Hinduism - Religion in Bali
Many visitors who arrive in Bali do not realize that Bali is very different religiously, to the rest of Indonesia. Balinese people have been Hindus for eight hundred years, since the remnants of the Majapahit empire were forced from Java by the spread of Islam. They follow a branch of Hinduism that owes a lot to that of India, but is quite different. The most obvious discrepancy is that the Balinese eat cows, but there are numerous others.
Religion in Bali is interwoven with everyday life. Time and time again, Balinese friends cancel appointments because they have to attend a ceremony, or take other family members to a ceremony. And, ceremonies seem, from the foreigner's viewpoint, to be never ending. As well as the obvious ceremonies for births, deaths and marriages, and celebrating aspects of the rice harvests, there is a day for blessing machinery, one for blessing education, etc... A neighbour recently told me that he has a ceremony every fifteen days!
Many of the tourist attractions that busloads of travellers attend have a religious origin. For instance, the Barong dance tells a story of good versus evil, which, actually, is the basic theme in most Balinese dances and legends. It is performed as a part of many holy events. Numerous visitors watch segments of the Ramayana Ballet, a Hindu epic story about good and evil, and love, in many venues around the island. Travellers with a little extra time should consider a side trip to Prambanan temple in East Java. Watching a performance of the Ramayana in the amphitheater there, under a full moon, is truly a religious experience.
In Bali, cremations in particular, are popular with visitors. Personally, I avoid funerals of all religions, but... Recently, in Ubud, I observed street sellers convincing tourists of the need to buy a sarong to watch a cremation. Sarongs are not necessary for watching a procession, but are mandatory when entering the grounds of the temple where the actual cremation occurs. Because most visitors visit a temple at some stage, the purchase of a sarong early in a trip is a good investment.
A common occurrence in Bali is the traffic jam. Most traffic jams are caused by a Hindu ceremony of some sort, because, as has happened in villages, since before Hinduism took root, the road is blocked off, even if it happens to be the main street of Kuta, Sanur or Ubud! The Balinese understand priorities, and expect non-Balinese to do likewise. The important thing for visitors to understand, and remember, is that cremations and other ceremonies are not tourist attractions, but are genuine religious events. That the Balinese allow outsiders to be part of them does not detract from their religious significance.
There are many major dates in the Balinese calendar, which is much shorter than the Western one. Late September, this Western year, sees the arrival of Galungan, the celebration of good fighting evil in Bali, and ends, ten days, later with Kuningan. This period of the Balinese year sees a slow down in some businesses, because the owners are involved in far more important things. The morning of Kuningan sees most of Bali's Hindu population visit the temple at Turtle Island, near Sanur. It is a fantastic sight, if you can get near it. Besakih temple, in East Bali, is the "mother" temple of Bali. The other three important temples are at Uluwatu, Kintamani and Tanah Lot. All of them are fantastic to visit.
There are other important regional temples, then, in each village there is a temple for life at the mountain end of village, and one for death at the end nearest the sea. Then, there are family temples, temples in particular sacred places, and shrines everywhere, including most houses. Recently, near Pemuteran, in north Bali, I took a wrong turn into the hills, and found myself at the bottom of some steps leading up, out of sight. The 710 steps (I counted them on the way down) lead to a small temple half-way up a mountain. Despite being exhausted, I was exhilarated by the views across the hinterland and out to sea. The Balinese who carted the materials for building the temple, and the steps, up that path were amazing.
An incredible experience, for me, was a trip to Tirta Empal, the holy bathing pools in Tampaksiring. A Balinese friend said she was going there to be "purified". I asked if I had to do something wrong first, to accompany her, but she assured me that all ordinary mortals can do with some occasional purification. We were accompanied by a woman from Tabanan, who, while not a priest, is recognized as an expert in helping people carry out the ritual. In the moonlight, we bathed under the water jets, and then followed the old woman in carrying out the purification rites. In the silence, punctuated only by the running water, with the smell of incense lingering, I could sense a "presence". It was magical.
Lastly, the daily evidence of the importance of Hinduism to the Balinese is shown by the innumerable offerings everywhere. As well as the three main manifestations of God, Siwa, Wisnu and Brahma, there are other incarnations. Dewi Sri, the goddess of the rice harvest, is a major Balinese deity, and is still paid homage in Muslim Java. Ancestors, former kings, and guardians of sacred places are other deities. Almost every house, business, road intersection, government building, etc., has offerings to the gods and spirits of Bali placed in a shrine everyday. The small banana leaf baskets, containing flower petals, rice, and other gifts for the gods (even Oreos!) demonstrate the way that the Balinese daily live their religion.
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