Balance in Bali

Making an offering on Seminyak Beach, Bali.
Young Balinese men carrying coffins in the shape of animals for a cremation in Ubud
Lush paddy fields in Penestanan
Praying at the Tirta Empul Temple
Traditional drawings in Tenganan
Balinese en route to the Purah Besakih anniversary festival
Balinese women laying offerings on Seminyak Beach during a temple ceremony
The coastline at Sanur

It’s sunset on the rooftop at the hip new Anantara Seminyak. Beautiful, moneyed Javanese and Bali’s euro-glam collection of expats cozy up on daybeds, sip martinis and nibble on grilled prawns. I feel at home.

A DJ blends electro-funk from a sleek Mac, the martinis keep flowing and so does the food. The conversation veers from surfing to club-hopping to high fashion to Barack Obama. A soccer game breaks out on the beach below, dreadlocked Balinese boys jam in a drum circle and tourists wade into the shallows to feel the waves rush in. This is Bali.

A day-and-a-half later I’m sitting on the floor of a Hindu temple, one of 4,800 in Bali, in Ubud’s Taman village, the lone Westerner in a sea of Balinese. Again, I feel at home. We’re here to celebrate Kuningan—explained to me by locals as “Bali’s Christmas,” but really it’s like most other temple ceremonies I’ve attended. Men smoke clove cigarettes, toddlers roam free and teens whisper as the mangku (priest) chants Hindu mantras. Then, suddenly, the crowd falls into a hush. Children sit quietly with their parents. Teens close their eyes, light incense and cleanse their hands in smoke. Even the dogs lie down. The mangku wanders through the seated rows, sprinkling holy water before leading us through a series of prayers. We link our hands. Each of us holds a flower—sometimes red, sometimes white, sometimes blue—for the gods Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu between our index fingers. I have only a vague idea of what the priest is saying. But I know what this ritual is all about. It’s a cultivation of harmony.

This may explain why my third eye begins to buzz uncontrollably. After the meditation, the mangku appears again to pour holy water into our hands. We sip it and wash our faces, before sticking a pinch of rice to our forehead and throat. Once the ritual is complete, a wave of energy floods through me. This, too, is Bali.

Just days into my first trip here, after breaking up with my then-fiancée, I sensed that Bali would become my second home. It has. Thanks to Bali I’ve fallen in love again, learned to dive and become a writer. I’ve shown up in Denpasar overweight and lost that within 10 days. This time I arrived weak and sick thanks to a last-minute sinus infection. I was back to normal within 48 hours. Bali heals me.

Part of that has to do with the lush landscape, the volcanoes and the monkey forests, the beaches, rivers and rice paddies. But mostly it’s because the Balinese culture is built around balance and harmony. Wherever you walk, it seems, you’ll see a ritual in progress—a young woman making an offering with a canang—a banana-leaf prayer basket full of flowers, incense and rice—at an altar (for the gods), or on the floor (for the dark spirits). There are temple-mask dances, cremation parades complete with floats and gamelan orchestra, and throngs of people strolling to temple in traditional garb. Whole villages of artisans carve wood and stone. It seems the Balinese are always tending the energy and honoring spirit through art and ritual, which is why it produces a community of people who are among the warmest, most openhearted in the world.

But Bali is changing fast—this has been its biggest tourist year ever. Investment is flooding in; rice paddies are giving way to luxury hotels; Dreamland beach—once a surf paradise dotted with sweet local warungs, is now a golf course and beach club. My Balinese friends whisper of a new influence in the Balinese community: greed. Families are hungry to sell their land to the highest bidder.

With all this commerce, I couldn’t help but wonder if the culture was being devoured along with the land, if there hadn’t been some sort of seismic shift in the Balinese worldview? Were the traditional arts and rituals still alive? Was harmony still paramount in sweet Bali?

A scenic spot for soccer on Sanur Beach.
A simple doorstep offering
A Balinese mother and child at the Tirta Empul holy waters

Nearly one thousand years ago, the Javanese kingdom was fractured with religious tension. After waging a losing war against the increasing Muslim majority, Javanese Hindus escaped to neighboring Bali. Among them were royalty, scholars, priests, carvers, painters and musicians, enabling Javanese Hinduism—its religion and its aesthetics—to survive. Once in Bali, their rites, rituals and arts evolved to include a touch of Bali’s indigenous animism. Together, this means a unique sect of Hinduism that honors Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva—one that works to keep the more shamanic spiritual realm in balance by appeasing and cultivating the forces of darkness and light. That’s why you’ll see the Balinese make offerings to the gods at temples, family and business altars, on their motorbike saddles and even on the dashboards of their cars.

At the core of Balinese spiritual life is the philosophy, tri hita krana. “It has to do with harmony,” says the silver-haired Ida Peranda Wahayan Buruan, one of Bali’s 1,000 high priests. “Harmony in the community. Harmony between man and nature. Harmony between man and the gods. Our art, dancing, carvings and offerings are all part of that.”

Elegantly terraced rice paddies near Tegalalang
A ceremonial procession at Purah Besakih
Waiting for the best waves at Kuta Beach
Sunset at Ku De Ta, a popular hangout in Bali

I meet the peranda at his family compound in Gianyar, Bali’s second biggest city. All around us, his wife and her team are making colorful rice cakes dyed and shaped like flowers, birds and other figurines destined for altars around the island. Of course, every culture is only as strong as the dedication of the next generation, and the peranda admits that this is an issue in Bali too. “Young people like to copy other ways, other lifestyles. All people want something different, especially children. We cannot force their interest. But even if they dye their hair red and pierce their nose, they are still Balinese. They will come back to the old ways.”

There is no shortage of interest in Balinese traditions. Dance, carvings and offerings are all part of the culture, one based on religion. Says the high priest: “You see, the culture and the religion are connected in one never-ending cycle and as long as belief is strong, this will never die.”

When I enter Tjokorda Raka Tisnu’s compound in Singapadu—about 15 minutes from my house in Ubud—Balinese tradition stares back at me with bulging eyes and sharp fangs. Tjokorda is one of Bali’s greatest mask makers. He specializes in carving barong masks used in temple dances. barong can come in many forms: boars, elephants, tigers and the mythical ket. When a temple needs a new barong they pray and ask what form the beast should take. Then they visit Tjokorda with a basket of offerings and as much money as they can muster to place their order.

Balinese dancers await their ceremonial turn onstage.

They usually find the balding, bespectacled, heavyset artist, sitting cross-legged with wood shavings stuck to his powerful legs, carving a block of wood. When I stop by, his grandchildren are buzzing around him but I’m mesmerized by one particularly fierce boar barong painted with fiery red swirls. “We don’t pray to these nasty things,” says Tjokorda. “We’re asking the spirit that resides in the barong to protect the village and our personal well-being.” He can see that I’m confused, so he tells the Ciwa Gama story. The Goddess Uma, Shiva’s wife, became cursed and fell to earth where she took on the form of an ugly being called a rangda. She lived in a cemetery with her followers, and they began to rule the earthly realm with fear and darkness. Shiva saw that there was no balance, so he came to earth and transformed himself into a barong. Shiva and Uma, barong and rangda, danced and made love to restore balance. “Where Shiva’s sperm spilled on the earth,” Tjokorda explains, “a Pule tree grew. That’s the tree which we use to carve the barong masks.” During temple festivals, dancers perform this story and the community sees it as a lesson about the ongoing tension between light and dark, good and evil. The lesson is that love and respect can be the most powerful tool against the forces of darkness.

A cremation in Ubud… A traditional side of the island: a Balinese dancer.

The masks are key to the ritual. Tjokorda, an eighth-generation carver, is also an accomplished dancer who teaches at Bali’s performance arts academy. “You have to study dance first so you can know the soul and the spirit of the mask,” he says. “It helped me get the eyes and expression right so it can be true to character during performances.”

Praying at the Tirta Empul Temple

Mount Agung towers over some Balinese at Putah Besakih

Dance performances are not just reserved for temple festivals. Dance productions take place in all of Bali’s resort towns. Tjokorda himself once performed in Ubud quite regularly, and has also danced in Malaysia, India and Europe. “But my art is not for money or self-promotion. It is my offering to God,” he says. Judging by the interest his grandchildren take in the half-carved mask in his hands and the chisels and mallets spilled all around him on his bamboo mat, this is one tradition in no danger of irrelevance.

Bona Alit, 40, may not agree. One of the island’s best and most controversial classical musicians, he believes Balinese tradition can be too constrictive, and that if artists remain slaves to tradition the culture suffers. “Bali must learn to flow,” he says from his Gianyar compound.

It was Alit’s interest in world music that brought him notoriety in Bali. Tired of performing the same traditional music in Ubud performances and temple ceremonies, he began composing and choreographing his own music and dance along with his wife. His performances are based on Bali’s classics, but he intertwines body paint, new costumes and characters. Usually they have classic Balinese themes, such as the balance between good and evil. “But instead of Uma or the Monkey God, we may use George Bush and Tony Blair,” he says with a laugh.

The gamelan orchestra is also a departure: it includes guitars, Indian, Chinese and Japanese instruments, congas, as well as unique stringed instruments—think: hybrid violas and cellos—and enormous bass flutes that he makes himself. At first, he encountered some hostility. “People who I cared about and respected said, ‘This is not art. This is blasphemy.’ It hurt even though I know older people can be stuck in their ways. But I had to express myself,” he says.

His 400-strong troupe, Kishi-Kishi, is now one of the most sought after in Bali. Over the years, young people who were more interested in pop music than in Balinese tradition, who refused to join temple dance troupes, started gravitating toward Alit. Today, they play regularly at the Performing Arts Centre in Denpasar, and they travel internationally. Like Tjokorda, money doesn’t drive him, the art does. Though, considered a big name in Bali, Alit still plays traditional music at temple festivals. I go to meet him at Lebih’s annual festival on one of the island’s black-sand east-coast beaches. I watch the end of a  barong dance, accompanied by an all-female Gamelan orchestra. Alit is nowhere to be found. After the dance, everyone sits knee-to-knee to pray, and that’s when I see Alit emerge from behind a stone wall. He waves me through a gate into an interior temple then leads me into yet another, which is different from any Balinese temple I have ever seen.

A white tapestry is unrolled across the black-sand floor as the priests walk through the crowd with offerings and holy water. More offerings are stacked in towers decorated with palm-leaf fans, umbrellas and rice-cake displays—like those I saw at the  peranda’s compound. These intricate towers surround all of the altars. Some extend to more than 5 meters high. Directly in front of me is a  barong body made from shaggy stalks of rice.

Alit sits with the selonding orchestra. The selonding, a wooden xylophone-like instrument made with thick brass keys and hammered with hardwood mallets, predates the gamelan, but as they begin to play I hear a similar haunting beauty. The music is at times dissonant and harmonic, full of call and response tension that pulls the brain in opposite directions until all thoughts cease. Throughout, the priests chant mantras and we ready our flowers and incense.

Then we raise our hands in prayer, and I feel that familiar calming bliss once more. I look around and I see smiles and a glint of love in the hospitable eyes of three generations. Then I think about Bali’s social tension between commercialism and tradition, greed and spirit, and remember what the peranda told me a few days before. “Everything we have, whether it’s good or evil, is created by God. Good never wins and evil never wins. This tension gives us a stable world. It all comes down to balance.”

Balinese life still revolves around temples, such as this, the lotus temple in Ubud.

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