Babies on the Indonesian island of Bali don't start off life on the right foot — or on the left.
That is because a prevalent and ancient custom there says an infant's feet should not touch the ground for the first 105 days after birth.
The practice derives from a belief that newborns are still close to the sacred realm from which they came and therefore deserve to be treated with veneration. Belief in reincarnation is widespread in Bali, where most people practice a local form of Hinduism. A child's birth is seen as the rebirth of a deceased relative, with ancestors returning as their own descendants.
"Before three months, babies are considered holy," said Robert Lemelson, an anthropologist who teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Their spirits still belong to the divine and are taken care of by their nyama bajang, or 108 spirits. That's why people in Bali always try to treat babies like gods."
Infants are seen as visitors from a higher plane, who need to be respected — and kept off the floor. Preventive hygiene and high infant mortality rates may also have played roles in the custom's origins.
"In a situation where babies often and still do die, a baby is not considered to be firmly attached to the world — its soul has not 'stuck' to its body — until three months," said Adrian Vickers, a professor of Southeast Asian studies at the University of Sydney. "The baby's soul is seen as liable to leave unless treated well."
Mothers and other female relatives are generally responsible for ensuring toes never touch turf, but fathers, uncles, neighbors, storekeepers and the occasional tourist are recruited to keep an infant aloft. Children are typically not entrusted with the task lest the baby be deposited in the dirt.
At home, the baby is usually placed on a bed and, in a more traditional home, a kind of clay bucket may serve as a playpen.
After 105 days — or 210 days, in some Balinese communities — an elaborate ceremony, known as nyabutan or nyambutin, is held. "It's a kind of coming into the world for the baby," Vickers said.
At the start of the ceremony, the parents are purified. A ritual then bids farewell to the 108 spirits and thanks them for having protected the baby.
Holy water is sprinkled and food offerings are made to appease demons and entice benevolent spirits to strengthen the child for the next stage of life.
"Usually a trance shaman, called a balian, officiates and communicates with the ancestors to find out who has been reincarnated," Vickers said.
The hair carried by the baby since birth, considered unclean, is cut off.
Finally, the infant touches the ground for the first time and is officially given a name. In some ceremonies, a number of names are written on leaves that are placed amid burning sticks; the first leaf to burn is the name bestowed on the baby.
What if the feet do touch the ground before the ceremony?
"If it happens, it is not the end of the world," said Thomas Reuter, an anthropology professor at the University of Melbourne. "In any case, the 105-day ritual takes care of removing any negative influences the baby may have inadvertently been exposed to."