You’ve seen pictures of the Balinese: slim, elegant and with perfect white teeth that dazzle in a smile of such beauty that you wonder at the brushing process that produces such perfection? Wonder no more.
It was in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s that we made the trip to Bali, long before teeth-whitening was the commonplace procedure it is today, and long before the need for a mouthful of blindingly white teeth was considered necessary.
The Balinese are a friendly people and Hari, who early in the holiday had attached himself to us, announced one morning that we were invited to the wedding of his cousin, village chieftain and head of a very extended famil in the interior of the island. As it turned out, the marriage ceremony wasn’t the highlight of the day.
The youthful chief who came to greet us after our four-hour drive had just such a smile. Incredibly handsome in a gold-embroidered white tunic, gold slippers on his feet, a white and gold Nehru style hat upon his head, his smile of welcome made my fingers itch for my camera although courtesy required that I take no photographs
After our arrival, there was a general movement of the guests towards a canopy-covered dais which had been set up in the middle of the courtyard. Room was made for us in the front row and glasses of the sticky, sweet, lurid-hued drinks the Balinese like were placed in our hands.
All eyes now turned towards the left of the stage as through the curtains emerged the bride. It is difficult not to lapse into hyperbole when it comes to describing her, even from this distance in time. She was just incredibly beautiful.
A frisson of excitement came from the crowd as from the other side of the stage emerged a very old man dressed in white and carrying what looked like a carpet-bag. He bent over the bride and opened her mouth to examine her teeth. He smoothed her cheeks with his hands and mumbled some words which could have been a prayer. Then from his bag, he produced what I’m sure was an industrial file, some six to eight inches long. This he placed against her teeth.
From my vantage point in the front row, I stared, incomprehension turning to incredulity. A moment later the filing began. As she gripped the sides of the divan until the knuckles showed white, the old man wielded the file along the edge of her teeth, the scratching setting my own teeth on edge. Backwards and forwards it went, the sounds audible above the whispering of the onlookers, and backwards and forwards went the old man’s arm as he filed.
Once the filing was underway we, as special guests, were encouraged to mount the dais to inspect the damage being inflicted at closer quarters.
My husband was asked to record the scene on our movie camera (remember those?) as the chief wanted a permanent record of the ceremony. The old man continued working as we filmed, only once lifting his head and smiling with his infrequent teeth into the camera. By now the bride had a wedge of cotton between her teeth – to keep from screaming or to keep the teeth apart? I wasn’t sure. My smile of encouragement brought a squeeze of the hand from her and as I looked at the tears glistening in the corners of her eyes I could only marvel at the continuation of a custom that caused such obvious pain, has no relevance to religion, and which was regarded as a special treat for the bride. For yes, this was her bridal present – to have her teeth filed.
The teeth are filed along the edges until both top and bottom rows are even. They are then filed across until they are of a velvety smoothness, the result of practically all the enamel having been removed. They are now of an even size and a uniform brilliant white – like very fine porcelain – and beautiful. But the loss of the enamel means the speedy deterioration of the teeth, the juice from the betel-nut they all chew stains them brown very quickly, and before middle-age, what teeth are left are loose and discoloured.
I can’t remember how long the ceremony lasted, about an hour I think. I wandered into the eating area but I had lost my appetite. The sweet sticky drinks, bright red and green, and the sweets made from coconut milk and sugar served only to remind me of the early decay that they encouraged.
My few prints have deteriorated over the years and were printed on matt paper which serves to make them a trifle blurry. Etiquette demanded that I did not photograph some people at all and those I did had to be photographed from a distance. We were a long way from the tourist spots and even then, Bali was fairly undiscovered. Few people there spoke English and I spoke no Indonesian which made it all much more difficult.
This account was printed in Dental Hygiene magazine in the UK in 1992 and reprinted in the Swedish Dental Association magazine for the 81st FDI Congress in Goteborg 1993.