The Republic of Indonesia is made up of a series of islands sprinkled across the Indian Ocean. It is one of the world’s largest archipelagos, and one of the largest predominantly Moslem countries. We have been fortunate enough to visit the islands of Indonesia many times — Java, Sulawesi, Lombok, Sumatra, Irian Jaya — but of all the places in the world, the island of Bali is our favourite and keeps drawing us back.
It is a small island only 140 km by 80 km that lies just south of the equator. The majority of the three million inhabitants are Hindu and it is the only predominantly Hindu island in Indonesia.
Bali has been a magical place for us. Green terraced rice fields, volcanic mountains, coconut forests, endless beaches, and exotic flowers are only a part of the island’s spectacular natural beauty. The quality of the paintings, woodcarvings and jewellery make me want to reach into my pockets and buy everything.
But the amazing artistic life and the natural beauty are overshadowed by the spiritual consciousness of the people. Celebration is part of daily life. Blessing and prayers go hand in hand with births, deaths, vacations, even well digging. Every event is a spiritual event. Over the years we’ve taken part in temple festivals, cremations, weddings, tooth-filing ceremonies, building blessings and full-moon celebrations.
It is thought that Hinduism came to Indonesia via India and from there spread to Bali by nomadic mystics and teachers. Hinduism then blended with existing beliefs; the spirits of animals, inanimate objects, human ancestors, and good and evil were worshipped.
Many Balinese believe there is a supreme god called Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa who has many manifestations. The three principle ones are Brahma, the creator; Shiva, the destroyer; and Vishnu, the protector.
Bali is unique in the way prayer, worship and celebration are part of every aspect of daily life. Hindus are supposed to pray three times a day: sunrise, high noon and sunset. Ostensibly most people just pray in the morning.
The woman of the household prepares the food for the day and afterward small offerings of rice, flowers and incense are placed throughout the home — and elsewhere — to bless the spirits who take care of people during their day. An offering might be placed, for example, on the dashboard of a car, on the steps of a house, in the temple that is part of every home, and in the surrounding streets, business shops and tourists’ doorways to bless and make life safe.
The number of temples in Bali is truly remarkable. To start with every home has its own temple. This is the most important temple; it preserves the Balinese way of life. Because the temple is part of the home, it makes religion and worship more personal and integral to family life. In the past, family homes in Bali could not be sold, but were passed on from generation to generation. Every family’s ancestral spirits, it is believed, inhabit the family temple. Since these spirits watch over the day-to-day life and protect and guide the family, it is extremely important to care for, honor and maintain the family temple.
Every village also has at least three temples. The “Pura Dalem” or temple of the dead is located near the graveyard or cremation area. This is the place for Durga, Shiva’s wife. The “Pura Desa” is the temple for the spirits who take care of the village community. This is the domain of Brahma. The “Pura Puseh,” or temple of origin, is for the ancestors and lords of the soul. It is dedicated to the village founders and is where Vishnu resides.
Eight temples are considered so important that they are said to be temples for the whole island and they are located in important strategic locations or power points surrounding Bali. Besakih temple, the “mother temple”, is located in the centre of Gunung Agung, the largest mountain in the country. The seven other temples radiate the island like spokes of a wheel to protect all sides of the island from bad influences.
In addition to these three types of temples, there are clan temples for groups of families with similar descendants and temples for different organizations like the rice growers co-operative and fishing societies. These are dedicated to the spirits who protect these industries. Then there are shrines or thrones, which aren’t really temples, in rice fields, at crossroads and bends in the roads, beside special trees and anywhere there may be spirits lurking. That, by the way, is everywhere.
Not only do the religious pray three times a day in Bali, but they visit the temple every five days, every 15 days, every full moon, every dark moon, and particularly every 210 days on the anniversary of the founding of each temple. The Balinese have a six month calendar so everything is celebrated twice a year. There are also many other holidays and special days when visits to the temple are important.
Ceremonies celebrating the cycle of life are held in the family temple. The birth of a baby, marriage of a young couple and illness of a relative, will all draw the family to the temple to pray. Often family members from all over Bali and Indonesia will return to their homes to pray together during special ceremonies. The focus on ritual and ceremony in daily life ensures that families remain strong and close knit. Even though many young people have been influenced by the worst of Western culture, there is still a strong respect for tradition and custom.
Not a day would go by in Bali that I didn’t see women dressed in temple dress with huge baskets laden with fruits, flowers, and food, balanced on their heads, marching single file to a celebration. The celebrations whether they were store openings or temple anniversaries were filled with music, prayer and gifts for the gods. If we were lucky there was also a show of traditional dance and enactment of a centuries-old play.
A TEMPLE FESTIVAL
Once while staying in Candidasa, a small beach resort in eastern Bali, my son Larry was invited to a temple festival by Made, one of the young men who cleaned the rooms at our hotel. His family temple was celebrating a 210-day anniversary of its founding. I was cautious about letting him go out by himself at age 11, especially by motorcycle at night, so I asked if I could come along.
A motorcycle driver picked us up around 5 p.m. and took us to Tanahampo, a village about five kilometers from our hotel. There, in Made’s home, we were treated to biscuits, tea in a glass (as is customary) and introduced to his family. We were dressed in sarongs, a piece of cloth two and a half metres long wrapped around the waist. A rectangular piece of cloth, or sash, is worn on top.
When visiting any temple, everyone must wear a sarong and sash and obey temple custom. Anyone who has an open wound or is menstruating, cannot enter the temple. People who have recently lost a relative cannot enter until three days after the cremation.
Larry and I were warmly included in the temple ceremony, which took place with us all sitting cross-legged on straw mats on the ground. The priests, dressed in white, sprinkled holy water, distributed flowers, chanted and rang their hand-held temple bells to announce a time for prayer. Much of the prayer was said silently and was intended to be a personal prayer.
In the middle of praying, Made turned to me and asked if there was a problem for me praying in this Hindu ceremony. I replied, “Sin Ken Ken”, which means “No problem.”
He replied,” Of course there is no problem, because there is only one God who is all the same all over the world. Only the form and structure of prayer is different.” I agreed.
The ceremony was light, easy-going, and seemed almost festive. We were later introduced to grandfather, uncles, and cousins, and were reminded that Made was related in some way to the hundred or so people in this family temple.
When the prayers and blessings ended, the women picked up their huge baskets of fruit, food, and flowers, balanced them on top of their heads again and paraded home. After being served rice, peanuts, coconut, pig rind, tuna, coconut milk mixed with meat, and bananas, we were returned to our hotel by the same motorcycle driver.
We had been touched by the welcoming openness of Balinese culture.
In addition to temple festivals, or Odalans, there are special celebrations called Tumpeks. On these special days inanimate, secular objects are honoured. For example, on certain days offerings are made to weapons such as swords, daggers and spears. Other Tumpeks honour trees, musical instruments, masks, puppets, jewellery and objects made of gold, silver and precious stones.
I was fortunate to be in Bali on a day devoted to Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge. Special prayers were recited with regard to learning, education and books. On this day people are not supposed to read or write. Students gather at temples to ask Saraswati for success in their studies and special ceremonies are held at schools and libraries. Everyone offers thanks for the books they own and for the privilege of learning.
I met Ketut Liyer (“Eat, Pray, Love” fame) in 1989 at Pengosekan, a village outside the city of Ubud, one of the main centres for art. Ketut is a Balian Usada, a healer who relies on healing texts called lontar. These lontar are manuscripts etched on elaborately carved palm leaves in Sanskrit or Kawi and contain the religious knowledge that has been handed down from one generation to another. There are specific lontar that are concerned with healing and these are considered sacred possessions for they contain the wisdom of ancestors.
Ketut’s grandfather was a famous healer and teacher of lontar. He prophesied that Ketut would also be a healer. But Ketut had always wanted to be an artist, so he started off down that path. But while he was still young, he became quite ill. He went to a Balian Ketakson, a Balinese healer who goes into an altered state or trance to receive messages from spirits. This kind of Balian have the power to foretell the future and discover what is wrong with people who are ill. The Balian told Ketut that he was ill because he was not following his real calling, which was to be a Balian.
Ketut carried himself off home and began reading his great grandfather’s lontar. He began healing himself and soon others came to him for help. He continued to read lontar daily and administered the leaves, flowers, roots, and bark of medicinal plants to people who were sick. The lontar helped him to diagnose and treat illness and provided mantras and incantations, to ward off evil spirits and assist with spiritual problems. People came from all over Bali to receive Ketut’s advice.
On Saraswati I visited Ketut. Before entering his home, Bonnie and I put on the appropriate sarongs and sashes so we could visit his home temple. Ketut was dressed all in white, with a white scarf around his head. His wide smile, bulged with teeth as he welcomed us into the area of the compound of his house that contained the temple. All the books of the household, as well as his collection of lontar, were piled high in the centre on the wooden altar. Everywhere there were offerings of flowers, fruit and palm leaf decorations. Incense sticks were sticking out of every nook and cranny filling the air with a sweet fragrance.
Throughout the day members of the community and all his patients came to his temple, bringing gifts and offerings and placed them on the platform next to the books. Ketut rang his temple bell and chanted prayers while ceremonial gamelan music played on his tape recorder in the background.
People were squatting on their knees facing the altar in lines as Ketut came around and sprinkled holy water on their heads, all the while chanting a prayer. Holy water was also poured into people’s palms. They drank this water while saying prayers silently to themselves.
There was a steady stream of people all afternoon and a festive atmosphere in his home. Meanwhile similar ceremonies were taking place all across the Island. By setting aside a special day twice a year to honor books and learning, the Balinese show their respect and esteem for knowledge and literature. Aspects of life that are often taken for granted thereby become special and are given reverence.
The Balinese take the mundane and elevate it to a celebration, giving thanks for every aspect of their life. The amazing thing about being in Bali is that you feel part of the culture and can’t help but be caught up in the spirit.
THIS A EXCERPT FROM DR. BORINS’ BOOK “GO AWAY JUST FOR THE HEALTH OF IT”.
ORDER IT FROM HIS WEBSITE- WWW.MELBORINS.COM
Mel Borins is a travel writer. He is author of the books “Go Away- Just for the Health of It”, "An Apple a Day - a Holistic Health Primer" and the newly released “Possibilities-The Pronoic Photosongbook.”
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