Bali

     Bali is a tiny, extremely fertile and dramatically mountainous island just 8° south of the equator. It is only 140 km by 80 km, with an area of 5 637 sq km. The population of province of Bali is 3 890 000 peoples in 2010.Bali’s central mountain chain, which runs east-west the whole length of the island, includes several peaks over 2000 meters and many active volcanoes, including the “mother” mountain Gunung Agung (3142 meters). Bali’s volcanic nature has contributed to its exceptional fertility and the high mountains provide the dependable rainfall which irrigates the island’s complex and beautiful rice terraces.

     The Balinese worship the same gods as the Hindus of India. The trinity of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu but they also have a supreme god, Sanghyang Widhi. Unlike the case in India, the trinity is always alluded to, never seen – a vacant shrine or empty throne tells all. Nor is Sanghyang Widhi often worshiped, though villagers may pray to him when they have settled new land and are about to build a new village; his image appears at the top of many temples shrines and on magic amulets.

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     The Balinese believe that spirits are every where, an indication that animism is the basic of much of their religion. Good spirits dwell in the mountains and bring prosperity to the people, while giants and demons lurk beneath the sea and bad spirits haunt the woods and desolate beaches. The people live between these two opposites and their rituals strive to maintain this middle ground. Offerings are carefully put out every morning to pay homage to the good spirits and nonchalantly placed on the ground to placate the bad ones. You can’t get away from religion in Bali-there are temples in every village, shrines in every field and offerings made at every corner. Although it enforces a high degree of conformity it is not a fatalistic religion-the bad spirits can be placated or driven out and if you follow the rules, you won’t offend the gods and the good spirits.

     Religion in Bali has two overwhelming features-it’s absolutely everywhere and it’s good fun. Even a funeral is an amazing, colorful, noisy and exciting event-a stark contrast to the solemn ceremony practiced in the West. A Balinese funeral is a happy occasion, as it represents the destruction of the body and the release of the soul so that it can be united with the supreme God. The body is carried 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  On the way to the cremation ground the lower is shaken and run around in circles to disorientate the spirit of the deceased so that it cannot find its way home.

        Temple festivals are as much a social occasion as  a religious one. Cockfights are a regular part of temple ceremonies : a combination of excitement, sport and gambling. They also provide a blood  sacrifice to dissuade evil spirits from interfering with the religious ceremonies that follow. While the men slaughter their prized pets, the woman bring beautifully arranged offering of foods, fruit and flowers artistically piled in huge pyramids, which they carry on their heads to the temple.  Outside, warung offer foods for sale, stalls are set up to sell toys, trinkets and batik. There are sideshows with card games, gambling, buskers, mystic healers, music and dancing, while the gamelan orchestra plays on in the outer courtyard. Inside, the pemangku (temple priests) suggest to the gods that they should come down and enjoy the goings on. The small thrones in the temple shrines are symbolic seats for the gods to occupy during festivals, although sometimes small images called pratima are placed in the thrones to represent them. At some festivals the images and thrones of the deities are taken out of the temple and ceremonially carried down to the sea for a ceremonial bath. Inside the temple the proceedings take on a more formal, mystical tone as the pemangku continue to chant their songs of praise before shrines clouded by smoking incense. The woman dance the stately pendet, in itself an offering to the gods through the beauty of their motions. As dawn approaches  the entertainment and ceremonies wind down and the woman dance a final pendet, a farewell to the deities. The pemangku politely suggest to the gods that it’s time they made their way back to heaven and the people make their own weary way back to their homes.

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    It’s not all works of art are ephemeral or aimed at the tourist trade. An example is the sacred Keris, a knife which is thought to contain great spiritual force and thus require great care in handling, use and even in making.  The Wayang kulit shadow puppet figures cut from buffalo hide are also magical items since the plays enact the eternal battle between good and evil. The Balinese weave a variety of complex fabrics for ceremonial and other important uses, including Songket cloth (silk cloth with gold or silver threads woven into it). Even more impressive is the “double ikat” cloth in which the pattern is dyed onto the lengthwise and crosswise threads before the threads are woven together. This cloth is produced only in Tenganan.

          It’s the everyday, disposable crafts which are probably most surprising in Bali. Even the simplest activities are carried out with care, precision and artistic flair. Just glance at those little offering trays thrown down on the ground for the demons every morning and afternoon, each one a throwaway work of art.  Look at the temple offerings, the artistically stacked pyramids of fruit or other beautifully decorated foods. Look at the Lamaks, long woven palm  leaf strips used as decorations, the stylized female figures known as Cili and the intricately carved coconut shell wall hangings. At funerals you will be amazed at the care and energy that goes into constructing huge funeral towers and exotic sarcophagi, all of which go up in flames.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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