by Lee Foster
Bali, an island in the spice trade archipelago of old, offers something in high demand for the spiritual palate of modern travelers: a celebrative sense of life and a feeling of peaceful community with comrades.
Pepper, clove, nutmeg, vanilla, and cinnamon from this Southeast Asia region added a dimension of taste, historically, to the European culture of North Americans. A traveler today can still see copious spices grown on the island and sold in colorful markets, such as in the mountain town of Ubud.
But a visitor can also find in Bali today, as nowhere else, an antidote to a pervasive blandness of the spiritual diet of fractured modern life, where the main course, too often, is a repetition of alienation, ennui, and isolation.
A western traveler, unfortunately, cannot import directly the intangible qualities of the Balinese spirit back to the North American world. If we could, Bali could resolve, instantly, its balance of payments problems for all time. A traveler can only view Bali with some longing and return home with an enlarged sense of the spiritual dimensions of life and the possible prospects of community.
This spice trade of the spirit distinguishes Bali from other destinations on the world tourism map. While the overpowering physical beauty of Bali ranks it in the five-star class among tropical paradises, nevertheless, there is some competition. Add to physical Bali the Balinese people, however, and what emerges is a one-of-a-kind destination that defies comparison.
Life as Ritual Celebration
The annual temple festival at Mascoti in the Gianyar district epitomized for me the pervasive spiritual dimension of life here.
Hundreds of families from the local area came to the celebration. They arrived dressed in their most colorful sarongs. The women, elegant in their posture, carried on their heads the family’s large basket of offerings. The offerings consisted of food and crafts assembled with much affection and ingenuity for the gods.
At the temple the family placed the offerings on a table and then waited for a few minutes while the gods of the temple absorbed the spiritual essence of the offering. Then the family knelt in prayer and received a purifying ablution of water from a priest. A priestess then gave them wet rice, which they placed on forehead and temples. Finally, the family took the basket of offerings from the temple and walked the short distance to the sea, where they knelt and prayed once again, presenting the offering to the sea gods.
It would be presumptuous of me to pretend that I could approximate and convey the experience of these Balinese worshipers. What can be said with certainty, however, was that the ceremony was gentle and peaceful, reverent and meaningful. Though it was sober and serious, these people wear easy smiles on their faces.
A westerner of a certain caustic and skeptical temperament can view Balinese spirituality as the epitome of superstition. Such an attitude, however, presumes on the part of the viewer ambitious metaphysical certainty. The more one observes the Balinese, the more one sees that their belief system works well, for them, creating an enriched and animated world that nourishes their non-material needs.
If you visit Balinese homes, as I did, the ubiquitous spiritual flavor of their lives becomes apparent. Each house is a minor temple, adding further to the amazing statistic that there are 20,000 major temples in this small island world of 3.9 million people. In the homes I visited, the northeast corner was a shrine to the ancestors. This direction points to the explosive volcanic mountain, named Agung, which erupted violently in 1963, killing two thousand people and devastating the area. However, the mineral-rich and water-absorbing ash soil from eruptions also creates the fertile basis for their intensive rice agriculture, the main food for their subsistence. Everyone sleeps with their head pointed to the mountain. Unlike most island people, the Balinese focus on the land and the mountain, not the waters surrounding the island. For them, life originates in the fiery volcano. They were never oriented to the sea or to trade, historically, and are indifferent fishermen.
Offerings are made twice daily to the gods of the house and to the gods honored in small shrines everywhere. As you drive around Bali, the sight of women carrying baskets, filled with rice-and-flower offerings wrapped in banana leaves, is a common view. The word Bali, dating from the 9th century, is said to mean “offering.”
The roots of Balinese spirituality are the native animism religion, wedded to the Hinduism imported in the 9th century. Of particular note is the historical fact that Bali was bypassed by the Muslim trade and tide that swept the region in the 15th century. A migration from Java of the artistic and intellectual elite, escaping Muslim domination in that century, added an energetic group of people to the Balinese mix. Today Bali is a Hindu oasis in a Muslim region. Ninety percent of Balinese practice their Hindu-based religion, while 90 percent of Indonesians are Muslim.
The agricultural countryside of Bali shows a manicured appearance, partly because the people see themselves as caretakers of the property, believing it is owned by the gods, landlords who might return for an inspection at any moment. The Balinese calendar of 210 days includes numerous ritual days. One of the most dramatic yearly feasts is the local temple anniversary.
One wonders if there is another group of subsistence people on this planet that devotes more of their time and attention to their spiritual life. Much of the Balinese effort goes into keeping matters in balance. Offerings placate the lower gods as well as the upper gods, the evil gods as well as the good gods. The major dance of the island, the barong dance, is the story of good and evil in perpetual conflict, with neither winning.
A Sense of Communion
The pervasive sense of community and belonging of these people struck me when I attended a dance, called the Monkey Dance, at the Arts Center in the capital of Denpasar. The dance portrays events in the Indian epic drama, Ramayana. Different villages send their dance troupes for the honor of performing. In the dance perhaps 50 men move, as if one, in a chatter of sound and swaying. The dancers become part of the whole rather than draw attention to any individual performers. A viewer leaves with a sense that these men are linked together for the dance of life.
Another illustration of belonging occurred at a cremation I attended at Lukluk. The man had died five days earlier. Everyone in the village became part of this final ceremony. Amidst great pageantry, the body was taken from the village to a high point of land, a small cemetery near the rice fields. Everyone in the village had a role to play. A dozen men carried the elaborate tower, on a bamboo platform, with the body inside. Each woman brought her family’s offering of a large basket with food and crafts.
The cultural cohesiveness and closeness of the Balinese, so evident to me at Lukluk, evolved partly from their agriculture. Complicated rice planting requires the careful use of water in timely irrigations, which fosters social cooperation. The rice fields of Bali are a work of agricultural art to perceive. Agronomists also rank them as one of the most efficient food production systems in the world, partly because the Balinese have learned to utilize their water resources to make three rice plantings a year. Plantings proceed incrementally throughout the year rather than seasonally.
Balinese people may not be wealthy, but none of them, in my perusal of the area, seemed to be hungry. The fate of the village and that of the individual are one. A powerful example of this occurred in 1904-1906 as the Dutch proceeded clumsily to dominate the Balinese. Whole villages followed their leaders in a ritual suicide, rather than live as isolated and defeated individuals. The Balinese elite did not fight or flee. They preferred suicide over submission.
The sense of family closeness is evident when you visit a Balinese house. Families honor and revere their ancestors, devoting a substantial part of the house compound to shrines in their memory. Every phase of every family member’s life becomes the subject of family ritual.
Another bond creating close communal ties is that every Balinese is an artist. To perform or create art is not something left to a special class, artists. On the contrary, every child grows up with a family/village sense of dance and crafts of some kind. Previously, the purpose of all artistic creation was as a gift to the gods. Now, with the advent of the tourism economy, the making of artifacts for sale has supplemented the original sole purpose of art in Bali. (Be sure to see the Neka Museum of Ubud for an introduction to Balinese painting.)
Some careful observers of Balinese culture argue that the quality of dance and craft production has become higher as the local people become more aware of their traditions and the need for excellence. Historically, Balinese arts have always existed for the creative moment alone, with little attention to preserving the art object for posterity. Now, however, there is a greater interest in the endurability of the art object.
Island of Bali
Bali ranks easily as the first destination to consider among the 13,600 islands that make up Indonesia. Complex Indonesia, with its five major islands and 400 languages (if you count dialects), has as its national motto, “Unity in Diversity,” a politic maxim that is not always a reality. Some Muslim and Christian partisans engage in occasional struggles. Bali is hurt by its association with the rest of Indonesia in the minds of the traveler at times of political strife. Bali itself has experienced major terrorist attacks in the recent era.
The traveler who rents a car and driver for a day or takes a tour around Bali organized by one of the tour companies will stumble on many special experiences and views. A few such pleasures worthy of mention are the silver-makers of Celuk, the wood carvers of Mas, the weavers of Gianyar, the community of Ubud, the rice terraces along the Agung River, the white herons flying in formation, the markets with their salt fish, the view of the rice terraces sculpting the hillside by the Pacung Restaurant near Lake Bratan, the sunset viewing along the west coast at Tanah Lot temple, and the clarity of the night sky.
Wherever you turn, you see lime-green patches of new rice shoots, the planted rice terraces in all stages of fecund production, the rice harvesters beating the grains off the stalks, and duck shepherds walking their flocks to the fields. Water buffaloes turning over the fallow rice paddies have been largely replaced by “Japanese buffaloes,” small field tractors. This lush, tropical island is full of visual delights, such as red-flowering banana plants or fragrant white-petaled frangipani (plumeria) trees. Although the Balinese are not well-to-do, they enjoy a good basic diet of rice, soybeans, and vegetables, with occasional animal protein and the ever-present sambal (a fiery condiment of chili, garlic, shallots, and other ingredients). They live a life relatively free of western-style stress, but conditioned by the toil of laborious work in the rice fields.
If you seek a tropical island paradise, consider Bali, an island that India’s Nehru once felicitously described as “the morning of the world.” Bali is the jewel in the largest archipelago island nation on earth. Rare is the traveler who returns home untouched by the magic of Bali, especially the pervasive spirituality and compelling human bonds that the Balinese exhibit.