Bali is truly a unique isle; from its timeless traditions, colourful pageantry to rites of passage. The people possess a genuine sense inner happiness that is perhaps attributed to the strong Hindu faith. There is a fundamental belief in the spiritual world which should always be in balance and harmonize with the physical world to attain peace and prosperity.
Although there are no artifacts or records dating back to the Stone Age, it is believed that the first settlers on Bali migrated from China around 2500 BC. By the Bronze era, around 300 B.C. quite an evolved culture existed in Bali. The complex system of irrigation and rice production, still in use today, was established around this time.
History is vague for the first few centuries. A number of Hindu artifacts have been found dating back to the 1st century, yet it appears that the main religion, around 500 AD was predominantly Buddhist in influence. A Chinese scholar, Yi-Tsing, in 670 AD reported on a trip to India, that he had visited a Buddhist country called Bali.
It wasn’t until the 11th century that Bali received the first strong influx of Hindu and Javanese cultures. With the death of his father around AD 1011, the Balinese Prince, Airlanggha, moved to East Java and set about uniting it under one principality. Having succeeded, he then appointed his brother, Anak Wungsu, as ruler of Bali. During the ensuing period there was a reciprocation of political and artistic ideas. The old Javanese language, Kawi, became the language used by the aristocracy, one of the many Javanese traits and customs adopted by the cause.
With the death of Airlanggha, in the middle of the 11th century, Bali enjoyed a period of autonomy. However, this proved to be short-lived as in 1284, the East Javanese king Kertanegara, conquered Bali and ruled over it from Java. In 1292, Kertanegara was murdered and Bali took the opportunity to liberate itself once again. However, in 1343, Bali was brought back under Javanese control by its defeat at the hands of Gajah Mada, a general in the last of the great Hindu-Javanese empires, the Majapahit. With the spread of Islam throughout Sumatra and Java during the 16th century, the Majapahit Empire began to collapse and a large exodus of aristocracy, priests, artists and artisans to Bali ensued. For a while Bali flourished and the following centuries were considered the Golden Age of Bali’s cultural history. The principality of Gelgel, near Klungkung, became a major centre for the Arts, and Bali became the major power of the region, taking control of neighboring Lombok and parts of East Java.
The European Influence
The first Dutch seamen set foot on Bali in 1597, yet it wasn’t until the 1800′s that the Dutch showed an interest in colonizing the island. In 1846, having had large areas of Indonesia under their control since the 1700′s, the Dutch government sent the troops into northern Bali. In 1894, Dutch forces sided with the Sasak people of Lombok to defeat their Balinese rulers. By 1911, all the Balinese principalities had either been defeated in battle, or had capitulated, leaving the whole island under Dutch control. After World War I, Indonesian Nationalist sentiment was rising and in 1928, Bahasa Indonesia was declared the official national language. During World War II, the Dutch were expelled by the Japanese, who occupied Indonesia from 1942 to 1945.
After the Japanese defeat, the Dutch tried to regain control of their former colonies, but on August 17, 1945, Indonesia was declared independent by its first President, Sukarno. After four years of fighting and strong criticism from the international community, the Dutch government finally ceded and, in 1949, Indonesia was recognized as an independent country.
Life in Bali is very communal with the organization of villages, farming and even the creative arts being decided by the community. The local government is responsible for schools, clinics, hospitals and roads, but all other aspects of life are placed in the hands of two traditional committees, whose roots in Balinese culture stretch back centuries. The first, Subak, concerns the production of rice and organizes the complex irrigation system. Everyone who owns a sawah, or padi field, must join their local Subak, which then ensures that every member gets his fair distribution of irrigation water. Traditionally, the head of the Subak has his sawah at the very bottom of the hill, so that the water has to pass through every other sawah before reaching his own. The other community organization is the Banjar, which arranges all village festivals, marriage ceremonies and cremations, as well as a form of community service known as Gotong Royong. Most villages have at least one Banjar and all males have to join one when they marry. Banjars, on average, have a membership of between 50 to 100 families and each Banjar has its own meeting place called the Bale Banjar. As well as being used for regular meetings, the Bale (pavilion) is where the local gamelan orchestras and drama groups practice.
Each stage of Balinese life is marked by a series of ceremonies and rituals known as Manusa Yadnya. They contribute to the rich, varied and active life the average Balinese leads.
The first ceremony of Balinese life takes place even before birth. Another ceremony takes place soon after the birth, during which the afterbirth is buried with appropriate offerings. The first major ceremony takes place halfway through the baby’s first Balinese year of 210 days.
Basically the Balinese only have four first names. The first child is Wayan or Putu, the second child is Made or Kadek, the third is Nyoman or Komang and the fourth is Ketut. The fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth will be another Wayan, Made, Nyoman, Ketut and Wayan again.
The Balinese certainly love children and they have plenty of them to prove it. Coping with a large family is made much easier by the policy of putting younger children in the care of older ones. After the ceremonies of babyhood come ceremonies marking the stages of childhood and puberty, including the important tooth-filing ceremony.
Every Balinese expects to marry and raise a family, and marriage takes places at a comparatively young age. Marriages are not, in general, arranged as they are in many other Asian communities although strict rules apply to marriages between the castes. There are two basic forms of marriage in Bali – mapadik and ngorod. The respectable form, in which the family of the man visit the family of the woman and politely propose that the marriage take place, is mapadik. The Balinese, however, like their fun and often prefer marriage by elopement (ngorod) as the most exciting option. Of course, the Balinese are also a practical people so nobody is too surprised when the young man spirits away his bride-to-be, even if she loudly protests about being kidnapped. The couple go into hiding and somehow the girl’s parents, no matter how assiduously they search, never manage to find her. Eventually the couple re-emerge, announce that it is too late to stop them now, the marriage is officially recognized and everybody has had a lot of fun and games. Marriage by elopement has another advantage apart from being exciting and mildly heroic it’s cheaper.
There are many modern Balinese houses, but there are still a great number of traditional Balinese homes. The streets of Ubud; nearly every house will follow the same traditional walled design.
Men & Women
There are certain tasks clearly to be handled by women, and others reserved for men. Social life in Bali is relatively free and easy. In Balinese leisure activities the roles are also sex differentiated. Both men and women dance but only men play the gamelan. Today you do see some women painters, sculptors, and woodcarvers.
Balinese have an amazingly active and organized village life. You simply cannot be a faceless nonentity in Bali. You can’t help but get to know your neighbors as your life is so entwined and interrelated with theirs.
Death & Cremation
There are ceremonies for every stage of Balinese life but often the last ceremony-cremation-is the biggest. A Balinese cremation can be an amazing, spectacular, colorful, noisy and exciting event. In fact it often takes so long to organize a cremation that years have passed since the death. During that time the body is temporarily buried. Of course an auspicious day must be chosen for the cremation and since a big cremation can be very expensive business many less wealthy people may take the opportunity of joining in at a larger cremation and sending their own dead on their way at the same time. Brahmans, however, must be cremated immediately. Apart from being yet another occasion for Balinese noise and confusion it’s a fine opportunity to observe the incredible energy the Balinese put into creating real works of art which are totally ephemeral. A lot more than a body gets burnt at the cremation. The body is carried from the burial ground (or from the deceased’s home if it’s an ‘immediate’ cremation) to the cremation ground in a high, multi-tiered tower made of bamboo, paper, string, tinsel, silk, cloth, mirrors, flowers and anything else bright and colorful you can think of. The tower is carried on the shoulders of a group of men, the size of the group depending on the importance of the deceased and hence the size of the tower. The funeral of a former rajah high priest may require hundreds of men to tote the tower.
A long the way to the cremation ground certain precautions must be taken to ensure that the deceased’s spirit does not find its way back home. Loose spirits around the house can be a real nuisance. To ensure this doesn’t happen requires getting the spirits confused as to their whereabouts, which you do by shaking the tower, running it around in circles, spinning it around, throwing water at it, generally making the trip to the cremation ground anything but a stately funeral crawl. Meanwhile, there’s likely to be a priest halfway up to tower, hanging on grimly as it sways back and forth, and doing his best to soak bystanders with holy water. A gamelan sprints along behind, providing a suitably exciting musical accompaniment. Camera-toting tourists get all but run down and once again the Balinese prove that ceremonies and religion are there to be enjoyed. At the cremation ground the body is transferred to a funeral sarcophagus, this should be in the shape of a bull for a Brahmana, a winged lion for a Satria and a sort of elephant-fish for a Sudra. These days, however, almost anybody from the higher castes will use a bull. Finally up it all goes in flames funeral tower, sarcophagus, body, the lot. The eldest son does his duty by poking through the ashes to ensure that there are no bits of body left unburned. And where does your soul go after your cremation? Why, to a heaven which is just like Bali!
The Balinese are Hindu yet their religion is very different from that of the Indian variety. They do have a caste system, but there are no untouchables and occupation is not governed by caste. In fact, the only thing that reflects the caste system is the language which has three tiers; 95% of all the Balinese are Hindu Dharma, and speak Low or Everyday Balinese with each other; Middle Balinese is used for talking to strangers, at formal occasions or to people of the higher Ksatriya caste; High Balinese is used when talking to the highest class, the Brahmana, or to a pedanda (priest). It may sound complicated, but most of the words at the low and medium levels are the same, whereas High Balinese is a mixture of Middle Balinese and Kawi, the ancient Javanese language.
The Balinese worship the Hindu trinity Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, who are seen as manifestations of the Supreme God Sanghyang Widhi. Other Indian gods like Ganesha (the elephant-headed god) also often appear, but more commonly, one will see shrines to the many gods and spirits that are uniquely Balinese. Balinese believe strongly in magic and the power of spirits and much of their religion is based upon this. They believe that good spirits dwell in the mountains and that the seas are home to demons and ogres. Most villages have at least three main temples; one, the Pura Puseh or ‘temple of origin’, faces the mountains and is dedicated to the village founders, another, the Pura Desa or village temple, is normally found in the centre and is dedicated to the welfare of the village, the last, the Pura Dalem, is aligned with the sea and is dedicated to the spirits of the dead. Aside from these ‘village’ temples, almost every house has its own shrine and you can also find monuments dedicated to the spirits of agriculture, art and all other aspects of life. Some temples, Pura Besakih for example, on the slopes of Mount Agung, are considered especially important and people from all over Bali travel to worship there.
Offerings play a significant role in Balinese life as they appease the spirits and thus bring prosperity and good health to the family. Every day small offering trays (canang sari) containing symbolic food, flowers, cigarettes and money, are placed on shrines, in temples, outside houses and shops, and even at dangerous crossroads.
Festivals are another great occasion for appeasing the gods. The women bear huge, beautifully arranged, pyramids of food, fruit and flowers on their heads while the men might conduct a blood sacrifice through a cockfight. There are traditional dances and music and the gods are invited to come down to join in the festivities. The festivals are usually very exciting occasions and well worth observing, if you are in the area. A crucial thing to remember, if you wish to join in celebrations or enter a temple, is that there are a number of rules that have to be respected. Please see back page “A Word of Advice” for Rules.