The alteration of the teeth has taken many forms throughout time. Each culture has varied reasons for altering the teeth. However, in the end, they are almost all aesthetic practices, some connected to religious beliefs and some connected to cultural standards of beauty.
One of the oldest instances of tooth modification is practiced by Hindus in Bali. Called “mapandes” or “matatah” this is a ceremony of tooth filing. It takes place around puberty, often signified by a boy’s voice changing or a girl beginning menstruation. This practice is religious in nature and a formal event is held with feasting, musicians and ceremonial dress. The actual filing is performed by a priest called a “sangging.”
The belief is that pointed teeth are too animal-like and humans file their teeth so that they are not mistaken for a wild animal and can gain entrance to the afterlife. The two canine teeth and the incisors between them are all filed to be the same length, with a smooth edge. The six teeth are believed to be representative of the “sad ripu,” undesirable qualities that hinder one in life: jealousy, drunkenness, greed, anger, confusion and lust. The actual filing only takes five to ten minutes.
Off the coast of Sumatra on the island of Pualu Siberut tooth modification is also practiced. However the Mentawai people of this area do not file the teeth smooth, they purposely file them into points. As they have no writing system, no anthropologists have been able to find a clear basis for this practice. The responses to questions most often are along the lines of “because my ancestors did this.” They also practice tattooing (on both men and women) and remove all body hair. The Indonesian government has officially banned tooth chiseling, however the Mentawai have refused to be assimilated and still practice it along with their traditional tribal dress.