Balinese Religion

**Once again, my apologies for the length of this post.  Feel free to read it in smaller pieces.

People come to Bali for different sorts of reasons — for the beautiful tropical beaches, for world-class surfing, for the amazing snorkeling and diving, for rafting Bali’s dark green rivers or for trekking through rainforests and brilliant green rice fields in the shadow of Bali’s elegant volcanic mountains.  Still, this isn’t what’s unique about Bali; what can be found nowhere else on earth is Balinese culture, and that is mainly what Lois and I came for.  If this is what you want from Bali, you need to stay a bit and settle in.  You need to let go of your desire for the familiar; you need to be able to embrace your own disorientation.  Although there is a very deep sense in which people are the same wherever we go, life feels very different here.

Spiritual practice is deeply woven into everyday life in Bali, far more than anyplace we’ve visited.  Offerings to the gods and divine ancestors are as important a part of life as eating, working and sleeping.  Each day, women in the household sit on the floor creating beautiful arrangements of flowers in small, handmade banana-leaf baskets.  At certain times of the day, the women then dress in traditional sarong and sash, place flowers behind their ears, and set these creations out at various locations around the property as offerings to facilitate life in harmony with the spirit world.  Offerings are usually accompanied by incense, the smoke from which rises up to the gods.  The ritual of placing these offerings is an act of quiet beauty, accompanied by graceful hand movements and the sprinkling of holy water.  The smell of incense is ever present; from now on it will always remind me of Bali.


Offering Placed on Dinner Table

As our host (and mentor) Wayan explained it, the Balinese believe that the divinities give us natural beauty, and we then use nature to create beauty, which we offer in return to the gods.  Wayan sees it as a sacred cycle involving reciprocity and gratitude.  The gods give us rice, fruits, vegetables and meat, and that is the inspiration for the offerings of foods to the god.  The use of holy water represents the cycle of water that begins in the abode of the gods on the sacred mountain, and flows down the rivers to the sea, from which it returns once again to the mountain as rain.  In fact, Wayan describes Balinese Hinduism as a religion of holy water.

Offerings are placed not only around the home, but also in markets, stores and warungs, in restaurants, in rice fields, and even in the middle of the road.

Making an Offering in Rice Field

I’ve even seen offerings set out in the headquarters of rafting companies, notorious hotbeds of irreverence in other parts of the world.

Entrance to Rafting Company — Two Guardians against Evil Spirits (I could have used them when I worked as a whitewater guide)

Very elaborate offerings of flowers, rice, cakes and fruit are often placed in temples.  All of these offerings are temporary; flowers will fade; chickens will peck them apart; old offerings litter the ground in outdoor markets where they are ultimately trampled by customers.  No matter.  New offerings are constantly being made.  Most days we find an offering on the walkway or the porch outside of our cottage.

Offering in Front of Our Cottage

Although most Balinese believe that these offerings are greatly appreciated by the gods, we had a conversation with one village spiritual leader who (like Socrates) couldn’t imagine how the gods could be benefited by anything we might offer them.  He said, “My belief is that offerings serve as an act of meditation that helps purify the soul of the one doing the offering.”  However interpreted, offerings are indispensible to the rhythm of life here.

Balinese New Year is one of the most important days on the Balinese calendar.  It’s not a rousing, American- or Chinese-style festival, but a time for quiet contemplation about your life over the past year and your goals for the next.  This is like Rosh Hoshannah in the Jewish tradition.  It’s taken a bit farther in Bali, though.  On the Balinese New Year absolutely no work or travel is permitted.  Wayan mentioned that it simply transforms Bali.  Airports and seaports in Bali are completely shut down; no one can enter or leave the island.  The streets are completely vehicle-free.  Wayan said that you could sit in the middle of a highway in peace on Balinese New Year, which is difficult to imagine after having seen the swarms of motor scooters darting and weaving amidst taxis and trucks in downtown Denpasar.

Although Bali is an island within Indonesia and Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, approximately 90% of Balinese are Hindus.  Hinduism has been present in Bali since at least as far back as the 11th Century.  There are a few Islamic communities, particularly on the west coast of Bali across the Bali Strait from Java, and there is a smattering of Buddhism (in Chinese immigrant communities) and Christianity (among the expats), but Bali is essentially a Hindu island.  According to the Balinese we’ve met, all religions coexist amiably in Bali, despite the infamous Al Quaeda bombings ten years ago, which, in addition to causing over 200 deaths, also utterly disrupted the Balinese economy by bringing tourism to a standstill for several years.  Tourism is picking up again, although the worldwide economic problems have taken a toll over the last few years.

To people interested in culture and religion, Bali is a dream destination because it has made a deliberate effort to encourage its villages to open up their ceremonies to visitors.  In our village of Taman, where we are the only foreign visitors, we have found villagers and priests to be completely willing not only to allow us to observe their ceremonies, but also to participate in them if we wish

Lois in Cremation Ceremony Procession

Each Balinese home is in a family compound.  It is passed down on the father’s side.  When the sons marry, the parents share the compound with them and their families, adding new buildings to the compound if necessary.  Our friend (and sometime chauffeur) Blue has three daughters and very much wants to try to have a boy for this reason….but his wife is a bit worn out by the kids and her job, and it is very expensive to pay for their education.   Family planning is being promoted heavily in Bali now; most families have only two children.

To walk the streets of a Balinese village is to be surrounded by temples.  They call Bali the land of a thousand temples, but this number is much smaller than the actual number of temples in Bali.  Each family compound has a temple – which is often more elaborate than the home itself.  At one point our host Ayu gave us directions for a running trail and told us to turn left at the village temple.  I became hopelessly lost because I couldn’t distinguish family temples from a village temple.  Ayu’s son Agus had to come fetch this bewildered tamu (tourist guest) on his motor scooter.  A family temple is a matter of great pride in Bali.

Family Temple of Wealthy Household

Wayan’s and Ayu’s Family Temple

The family temple is placed on the north and east side of the family compound, north for the line of mountains that stretch across the north of the island (particularly the most sacred mountain – Agung)  and east for the sunrise. In fact north is actually defined in the Balinese language in terms of its orientation to the mountains, so that temples on the north side of the mountains that face southward toward the mountain are still said to face north.  The family temple shrines are mainly for honoring one’s ancestors.  The importance the Balinese give to the veneration of ancestors, including the idea that ancestors can become deities, is one of the ways in which Balinese Hinduism is different from Indian Hinduism.

The refreshing thing about the Balinese is that when they describe their beliefs to a visitor, there is no expectation that the visitor will accept them as true. They just identify them as Balinese beliefs or sometimes simply “my beliefs” because they also recognize that different villages and even different individuals in Bali sometimes have differing beliefs. This is not considered grounds for excommunication, damnation, or condemnation.  It’s accepted as a natural consequence of our individuality as humans.  This is one of the characteristics of Hinduism, both in Bali and India, that I’ve always wished would spread a bit further west.

One of the Balinese beliefs I found most tempting was their explanation for hair loss.  Ayu reassured me that, according to the Balinese, the bald spot on my head was a natural consequence of my being a college professor.  She said that, according to Balinese people, deep thought leads to hair loss.  So now that I’ve given that up I’m hoping to regain a full head of hair.

In addition to family temples, there are also village temples, as well as ‘public temples’ used by people throughout Bali.  There are even temples devoted to certain occupations/castes.  Unlike temples in India, Balinese temples are not enclosed; they are open to the sky – in order to make it easier for the gods to appear during temple ceremonies.  In any village there are usually a number of temples, at least three of which are dedicated respectively to the 3 great gods of the Hindu trinity —  Brahma, Vishnu (‘Wisnu’ in Balinese), and Shiva (Siwa).

Statue of Vishnu and Sacred Bird Garuda in Center Intersection of Taman Village

Brahma is the creator; Vishnu is the preserver or protector; and Wayan calls Shiva the “dissolver” (not ‘destroyer’ as Shiva is often described).  Of these three temples, the temple to the god Shiva is generally at the lowest elevation of the three; he is thus most closely associated with the sea, where our ashes are ultimately deposited and everything is dissolved.   When I asked Wayan whether a Balinese Hindu, like an Indian Hindu, tends to become a devotee of a particular god, Wayan said that this isn’t really the case in Bali.  The Balinese generally worship the one great universal spirit (Sanghyang Widi Wasa) who underlies all of the gods.  Like Hinduism in India, there is an underlying monotheism in Balinese Hindu belief, despite the fact that Balinese practice generally appears to be polytheistic.  These multiple deities are all manifestations of the universal spirit (which Indian Hindus call Brahman).  Wayan does add, however, that Balinese practice tends to be Shivaistic due to the fact that so much of life – and especially spiritual life – is an attempt to come to grips with suffering and dissolution.  Shiva is also the god most closely associated with the cycle of reincarnation because the dissolution of life is what makes way for rebirth.

There are usually village temples that are dedicated to other gods as well, aside from the Hindu trinity – most prominent among them the goddess Saraswati (goddess of education, arts and music), the goddess Melanting (deity of business and commerce), and the goddess of the rice fields, Devi Sri.

Statue of Goddess Saraswati (in Arma Museum in Ubud)

Ceremonies happen frequently in Bali.  The first official ceremony we observed was also the one that took the longest time for me to grasp.  It concerned the measurement of the site for Wayan and Ayu’s new guest cottages.  At first it was hard for me to see this as a spiritual activity; I don’t generally see surveyors and title company employees as especially spiritual folks.  Wayan’s explanation is that his project involves an expansion of the original walls of the family compound into an undeveloped, natural area where spirits dwell.  If he is going to develop the area occupied by these spirits, it’s important to do the appropriate ceremonies that will make it more likely that those spirits who make their home there will be willing to share their dwelling place with Wayan and his guests.  A priest needs to come in to perform the rites that will allow the family and guests to live in harmony with those divinities and that will position the new borders of the compound in the most spiritually auspicious manner.  Ayu explained it as being a bit like feng shui.

Priest (in white, toward the right) Observes Property Measurements

Wayan and Ayu Receive Holy Water from Priest in Property Ceremony

I think we should generally make this a requirement in America before deciding where to put in a new Wal-Mart.

The measurement ceremony was followed a few days later by placement of the first stone, which required that the priest return to make sure that the foundation was positioned appropriately (spiritually speaking).  For each of these ceremonies, Wayan and Ayu dressed in sarong and sash (also a traditional Balinese headdress for Wayan) and placed offerings on the site to be developed.  The priest carefully observed the measurement of the area and placement of the stone, chanted prayers and blessed the area with holy water.  When the cottages are completed, the priest will return to preside over an additional ceremony.

Another home ceremony that took place during our time with Wayan and Ayu was for the bees on his property.  Wayan has created a beautiful flower garden in his family compound; so there are naturally quite a few bees in the compound.

Orchid in Wayan’s Garden

The priest had told Wayan and Ayu that this could be a very good thing spiritually speaking, if handled properly.  It could also be a bad omen, unless the proper spiritual precautions were taken.  So a ceremony was held in order to help assure that the presence of bees in the garden would be beneficial…to humans as well as the bees.  My theory is that the reason for the declining bee populations in the U.S. is that they’re all heading to Bali.

Wayan told us that one of the differences between the Hinduism of India and the Hinduism of Bali is that Balinese Hinduism is more animistic and naturalistic.  The Balinese natural world is alive with spirits.  This is why a ceremony needed to be done in order to create the proper balance with the spirits in the undeveloped area beyond the borders of the family compound.  Trees are often considered sacred, particularly the banyan tree with its hundreds of roots plunging from high in the tree down into to earth like gigantic rooted tentacles.  It is hard to look at one of these organisms without feeling some sort of spiritual presence there.  Often the Balinese wrap a banyan or another grand old tree at the base to honor the spirit of the tree, just as they wrap the base of a statue to honor a god.

Base of One of the Largest Banyan Trees in Bali – The tree is so large that the wrapping in foreground (intended to honor the tree) is dwarfed by the tree.

Even the Balinese gods are often closely associated with nature.  In Balinese Hinduism Shiva is associated with the sea, the ultimate dissolver; Vishnu is associated with water (freshwater) needed to sustain life.   Brahma is associated with fire.  Devi (Dewi) Sri is the goddess of rice, Bali’s most important crop; like her rice fields, she is beautiful.

Balinese Painting of Devi Sri

There is a close relationship between Devi Sri and Vishnu because of the importance of water in the growing of rice.

The rice fields in Bali are not owned by large multinational corporations; they’re owned by small farmers each of whom inherited a small family plot, often less than half an acre, which will be passed on to his/her descendants.  It would be unthinkable to sow or harvest a crop of rice without honoring Devi Sri.  So the boundaries of these plots are generally marked by a shrine for offerings to the goddess of the rice fields.  It’s part of what makes these fields so lovely.

Shrine in Rice Field

Wayan told us that the Balinese can also believe there are spirits in inanimate objects – like machines.  When I reported that there seemed to be evil spirits in my computer, Ayu offered to arrange to have me take it to a priest for a purification (actually I think she felt that I could use at least as much purification as my computer).  I’m thinking about it.  I thought I might bring along the GPS unit to see if it would help with Irish fairies as well  (see my post ‘Farewell to Ireland’).

There are other differences between Balinese and Indian Hinduism.  Meditation, for example, is not an especially prominent practice among the Balinese, nor is what we would generally refer to as yoga…..although I would require years of hatha yoga in order to sit or kneel on asphalt or cement surfaces as long as the Balinese do in village ceremonies.  The existence of people who choose to renounce the world and live an ascetic life of deep spiritual introspection is virtually non-existent in Bali.  The idea of leaving family or society on a spiritual quest would simply be unacceptable here.  Balinese Hinduism is, in some ways, more like earlier forms of Indian Hinduism (sometimes called Classical or Vedic Hinduism) with its strong emphasis on offerings and sacrifice.

Although caste still exists in Bali, my sense is that it plays a much smaller role there than it has played India.  The Balinese I’ve spoken to prefer to call castes “clans,” but they identify them more with occupational groups. Intermarriage between castes is widely practiced, and one is not restricted by heredity to a particular trade or occupation in Bali.  There are social reasons one might be inclined to remain in one’s father’s occupation, though.  For example, one may inherit one’s father’s rice field or blacksmith forge and tools, and this influences people’s career choices.  The blacksmith trade is one of the few in Bali that remains largely hereditary.  Nonetheless, there is no expectation on the part of Wayan or Ayu that their children will choose their parents’ occupation.  Anyone, in fact, can become a priest in Bali as long as he (or even she) is respected enough by the village to be chosen.  Still, it is true that the high priests generally come from the Brahmin caste.

Not only are Balinese rituals and offerings a constant part of life in a family compound, but there are also frequent ceremonies that involve all or most of an entire village.  In any car trip across Bali you can count on passing through towns the roads of which are festooned with a gauntlet of bamboo penjors for temple anniversary celebrations (each anniversary reckoned according to the Balinese 210-day calendar),

Penjors for Village Celebration

and sometimes long funeral processions that halt traffic in town.  We encountered one very recently on a trip to the mountains.  What had stopped traffic was an elaborate bier to be used in the funeral that was being put together on the main road through the village.

One of the most complex ceremonies we took part in was a mass cremation ceremony in our neighboring village of Karang Dalem.  Villages conduct funerals in different ways.  Some hold separate cremations for each person who dies in a village; others wait for years and then hold mass cremations.  In some villages the body is literally cremated, and its ashes brought to the river or sea; in others the body is buried, and a symbol or effigy of the body is cremated.  The ceremony in Karang Dalem was a mass cremation for villagers who had died over the past five years.  We were told that cremation is very expensive, and mass cremations minimize the expense.  The ceremony was for about two dozen people (one of whom had been a relative of Ayu’s), and the entire village participated.  Ayu told us that preparations for the ceremony had begun a full month beforehand.  The actual ceremony went on for a week.  Our first exposure to it was a long funeral procession in which offerings of all kinds were carried on women’s heads, and an effigy or symbol of each departed person was carried to the cremation site by a relative of the deceased under an umbrella, accompanied by the entire village and its gamelan band.

Funeral Procession in Village of Karang Dalem

Procession Nears the Cremation Grounds in Karang Dalem

The townspeople then gathered in the cremation grounds where there was a long ceremony presided over by several priests.  Relatives and other villagers made a huge number of offerings, instructed by the priests who also led in prayers and conducted their own chants in Sanskrit.  Then the effigies were cremated.  Cemeteries and cremation grounds in Bali are considered the domain of the fierce goddess Durga, often described as wife of Shiva.  True to her reputation she let loose a coconut from about 45 feet high in a palm tree, and it struck a woman in the side.

Ceremony at Cremation Grounds

In a ceremony a day or two earlier a small amount of dirt from the cemetery where the bodies rested had been added to the bowl containing the effigy for each deceased person.   The effigy (along with the dirt) was what was cremated (in lieu of a literal cremation of the body) in the ceremony we attended. Balinese Hindus believe that fire is needed to purify the soul after death.  In this particular ceremony there would actually be three cremations, a new effigy made for each one.  The ashes of one would be washed in the river Agung; a second would remain with the family shrine for ancestral worship; and the third would be taken to Bat Cave Temple on the eastern shore of Bali, and deposited into the sea.  Bat Cave Temple is a national public temple used by Balinese from all over the island, particularly as a part of cremation rites.  The temple’s name refers to a large cave within the temple compound; the cave teems with bats the size of crows. They were clearly visible en masse from our vantage point outside the cave entrance.  We were told that large snakes writhe about the floor of the cave snacking on the occasional careless bat that comes to close enough to the pile of writhing reptiles.  One shudders to imagine how large those snakes would have to be to eat the massive bats.  Legend has it that the bat cave extends deep inland and northward all the way to the great temple on the slope of the sacred mountain Agung, connecting the temple on the sea with the temple on the mountain.

At the Bat Cave Temple – Look for a Throng of Bats Hanging on Ceiling of Cave

After the mass cremation there would be a ceremony to purify the souls of the departed.  That celebration took place the following day.  The part we witnessed was a procession led by a priest and a sacred cow in which the relatives of the deceased once again carried new effigies of the departed, and women carried on their heads large fruit offerings piled high in a cylindrical shape while circling the village temple.  Because the souls had now been purified by cremation, the new effigies made to represent them could finally be placed in the temple where the ceremony was completed.

Offerings of Fruit, with Effigies Underneath — Purification Ceremony

Before purification the effigies could not enter the temple ground.  The requirement for purification within the temple grounds also extends to menstruating women, and this prevented Ayu from participating with us in a later temple village temple ceremony.

The mass cremation and soul purification ceremonies were not somber; they were lively and upbeat social gatherings. Wayan mentioned that relatives and friends do sometimes experience a certain amount of grief during the ceremonies, but their grief is mitigated by the belief that their loved ones will reincarnate into a new life, perhaps a better one. Of the seven or eight funeral processions I’ve seen in Bali, I wouldn’t characterize any as sad or somber.  There is a casualness to all Balinese religious ceremonies.  During a ceremony kids are playing; people are eating; some men are smoking (I’ve never seen a Balinese woman smoking); people are chatting while priests are chanting.  The priests are communicating with the gods (often in Sanskrit), and the people generally have no idea what is being said.  So unless the priest is specifically directing them to pray or move to a particular location, the people go about their own social activities during a ceremony, trusting that the priests are doing the rituals properly.  The priests don’t consider this disrespectful in the least.  If I’d played and chatted with my friends at church when our priest was chanting in Latin, Sister Mary David would have whacked me up the side of the head.

Just as there is a dark side to human nature, the Balinese see a dark side to divinity as well.  This is best represented by Durga, who is not only the goddess of the cemetery, but also the goddess of black magic and witchcraft.  Western religions (even some western philosophers like Socrates) reject the idea that a god could be something less than good.  They prefer a purely elevated notion of divinity.  The price they pay for this is extreme difficulty in accounting for the existence of evil in our world; evil is generally pinned on variety of culprits other than God – usually human, who were, by the way, also created by God.  There is a certain honest (and, I suppose, brutal) logic to the Balinese idea that since this world has evil in it, there must be evil in the realm that created or governs it.  They see this world, both physical and spiritual, as a kind of balance or harmony between the positive and negative, a bit like the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus.  Our lives would be impossible without the negative.  For example, rebirth would be impossible without death.  One village spiritual leader used another example.  He said that anger, although a negative quality, is necessary and beneficial for human functioning and progress as long as it is kept in proper balance.  The harmony between positive and negative is represented by the white and black checkered cloth that the Balinese often drape around objects they wish to honor.

Someone who is spiritually adept can learn how to use positive spiritual forces in order to become a healer (white magic) or to use negative spiritual forces, with the aid of Durga, in order to bring harm to one’s enemies (black magic).  God is not going to smite down the practitioner of black magic.  The rest of us simply need to be aware of both the positive and negative, and to know the various spiritual strategies available for us to protect ourselves against negative spiritual forces like black magic.  Consequently a large number of Balinese rituals are designed to ward off evil spirits.  Any offering that is placed on the ground around the family compound (and this is probably the majority of the offerings) is for protection against evil spirits.  Most important family or village ceremonies begin with the burning of three green bamboo logs, which are, in turn, struck on rocks, making a loud pop that frightens off evil spirits, not to mention unsuspecting tamu.

Warding Off Evil Spirits

Statues of ferocious beasts guard the gates of most village and public temples against the presence of evil spirits.

Two important figures that appear in Balinese myth and dance are Rangda, the evil widow witch, who is often closely associated with the goddess Durga,

Statue of Rangda in front of Tirtha Gangga Royal Water Palace

and Barong, a fantastical animal creature that fends off evil characters like Rangda.  Elaborate dances (Barong) involving dancers dressed in spectacular Barong and Rangda costumes center around this theme.

Barong Costume, Worn by Two Actors During Barong Dances

By the way, the stories do not generally end in the victory of the good.  Neither the good nor evil prevails; balance prevails.

We did meet Balinese Hindus who considered black magic to be nothing more than misfortunes that one brings on oneself.  One of them described it as an unfortunate belief that potentially creates false suspicions about the cause of illness in a village.  Nonetheless, the majority of Balinese believe quite literally in black magic, and take precautions against it.  Even those more skeptical of black magic still embrace the idea of a spirit world and a physical world that contains a balance of good and evil.

Speaking of the dark side, even though I was intellectually prepared for it, I still tend to feel a jolt when I encounter the swastika carved into ancient Balinese temples.  I have to remind myself that it’s not the work of Balinese Arian skinhead taggers hankering after world domination.  It’s the ancient Hindu symbol for harmony and peace.   So I’m trying to chill about it…..dude.

Peace and Harmony — Inscription on Bat Cave Temple

And speaking of chilling, I’ve tried to work hard to develop a sense of toleration about the passionate involvement of most Balinese men in the ‘sport’ of cockfighting.  I have to report that I’ve failed – I’d never make it as an anthropologist.  I’m an unrepentant bleeding heart; I could not bring myself to watch a pair of roosters peck each other to death.  Roosters are raised all over Bali for the purpose of cockfighting.  I’m told that owners treat their roosters very lovingly….before tossing them into a ring to have their eyes pecked out in front of a throng of salivating, cheering men — sorry…may the Balinese Hindu spirit of toleration guide the remainder of this blog post.

Cockfights (subject to certain time limits) can actually be a part of temple rituals, I was told.  Balinese Hinduism does believe in animal sacrifice to the gods (although cows are an obvious exception), and the cockfight is a variation of this.  The blood shed by the roosters is returned to the earth as a sacrifice to the gods.  Cockfights are male activities in Bali (well, of course the roosters are male, but so are the humans who watch).  Gambling is hot and heavy during virtually any cockfight, and I’m told that this is not only prohibited by Balinese Hinduism, but also by law in Bali.  The prohibitions have no effect whatsoever that I could see.  I saw open betting on cockfights taking place on temple grounds.  I saw betting going on among the crowd at the start of a village temple ceremony.  When I mentioned my puzzlement to our host Wayan (who is among the minority of males in Bali who is not a fan of cockfighting), he responded that the gambling makes certain people wealthy enough that they are able to bribe the police to look the other way.  The police themselves generally enjoy cockfighting.  He added that he’s known people who have lost all of their property gambling on cockfights.

Balinese Men Gathering to Watch a Cockfight

When Ayu offered to take us to a tooth-filing ceremony, I was baffled.  Although I have experienced fear and trembling in the dentist’s chair, it’s never been an especially spiritual experience.  In Balinese Hinduism the tooth-filing ceremony represents a sort of initiation into adulthood.  It is done in order to help protect the person against the six enemies (sometimes called the bad habits): jealousy, anger, laziness, dishonesty, arrogance, and lust.  Like most Balinese ceremonies, it begins with prayer and the sprinkling of holy water.  The initiates are dressed in elaborate traditional Balinese dress, and, after prayers and the sprinkling of holy water, the priests write sacred inscriptions on their front teeth.

Sacred Inscriptions on Front Teeth in Tooth-filing Ceremony

Then, in the ceremony we observed, the youths lay down five at a time and five priests rubbed files over the tips of their six front teeth while practically the entire village leaned in to get a good look.


When she saw me wincing, Ayu reassured me that, although in times past, priests could be fairly vigorous in their tooth filing techniques, these days they are much gentler.

Although scripture (particularly Vedic Hindu scripture) does not play a large role in Balinese Hinduism, traditional stories from the Hindu tradition, especially the Ramayana and the Mahabarata epics, do.  Scenes from these stories appear everywhere in Balinese art.  Gigantic sculptures of mythical gods and heroes are often placed in the middle of the central intersection in the village.  In a previous post, Lois mentioned the incredible scenes from the Ramayana carved in 700 meters of rock on the bank of the Agung River.

Scene from Ramayana, Banks of the Agung River

An entire tradition of Balinese dance and music is centered around Balinese and Hindu myths.  I’ve already mentioned barong.  Legong is another example. It is an extremely stylized and graceful dance performed by young female dancers dressed in beautiful and elaborate costumes.  Historically it was performed for the Balinese royalty, but now it is performed throughout Bali, often for tourists.  The dances feature intricate, synchronized hand gestures (mudras), foot positions, and head, neck and eye movements, and are accompanied by gamelan music played on tuned, hollow, bronze drums, bells and flute.

Legong Dance

Gamelan Instrument

Balinese girls who show promise begin learning legong when they are four or five years old.  Legong dancing brings them great prestige.  Ayu invited four 10-year olds to do a practice performance for us one evening.

Practice Dance Performance at Wayan’s and Ayu’s Home

An especially famous form of Balinese dance is called kecak.  It’s a dance in which the Ramayana story of the rescue of Rama’s kidnapped wife Sita is acted out.  Kecak can’t really be described; you’ve just got to see it.  The dance/story is accompanied by a large number of bare-chested male dancers sitting on the stage, sometimes in rows and sometimes in concentric circles, swaying and moving their hands in synchronized patterns, while shouting out syllables like “chak-a-chak-a-chak” in very rapid and complex, patterned rhythms.  The rhythms are wonderful, and Lois and I were amazed and delighted by the performance.  Although kecak is very sophisticated, there is also something that feels very primitive about it, as though if you were surrounded by a group of these men doing kecak, you would likely be sitting in a large pot of boiling water.

None of my photos came out.  If you’re interested, check out the following Youtube link:

In the performance we saw, the kecak dance was followed by what is called Trance Dance or Fire Dance.  It began when a barefooted and bare-chested man came out onto the stage carrying a model of a horse on a frame.  He knelt in front of a priest who blessed him with holy water (he will need it).  He then entered a trance-like state, and, keeping his eyes closed, he stood up carrying the model horse above his shoulders and ran into a large pile of burning coconut husk coals, kicking the coals all about the stage with his bare feet, after which two men swept the coals back into a pile in the center and the dancer again ran into the pile, repeating the process until the coals were mostly spent.  It was an amazing and frightening thing to watch.  The dancer’s feet were completely blackened at the end.

Fire Dance

If you do come to Bali, you’ll see religion on display, perhaps like nowhere else on earth.  There are performances of sacred dance and music for visitors; you may well be invited to observe cremations, weddings or temple anniversary celebrations.  Those who visit Bali find the value in this to be essentially anthropological and historical.   It is tempting for us to assume that the Balinese view it the same way, but this would be a tremendous mistake.  This is a living religion that penetrates and gives meaning to virtually every aspect of their lives.  We need not only to understand that, but also to treat it with respect.  During the kecak ceremony, Lois and I didn’t grasp the connection between the kecak dance and the fire dance.  Ayu explained afterward that, in the Ramayana, after Rama rescues Sita, he suspects that Sita’s kidnapper Rahwana may have had his way with her.  Sita insists that she did not allow this to happen, and to prove her sincerity and loyalty, Sita underwent trial by fire (which is what is being represented in the Fire Dance).  When she was done recounting this story from the Ramayana, Ayu had tears in her eyes.

Highlight: Ubud

Today we spent the day in Ubud, the town made famous by Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat, Pray, Love. Our little village of Abiansemal is about a half hour drive from Ubud, even though it is only about 12 kilometers away. This is due in part to the disrepair of the roads, the incredible traffic in and around Ubud, and the lack of a direct route there. Initially, we thought we would rent a car so we could be independent and see Bali at our own pace. My good friend, Reta, said that it might be wiser to hire a driver, and she was absolutely right. On days when we want to go somewhere, our host can arrange a car and driver for us for less than it would cost to rent a car. We are paying $15.00 to be picked up at our “home” and taken to Ubud, and then driven home at any time we want. If we wanted to do an all-day tour to far-flung places on the island, it would only cost about $50 (including gas and parking.) Even if it weren’t cheaper this way, it would still be worth it because of the chaotic nature of driving here. Driving is on the left, there are motor scooters everywhere, often with 3 or 4 helmetless riders, and they pass on both sides of the vehicle (right and left). Although it’s not as extreme as what I imagine India and China to be like, it is still quite intimidating and nerve wracking. I prefer to leave the driving to the locals. One of my favorite cars we’ve ridden in is a VW Thing. Remember these?

Our driver, Made Bagus, ready to take us to Ubud in his VW Thing

Ubud is often referred to as the cultural and artistic heart of Bali. There are several museums, many art galleries, upscale shopping, spas, yoga retreats, dance performances, many different temples, rice terraces, gardens, and myriad restaurants. Everyone wants to get a little piece of the tourist action generated by Eat, Pray, Love (EPL as it’s called here.) During the 20 minute walk down Monkey Forest Road to, you guessed it, the Monkey Forest, we were asked about 50 times if we needed a taxi ride or a massage. We declined because we already had a taxi driver and we were scheduled for massages the next day in our own room back in Abiansemal. (By the way, $8 for a one-hour massage, and an excellent one at that.)

When we first arrived in town, we visited the gathering space just outside the temple where we saw little girls attending a dance class.

After that we visited the Puri Lukisan Museum which houses traditional and “modern traditional” art ranging from paintings and pen-and-ink drawings to wood carving. The gardens are at least as spectacular as the art. (No photos allowed inside the museum, but here are some pictures of the grounds.

Statue wrapped up in the roots of a huge banyon tree.

Lotus in the pond outside the museum

Our museum ticket came with a beverage at the little cafe, so while we sipped our iced tea, we watched (and listened to) a gamelan orchestra made up of school-aged boys. The dance classes for the girls and music practice for the boys are common Sunday activities, as Sunday is their one day out of school during the week. Monday through Friday they are in school from 7:30 until noon for the younger children, and 7:30 until 2:00 for the older children. On Saturdays they go to school only in the morning for dance or sports.

Boys practicing gamelan

The monkey forest sanctuary was great fun. Monkeys are sacred in Balinese Hinduism and they have their own temple and forest area to hang out in. When we walked up to the entrance (entry fee $2), there was no gate or enclosure of any kind. The monkeys are free to come and go as they please, but mostly they stay because they are fed by staff and by visitors. Just outside the entrance you can buy bananas to feed to the monkeys. There are hundreds of them, all throughout the sanctuary forest. Their personalities seem to range from playful (the younger ones especially) to bickering to territorial and hostile (with each other, not so much with humans.) Although most guidebooks say it is an overrated experience, I found it charming. It’s hard to resist monkeys. I loved the temple, the statues, and the monkey graveyard almost as much as watching the critters themselves.

Provocative Pigs

My favorite statue in the Monkey Forest. Love those tongues.

When the monkeys die, they are buried in the Sacred Forest and given a headstone.

Here’s a close up of one monkey’s headstone.

And another little monkey

We also took a walk through the rice fields around Ubud, which are very pretty.

Path through the rice paddies.

On our walk we met a man named Made and bought a green coconut from him for $1 (more than enough for the two of us). While he opened it for us, we sat in the shade of his little wooden shelter and talked about Bali. He asked where we were from and where we were staying. When he learned that we were retired, he asked how much retirement money we got. When we told him, he assured us that we could move to Bali and live like kings if we wanted to. He said that a nice 3 bedroom house with all the modern conveniences rents for about $500 a month, or, if we wanted to live more modestly in a smaller place (but still nice), we could rent a house for $1,000 a year. Sitting in the shade, sipping fresh coconut juice and looking across the rice paddies, I was sorely tempted.