early 1966, the enormous growth of tourism that altered in drastic ways the way of life and the local environment of his village and nearby Ubud. He adapted to these changes, and made the best of opportunities that came his way.
I first met Liyer in 1971 when I stayed several months in Pengosekan. A few years later I became involved in a project to make a book about the magic drawings (rerajahan) in Liyer’s possession, and only then did I really get to know him. This story is told in my book about Liyer entitled Pray, Magic, Heal. This of course was long before Elizabeth Gilbert’s book. Over a number of years between 1974 and 1977 I interviewed Liyer many times. I spent hours with him, sometimes a full day, watching him carry out his healing practice. A steady stream of patients with a wide range of illnesses and complaints and requests arrived almost every day, and he never turned them away unless there were exceptional circumstances. He worked long hours. When he had some time, we discussed the patients and how he treated and helped them, and the broader issues relating to the religious, medical and magical background to his work.
This was not academic research but what one might call ‘in-depth journalism’. I recorded the interviews and then at home in Tonja, near Denpasar, I transcribed the tapes, translated and edited the interviews, fashioned the words into a coherent account of Liyer’s healing practice. This I hoped would provide context through which to understand the magic drawings. The drawings were the starting point of the book and are an integral part of it, just as painting as well as healing were integral parts of Liyer’s life. He would have loved to have had more time for painting.
Liyer was highly respected as a healer in Pengosekan and in many neighbouring villages. On the holy day devoted to Saraswati, goddess of learning and patron of healers, throughout the day villagers in large numbers came to worship at Liyer’s family temple in order to give thanks to the goddess and to her healer. But like any good healer in Bali who deals in matters of magic, there were some who distrusted and feared Liyer, although Liyer himself said he only protected against ‘black’ magic and did not do it. Besides, there is no clear line between ‘white’ and ‘black’ magic, or in Balinese terms magic of the ‘right’ and of the ‘left’.
Liyer took his vocation as healer very seriously. I was always amazed how quickly he could find a passage in a particular lontar book, among the dozens that he kept handy in the eaves of his work pavilion. He brought to his work years of experience, a sharp intelligence, a developed understanding of human nature, a sense of humour that somehow kept things in perspective, and a curiosity towards the world around him. He was a very likeable character.
That last characteristic and of course the proximity of his village to the tourist centre of Ubud brought him into contact with foreign visitors, beginning in his youth. Through his own painting (and through other painters from his village) he came into contact with foreigners interested in art. Gradually he became better known and visitors would drop by once in a while to see or buy a painting or ask about his healing. Liyer loved to chat with foreign visitors, try out his English (Gilbert catches this well), make jokes, and occasionally make protection magic. One thing led to the next, someone asked him about horoscopes and telling fortunes, and he taught himself palm reading. Gilbert came and published her book. It became a best seller, the Liyer tours began, and before long the visitor had to take a number and join the queue. And the money poured in. The family took control; with the numbers arriving and Liyer already over 80, they had little choice. Although many enjoyed their visits (and some took his words to heart), it was inevitable that Liyer began to be accused of being little more than a money-hungry fake. The Eat, Pray, Love medicine man soothsayer fortune-teller became Liyer’s legacy.
Sadly, for Jero Mangku Ketut Liyer was so much more than that. I tried to tell that story in my book about him, Pray, Magic, Heal, based on those old interviews. It tells a lot about Liyer and a lot about medicine and magic in Bali, and about his painting. That is the Liyer I remember. Jero Mangku, farewell.
(Dr David Stuart-Fox is an Australian, one-time journalist, free-lance scholar (doctorate from the Australian National University with a study about Pura Besakih), and librarian (at the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden, the Netherlands)
featured photo of Liyer at home reading his lontars by Steve Northrup, 1989