Before the 15th century, the powerful Hindu Majapahit Empire centered in Java extended through most of Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula. As Islam began to spread south through Sumatra and the empire began to decline, the Hindu priests, intellectuals, and artisans of Java fled to the nearby island of Bali. Bali became and is still the last stronghold of Agama Hindu, the unique, intricate, and magical blend of indigenous Balinese beliefs and Hinduism that is the framework of Balinese life, culture, and art.
To say that the Balinese are “religious” or “artists” is a disservice. Their spiritual beliefs are incorporated into every stitch of their daily lives. Each home has a shrine, the wealthier Balinese, their own family temples. Every village has three community temples for ceremonies and community gatherings, and scattered about the island are large, revered temples for the public. Each shrine or temple is carefully placed in reference to the compass points and in relation to the interior of the island. The ocean is considered important yet impure, where demons dwell. Offerings of flowers, food and incense contained in small trays made of leaves can be seen on morning or evening walk anywhere in Bali. They are presented to shrines, statues, thresholds, crossroads and sacred places to honor the Gods and spirits. The Balinese strive to balance the forces of creation and destruction, never allowing one to overpower the other. This is symbolized by the black, white, and red cloth wrapped around shrines, statues, and temple goers.
Ceremonies are a regular occurrence throughout the island. Roudy funeral processions carry and spin the dead on beautifully decorated pallets to confuse the spirits on the way to cremation. Full moon rituals and annual temple cleansing ceremonies occur throughout the year. All rites of passage: birth, the first time a baby touches the ground, the tooth-filing ceremony to remove the animal-like sharpness of the incisors, weddings, and death are marked by proper ritual. The result is a beautiful and devout spiritual presence that permeates every niche of the island.
Most ceremonies are accompanied by gamelan, an orchestra of cymbal-like instruments, gongs, drums, flutes, and a stringed instrument, the rebab, whose sound appears during the lull of the heavy percussion. The gamelan sound in Bali is dynamic and hypnotic, and often used with dance to tell stories from the Hindu epics the Ramayana, the Mahabarata, or traditional Baliese stories, such as the Barong. Balinese dance, like gamelan, is incredibly intricate, with detailed costumes and dress. Every body movement, including eyes and fingers, is carefully choreographed and complemented by the gamelan’s sound.
Agama Hindu is a mystic tradition, with magic, trance, and communion with the spirits part of regular spiritual practice. It is a participatory religion, where each individual is in regular, direct communication with the Gods and spirits. The Barong ceremony for example, is a dance which tells the Balinese story of the Barong, the symbol of good, fighting with the evil Rangda, the force of evil. At the climax of the dance, under the watchful eyes of a Brahmin priest, the Barong’s warriors attacking the Rangda are placed under a spell, fall into trance, and turn their ritual curved swords called kris upon themselves. However, the Barong protects them, and despite the attempt by the warriors to stab themselves under trance, the sharp swords do not pierce the skin. It is an incredible scene to witness and the story is one of the highlights of Balinese tradition.
Bali is itself a breathtaking island. Centuries old terraced rice fields cover the landscape, using an ancient irrigation system bringing water to all the terraces below. Beautiful beaches cover the shores, known for world-class surfing and colorful coral reefs for spectacular scuba diving. All of this with mountain views, active volcanoes, forested rivers, and a warm tropical climate make Bali one of the premiere destinations in Asia.
Tourism, however, comes with a cost, and Bali shows the wear and tear of exploitation. The island, once an exotic, mysterious destination has become easily accessible and laden with foreigners and their accompanying necessities. Family land and rice fields have become spas, high-end boutiques, expensive, resource demanding hotels, and expatriate villas. A common topic among the Balinese is how much the tourist industry, the lifeblood of the island, is destroying the Bali of old, an issue with no simple solution. The Balinese hold fast to their traditions and spiritual practices despite this bombardment of the modern world. The dances and rituals performed for the tourist crowd are a thin representation of what occurs behind closed temple doors. Despite this pride, the island is succumbing to development and the consequences of an overwhelming tourist trade.
I first visited Indonesia and Bali in 1990 as a high school foreign exchange student for the summer. A few weeks before I left, while surfing through channels on the TV late at night, I happened upon a new National Geographic episode on Bali. I was completely mesmerized, covered in goosebumps, and almost teary by the end- an emotional reaction to a place I’d not yet been. Visits to Bali have been mysteriously sliding in and out of my life ever since. It is a magical place that has a piece of my soul. Truly, the Island of the Gods.