A Legong Kraton dancer hides behind her fan. The gold-rich costume are tight and heavy, restricting movement, so much of the storytelling of the dance comes from formalized eye and hand gestures.
Bali – Long Read

Living altar in a turbulent world

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Bali – Long Read Living altar in a turbulent world

The Balinese say that heaven is identical to their island, only a bit better. It is easy to believe them. Bali is a paradise of beautiful people who punctuate each day with religious rituals and where the landscape dotted is with countless temples. This atmosphere of spirituality and beauty affects everyone who comes to Bali and makes the island a living altar in a turbulent world.

Maria Visconti
Maria Visconti

The sun is still waking up, struggling to lift a blanket of rain clouds, when I meet with herbalist I Made Westi, but Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali, is already a beehive of activity. Too early for tourists, the main street is teeming with merchants unloading wares from trucks and an anarchic throng of the motorbikes that every Balinese teenager seems to own. Vendors on bicycles carry multi-colored bottles of Jamu, the Indonesian cure-all, to market and women balance trays of offerings on their heads. The market shrine is shrouded in clouds of fragrant incense, while sellers place frangipani flowers behind goddesses’ ears to start the day on a good note and native kintamani dogs scavenge for food.

A few paces away from this busy street, lined with shops, cafes, guesthouses, temples, museums and restaurants, Westi and I find ourselves in the middle of the countryside. It’s as if we have stepped behind a curtain and gone backstage as the noisy theater of the modern world continues without us. He bends to pick a leaf here and stretches to pluck a blossom there. “I am gathering the three key elements for ritual offerings,” he says. “Flowers, leaves and fruit.” First things first, the spirits must be honored.

Jackfruit, papaya, breadfruit and mango trees are exploding around us with a greenness only possible in Bali. Coconut palms and aloe vera plants compete for attention. Ginger, turmeric, taro, lemongrass and hibiscus grow wild in a fragrant tangle. We taste, smell, crush leaves and skull coconuts full of sweet nectar as we go, while Westi explains the virtues of each plant. He and his wife Ni Wayan Lilir, both nearing 40 years old, come from a long line of farmer-healers. They work hard to preserve Bali’s traditional healing arts and medicines as well as guiding these herbal walks.

“For generations, healers and herbalists passed on their skills by word of mouth to their children and a few students,” they say. “But now few young people are interested in mastering this traditional wisdom. We study with three traditional healers, who are very old, and there’s a danger all of their wisdom will die with them. This understanding of traditional plants and their uses is dying out as quickly as the plants themselves are vanishing before the developers on Bali.”

Life in Bali is a binary experience

Westi speaks of how farmers need aesthetics in their lives and how rice paddies are never just that but are dotted with focal points, groupings of trees, shrines or even ‘balancing houses’ from where farmers can reflect on life. One of these balancing houses comes into view. It is a platform rigged to two trees, one dead, one alive. A black and white checkered cloth is wrapped around the trunks. Life and death. Black and white. Good and evil. Life in Bali is a binary experience. If a farmer feels out of sorts, he can climb up, admire a strategically placed tree grouping in the distance and watch the butterflies land while his soul is refreshed.

“We Balinese believe that the world does not exist only for humans but is also occupied by many other beings, seen and unseen, both good and evil,” says Westi. “Great care is needed to keep everything in balance and harmony.”

More than a thousand years ago, embattled by internal divisions and an increasing Muslim majority, the Hindus of Java fled to neighboring Bali where they adapted pragmatically to the indigenous animism. With animal sacrifice central to many rites, Bali now has a unique sect of Hinduism that has more in common with the ancient form followed in Nepal than in modern India today. It honors Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva but keeps the shamanic spiritual realm in balance by appeasing the forces of dark and light.

That’s why the Balinese place offerings every day before the gods at family, business and temple altars, and even the dashboards of their cars. Faith is a part of everyday life and the Balinese attribute their escape from the 2004 tsunami to the spiritual power they have harnessed here. Like every religion, Hinduism can also come with a misplaced feeling of superiority.

Humans only see the world as a mere reflection

Here in the countryside, the spirituality is almost tangible. Bunches of elegant egrets, blatantly ignoring the scarecrows, gently dot the landscape while a brood of ducklings rid the fields of unwanted pests. It is such an idyllic walk I fear it can only exist here and at this moment. Will what I have learned even be of use in the world outside? But that same afternoon, I run out of conditioner and remember one of Westi’s tips. Reaching for a hibiscus plant growing next to me on my outdoor shower, I pluck a few leaves, crush them between my palms and apply the gel-like product to my hair. Bliss.

Hair shining, that evening I go to watch an ancient form of art: the Wayang Kulit, a shadow-puppet show. This has been the equivalent of Bali’s cinema for centuries but its underpinnings are religious and the puppeteer, or “dalang”, offers prayers before every performance. It is believed that he literally brings the puppets to life during the show, which is easy to understand when you see the skills of master-puppeteers such as Ida Bagus Putra Baruna, who I am lucky enough to meet. His one-dimensional shadow puppets, tooled out of water buffalo leather and held up by a wooden or buffalo horn handle, project phantasmagorical shadows onto a screen illuminated from behind by a coconut oil lamp.

“The belief is that humans only see the world as a mere reflection of the real thing,” he says. The puppets are highly stylized, making them easily identifiable, and the stories are also well known. Four clown puppets translate the Hindu sagas of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana into Balinese, adding comment and jokes. The heat generated by the lamp makes the dalang sweat profusely. Speaking four languages, singing all the lines and operating all the characters while playing music with his feet, he holds a high status in the community. The puppets wait for their turn to perform resting on a banana tree-trunk representing earth and hierarchically aligned.

Many are learning English to perform for the tourists

I ask Putra Baruna about the future of puppetry in Bali. He says: “As long as the Balinese stick to their traditions and ceremonies, puppets will not only survive but thrive. Puppeteers perform at traditional ceremonies and many are also learning English to perform for the tourists. Many big hotels ask us to put on shows. A good dalang can make a good living.”

After the performance I walk out into the night and automatically invoke assistance to return in safety. Perhaps I have lived too long in Asia, although we do have our guardian angels in the west. In Bali, people say you never walk alone. They believe that a person is born together with four spirit brothers, for male, or four sisters, for females. Called “kanda empat”, these spirits look after the child for the rest of its life, provided the human takes care of them too. Rituals honoring them are many and complex. They are invoked before going to sleep and invited to all rites of passage such as tooth filing (see mini feature), marriage and cremation while being honored continually with food and drink.

At a wedding, an elder explains to me that a thoughtful person spills a little of his drink on the ground before drinking himself. At home the family leaves aside a bit of food for the kanda empat when cooking and before a meal is served. If treated properly they act as guardian spirits and can be a source of reliable help. Ignoring your obligations towards them brings bad luck, illness or worse. Power in Bali is always double-edged.

The demons of the other world, or our other natures, are central to the ceremonies of purification around the Hindu Balinese New Year in March or April. Under the new moon, all hell breaks loose on the streets. The din of gamelan gongs deafens me as everybody makes as much of a racket as they can to frighten evil spirits, so that they flee as far as possible from Bali. People carry flaring bamboo torches as grotesque giants take to the streets in a parade. These “ogoh-ogoh” depicting monsters and devils come to life in the spotlights as the men carrying them aloft on bamboo plinths skillfully work in harmony.

Traditional demons from Balinese mythology

They dance with trembling heads and hands, and chase potential victims, their long and disheveled manes trail wildly behind them. Every “banjar”, or village council, has collected donations to build these elaborate ogoh-ogoh and old men teach young boys the skills to make them. Their appearances are based on traditional demons from Balinese mythology or more modern themes such as Hollywood cartoon characters or caricatures of tourists.

To outsiders, this procession might seem just a Mardi Gras of the grotesque but the idea is that demons and the dark side of our characters have their day. After they are satisfied, the ogoh-ogoh are taken to crossroads or down to the beach and set ablaze. The next day, at 6am, is a day of quietness: “Nyepi”. The whole population lies low indoors, keeping silent, to fool any bad spirits not scared away the night before into believing everyone else has also left town. Bali stops for 24 hours and all businesses are closed, even the airport, and there is nobody about on streets free of traffic. Lights are turned off, no work is done at home, sex is taboo, and hotels urge their guests to stay inside.

I enjoy this chance to spend a day closed off from the modern world or look from my garden at the stars that shine bright in the darkness left as street-lights stay off. It’s an eerie feeling, but not an unpleasant one. The third day of New Year is known as Ngembak Geni and is a time for family and friends to perform religious rites, ask forgiveness for any wrongs done to each other in the past year and face the year ahead cleansed.

Altars decorate every house and store front

But it is not in large events such as this that you see the true essence of Bali. On my first visit, I noticed that the covered walkway linking my hotel room to the reception area had a gap in its roof where the hotel had provided umbrellas for guests to use when it was raining. When I asked why the hole was there, I was told that the offerings for the gods that Balinese women carry on their heads have to remain in uninterrupted contact with the open sky. The hotel’s pathway lay across a route traditionally used by villagers to visit ancient shrines in a valley nearby, so the space was left to allow unencumbered passage. That’s also why the outer gate to every temple is a “candi-bentar”, a structure unique to Bali that looks like a tower split in two, and why every temple is an open-air affair.

Every village, or “desha” in Bali has three temples, one each for Brahma, Wisnu (the local name of the Hindu god Vishnu) and Shiva. The Brahma temple is close to the village center, the one for Wishu is by the farmland and Shiva is beside the cremation grounds. One big difference between these Hindu temples here and those in India is that there are no “murtis”, or images of the gods, another pragmatic Balinese custom that helps them live in harmony with their Muslim neighbors. The focus of worship is a pedestal with colors for each god: red for Brahma, black for Wisnu and white for Shiva.

The focus of daily ritual, however, are the altars that decorate every house and store front. Women sit and weave small coconut-leaf trays that are filled with petals, leaves and rice Recalling the words of Krishna in the Hindu epic, the Mahabarata: “Whosoever offers to me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, that offering of love, of the pure heart I accept.” Three times a day, at 6am, noon and 6pm, it is part of a housewife’s duty to say a prayer and leave offerings at the family altar. When I first came to Bali, the bits of rubbish littering village streets upset me. Now I know that this “rubbish” is actually from these offerings lovingly prepared and put out for the spirits at local shrines. Of course the dogs eat the offerings and the result is a bit messy but, as the saying goes: “The more you know, the more you see.”

With 20,000 temples, you are never far from a religious ritual

As I walk down the road, the smell of incense wafts from each house. Even passing cars and scooters carry small blessings to protect from the influence of evil spirits that some might confuse with bad driving. I stand to watch a procession of women carrying larger offerings on their heads, walking with grace and looking beautiful in their traditional clothes. The “banten tegeh” they carry so easily are made from a central banana stalk stem, decorated with fruit and colorful cakes fixed in place with wooden skewers. They are on their way to a “Odalan”, celebrated by each temple on its anniversary on the 201-day lunar calendar. For three days, the spirits who descend from heaven are entertained with food, prayer and dance. With some 20,000 temples in Bali, you are never far from a Odalan, or other religious ritual.

“Every Hindu Balinese celebrates 13 rites of passage during their life, each celebrated with a ceremony that involves the community,” a temple guide tells me. “Even death is a joyous affair, honoring a person about to become a deified ancestor who can intercede on your behalf in the spirit world.”

A shopkeeper in Ubud proudly shows me her shrine, with its colorful flowers, rice and smoking incense. She tells me that praying there brings her calm in a life filled with all the usual human problems of making a living and raising a family. Outside her home, Bali itself faces the dualism of being an island famous for both spirituality and decadent partying. Religion and materialism, tradition and change: they are universal issues but the Balinese acceptance of good and evil, light and dark, seems the perfect path to balance any such conflicts.

It is good to know that, wherever I am, such a place of peace exists. With daily offerings to please the spirits and find harmony in our turbulent world, Bali is like a living altar to me.

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