Here is a shot of a lovely little boy coming home from his bath in the river where he also washed his family’s clothes. His face is so expressive, I could just imagine how heavy those wet clothes were. Just a small reminder that not everyone has a washing machine, or even an indoor bathroom. Many people are still living in very basic conditions
Last night it was a full moon. This is one of the most sacred days in the Balinese Hindu calendar, as the moon is believed to be extremely powerful and magical. The Balinese celebrate this day every month by holding temple ceremonies and various other rituals. My family all went to our village to offer our prayers at our family temple.
It was a very dark night, despite the full moon, and it was raining hard. It seemed everyone was on the roads, traveling to their various temples, dressed in the traditional white clothing. Parents and children piled on one motorbike, huddled together, trying to shield each other from the cold rain. It was a slow journey, which became even slower once we hit the village path. We were slipping from left to right as we tried to keep on the tiny concrete path. All I could think was thank goodness I am not driving! My husband managed to keep the car straight and we finally arrived at our destination.
We bundled in to our house, trying to keep dry under an umbrella, but meanwhile our feet were squelching in the mud under foot. The flowers and fruit offerings had already been prepared by the villagers earlier in the day, and were all laid out ready for us as we stepped through the door. The priest arrived not long after, in his flowing white robes, and turban like structure on his head. He smiled his warm smile, and swiftly got down to business, blessing the house and temple area, ringing his little bell, and muttering mantras under his breath.
As if by magic, the rain cleared, and we were able to stand out by the temple to receive our blessings from the priest. There are various rituals involved in this, none of which I completely understand, I just do as I am told. It starts with holding our hands palms up, while mantras are whispered and various sticks are passed over, we are then instructed to place our hands palm down, while more rituals are performed. A young coconut is produced and we are given three sips each. We offer up our prayers, holding various colored flowers, and finally, we are blessed with the holy water, and rice is placed on our heads, and flowers in our hair.
All through the ritual, I am saying my own silent prayers to my own idea of God. This is what I appreciate about Balinese Hinduism. There are mantras, but there is also quiet time for us to create our own connection with the higher being. No preaching, just being. This works perfectly for me.I do not claim to be an expert, I only know what I have experienced, and observed. By the end of the whole procedure, a feeling of calm had settled on us, and we stayed a while, enjoying the calm of the village, before venturing back to the craziness of the city.
When it comes to defining an idyllic community, the Balinese have pretty much got it sussed. The way of life here is based around the idea of a group mentality, rather than individuals, and has followed the same structure for hundreds of years. I am amazed at how well it works, and even though there are many temptations around them, the essence still holds strong.
The island is divided in to many small villages, all of which have their own committees. Decisions are made as a group, and work is divided equally. Every member bands together to keep the village clean, and helps each other when there are special ceremonies. Traditions have been passed down through the generations, and every one just knows what their part is in the whole scheme.
No one can get too big for their boots, as the village makes sure that everyone is treated equally. Arrogance and individualistic activities are frowned upon, and keep the people humble. Families stay in one family compound, and support each other, every generation plays a part in bringing up the children.
In my travels, the only other communities that I discovered that worked on similar principles were the kibbutzim in Israel.I had the pleasure of living in one for a few months when I was younger, and experienced first hand a community dedicated to mutual aid and social justice.
The kibbutzim are completely self sufficient, consisting of living quarters, schools, and communal facilities such as a dining hall, swimming pool, clinic, laundry etc. There are chicken coops, and dairy cattle sheds as well agricultural fields, growing fruit and cotton. To get from place to place the people either walk or ride bicycles. When you arrive you are provided with clothing, the same as everyone else. You are no longer an individual. The work is divided between the people, and jobs are rotated so everyone experiences all tasks.
Everything you need is right there, and there is very little reason to leave the grounds. However, if you need to go in to town, there are cars that belong to the community, and anyone can use them, providing they book in advance.All decisions are made as a group,
Both the kibbutzim and the Balinese communities are fantastic places for young children and the elderly, as everyone is well cared for and made to feel useful. However in both cases, it’s the young that start to get itchy feet and want to experience life outside of the community. The future of these idyllic communities lies in the hands of these people, and I certainly hope that they can see the benefits of keeping these values alive.
Houses in England are very clearly divided, and structured, giving thought to various practical issues, such as sunlight, and privacy. In contrast, houses in Bali are designed with the community at heart. Where English people hide behind closed doors, Balinese houses are open to all. A visit to a rural village in Bali is a fascinating experience, as not much has changed for hundreds of years, despite various upheavals such as Dutch colonialism, Japanese occupation and full scale tourism. Once you are away from the busy tourist hubs, life takes on a whole other feel. The pace slows right down, as villagers go about their daily routines, with no thought for time. A traditional village consists of family compounds, lining dirt lanes, shaded by trees. Each compound is separated by low walls, or fruit trees. Everyone walks freely from one compound to the next. The concept of privacy does not exist. The village center has a banjar building where everyone congregates for regular meetings, and various musical practices. Decisions are made as a group, for the benefit of the community. A friend of mine once likened the Balinese to bees in a hive, which is an interesting and pretty apt analogy. Just as bees have a way of communicating with the hive, the Balinese have their own signals. There is a large wooden gong that is used to summon the villagers in times of emergency, such as a fire, or to inform of a death. Each event has its own specific beat. The compounds themselves have a very clear structure, based on physical and spiritual elements. There is only one main entrance, and once inside, you will encounter another low wall. This is put there deliberately to confuse uninvited spirits. Spirits are believed to only be able to move in straight lines, so this obstacle will prevent them entering the house. Once inside the compound, the layout is based on human anatomy. The head is to the North, and is where the family temple is placed. This consists of at least five separate shrines, that are blessed daily with offerings. Here is the entrance to our family temple: Beside the temple are the bedrooms, which represent the arms: The doors to the bedrooms are made of intricately carved wood, and can even include gilding. To the East is the Bale Dangin, which is where the offerings are prepared, and there is also a bed which is used to lay dead bodies as they are prepared for cremation. I will talk more about that in another post, as we are preparing for my father in law’s cremation this week. The courtyard represents the navel, and is where the family congregates, there is a rice grain storage facility, that provides a great place to sit and chat with neighbors and family: Finally, to the south is the kitchen, representing the legs, which consists of 2 rooms, one open for cooking, and the other enclosed for storing the cooking materials: The bathroom is located behind the kitchen, and beyond that is where the livestock and vegetable garden is located. This compound can house up to ten families, as sons marry and bring their wives to live with them. Balinese men never leave home, they simply expand the existing compound. In this way all generations live side by side, and the older ones look after the children as the younger generations go to work. This gives grandparents a sense of purpose and belonging that is sometimes lacking in the western cultures. I love this idea, and like to think my children will continue this tradition, and take care of me in my old age!! Or perhaps I am only dreaming!
Besakih Temple, is known as the “Mother Temple” in Bali, and is the sight for many pilgrimages. It is said to be the only temple where a Hindu of any caste can worship, and therefore attracts thousands of worshipers daily. It has also become one of the many tourist attractions on the island.
Over the years that I have been living in Bali, I have seen a steady commercialization of all things Balinese. I understand the incentive, its a great money earner, but at what cost? Every tourist attraction becomes swarmed with hawkers, trying to cash in on the tourist dollars. This is an inevitable side effect of a tourist destination, but should this really extend to the temples?
Besakih temple is a particularly spiritual setting, located on the slopes of the majestic Agung mountain, it has an extremely commanding presence. I have only been once, but the memory of my time there is still extremely vivid.
It was within the first year of being in Bali. Everything had moved so fast, getting married, trying to learn about the language and religion, and coming to terms with living so far away from home. The initial honeymoon period was over, and we were finding ourselves butting heads. My husband suggested that a trip to the temple would be good for us. I was not particularly keen, as it involved a long car journey, dressed in a corset and temple gear. Not the most comfortable clothing, I can tell you.
Anyway, I agreed to go, not that I really had much choice! The journey was long, and uncomfortable, as predicted. We parked the car, and then had to walk the rest of the way. The road is steep, and there are lots of steps. All pretty hard to maneuver in a tightly tied sarong that only allows tiny bird-like steps. (I have since learned how to tie a sarong properly to allow better movement)
We finally arrived at the temple, and settled in among the thousands of other devotees. I sat down, and took in my surroundings. The moon was full, illuminating the mountain behind the temple, creating an amazing backdrop. Meanwhile, the temple was a bustle of activity, people of all ages, all dressed in their smartest temple clothing. Little boys in smart white jackets and colorful sarongs, and white head gear looked like mini versions of their fathers. Just as the girls, hair tied back neatly, gold jewelry in their ears, and beautiful lacy kebayas over their sarongs, looked the spitting image of their mothers. Everyone was flocking in to the temple to pray together. I started to relax, a feeling serenity washed over me. As we prayed, the energy was palpable, I was moved almost to tears, and even now, retelling the story, the hairs on my arms are standing on end. I have never been a religious person, but I experienced something pretty magical that evening. I turned to my husband, and could see he was equally moved. I took his hand, and we both sat there together, and I knew he had been right to bring me here. It was a reminder that there was something much stronger than us guiding our way
The experience I had that night would not have been the same if this temple was allowed to be overrun with tourists. I have read comments of foreigners, complaining that they could not go in to all sections of the temple, due to them being restricted for worshipers. Well, think about it, imagine if a group of Japanese tourists came in to your church, and started taking photographs and ogling at you while you were in the middle of a service. It would be completely inappropriate, and the same applies here. There are some things that need to be kept sacred.
So, please Bali, do not sell yourself out to commercialism, at least keep your places of worship tourist free.
“Shh, keep your voice down”
“Vhy? I am not speaking loud”
“Yes you are, and its making me embarrassed”
“Vell, dey inzulted me”
“I don’t think it was meant as an insult”
“Vatever, I am the guest, so I deserve respect”
Yeni was trying to keep her voice low, and to encourage her husband to do the same, aware that the other people at the table could hear them. They both sat back in their chairs, facing away from each other. Yeni looked noticeably uncomfortable, while her husband also seemed a bit flustered. He was clearly the kind of man that is used to being treated well, and getting his own way. The young waiters had inadvertently upset him, and there was no calming him down. Despite his age, he was like a petulant child that was not getting what he wanted. He seemed unnerved, and this feeling increased as he watched his wife converse freely in her native tongue with the English woman next to her.
“Vat are you talking about?”
“Nothing much, just girl talk”
” Vel, you should be talking to me”
So she turned back to him, but their conversation was forced, and as soon as she got the chance Yeni turned back to me
“this is exactly why I don’t like to come to these events!”
“Well, its also why I didn’t bring my husband here!” I reply conspiratorially
Seeing the interaction between this German man and his Balinese wife, made me think about the various differences that exist between East and West. This behavior in public is one of the many conflicts that arise in a mixed relationship. Westerners are taught to speak up, demand respect and stand up for yourself. We are very individualistic, and come across very forceful, and almost brash. The Balinese on the other hand are all about harmony, keeping the peace, and avoiding confrontation.
When I arrived here twenty years ago, I was a stubborn, outspoken young woman, and it went against every bone in my body to be calm and pliant. I clashed with my husband on a daily basis, but bit by bit he has managed to calm the wild child that I was! Sometimes I mourn the loss of the person I was, but mostly, I appreciate the person I have become.
When East meets West, there can be bumps, but both sides can definitely benefit from the alliance. I like to think I have taught my husband a few things as well as learning from him.
The Kecak dance is one of the most famous and popular dances in Bali, and it is a good representation of how life in Bali works. This dance consists of a group of men, in a circle, chanting together, and waving their hands around. Together they are effective, alone, it would not work. The Balinese society works in the same way. Everything hinges on the community, and the idea of everyone working for the good of that community. Individualism is frowned upon, and anyone trying to break away and do their own thing is shunned and considered arrogant.
Each person is a member of a family, and their neighborhood community. All decisions are made as a group, and are based on age old traditions. For hundreds of years, families would work side by side in the rice fields, cultivating crops to sustain the community. The famous irrigation system that runs through the rice fields was devised so that all the fields would receive an equal amount of water. No one is better than anyone else. This can be seen in the names given to the children, everyone is either number 1,(Wayan), 2(Made), 3 (Wayan), or 4 (Ketut). By all having the same names, personal identity is blurred, and they are simply known by their position in the family.
Life for the Balinese is ruled by the culture and religion. The women find it hard to hold down jobs, as their responsibilities in the village community are so many. They are the ones that have the task of making all the offerings for any ceremony, as well as making sure everyone is fed and watered. With the influx of tourism, and the lure of the mighty dollar, the Balinese are feeling pulled in two different directions. On the one hand, they feel an obligation to their community, on the other, they would like to earn more money to support their families. Its a confusing time for them, the youth in particular are moving away from traditions, at the concern of the elders.
Meanwhile, the tourists are drawn by the culture, and want to keep the Balinese in their traditional state, to marvel at, and take pictures. But what is best for the local people? Should they be held back, and entrenched in their traditions, or should they move forward with the times?