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Sunday, 01 July 2018

Bali: Indonesia's Island of Temples

Written by Jim Chamberlain
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I have not seen or read Eat, Pray, Love. I am not sure I want to. I did want to see the most exotic of destinations in Asia. The island of Bali. What I expected was probably a combination of swaying palm trees and beautiful beaches with an Southeast Asian ambiance. What I experienced was one of the most spiritual cultures in Asia.

Bali is a Hindu enclave in the most populous Muslim country in the world, Indonesia. The island's location allowed it to remain isolated and retain its centuries old culture while the rest of Indonesia became mostly Muslim. Christianity flourished during the colonial period of Dutch rule in these islands but Bali remained Hindu.

Along the pier, three Balinese women greeted the cruise ship tourists with the "sembah" (to greet by clasping two hands together in front of the chest while slightly bowing). The streets and roads from the port of Benoa pass thru the Capital of Denpasar on the way to cultural center of Ubud. Our guide told us that every home has its own temple and that spiritualism is at the center of Balinese life. They offer small offerings each day on the sidewalks or gates to the various gods or demons they wish to placate, You could see small sticks of incense burning next to offerings of rice, fruit or flowers on banana leaves or in small baskets all over the towns and villages. Religious activity still permeates almost every aspect of Balinese life, so much so that religious events apparently occupy a third of the average Balinese social calendar according to our guide.

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There may be ten thousand temples on this island or more counting all the personal ones. I chose to visit two of the most important ones on the island, Pura Puseh in the village of Batubulan. and Kenta Gosa (the Temple of Justice) in Klungkung.

Batubulan village is in the center of the island between Denpasar and Ubud. The village is a center for stone and wood carvings as well as painting. I visited a wood carving center and the work of the artists is very detailed and carvings of over six feet tall are not unusual. Many villages specialize in one kind of artwork. Celuk Village is famous for its highly skilled gold and silver craftsmen and Mas Village, is renowned for its master carvers of teak, mahogany, ebony and hibiscus wood. The village of Tenganain makes woven baskets.

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The Hindu temple of Pura Puseh is over a thousand years old and has some amazing architecture and structures. This is still a sacred place for Hindus. Stone carvings of various Hindu deities, demons, and spirits adorn gates, pavilions and shrines.

You must put on a traditional sarong-like "Kamben" before entering out of respect. Several local villagers have these garments ready for the arriving tourists and assist you if you have difficulty tying it properly so it doesn't fall off and trip you. The Paduraska or gateways is quite ornate with sculptures and a beautiful crown. These act as the boundaries between different areas of the temples. Many of the pavilions and shires called Meru towers have black palm thatched roofs. They always have an odd number of roof tiers depending on the deity or ancestor being honored. Eleven tiers is the highest number.

The Temple of Justice and the surrounding grounds comprise the royal compound of Klungkung and shows the deeply religious nature of ancient Balinese rule. The city was known at that time for its arts, painting, dance and music. The Kerta Gosa was the court of the high king of Bali, cases on the island which could not be resolved were transferred to this site. Three Brahman priests presided over the court. The convicts (as well as visitors today) were able to view the ceiling which depicted different punishments in the afterlife, the results of karma, while they were awaiting sentencing. The whole roof was covered in these paintings of Hindu hell.

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The Temple floats in the middle of a pond of water lilies surrounded by a wall guarded by statutes of warlike soldiers. Local women sell "Batik" cloth here with it is colorful and intricate designs. I saw a young couple in traditional Balinese wedding costume posing for pictures and was allowed to take their photograph in their golden attire.

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My cultural immersion in Bali continued during a short break for lunch in Ubud. Here in a traditional Balinese open air restaurant I feasted on "Crispy Duck", a local favorite. It is deep fried and served with rice. Tasty but a bit tough. My final exposure to the spiritualism of Bali was a live performance of the ancient "Barong" dance.

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Hinduism in Bali still has a strong focus on animism and a belief in the good and bad spirits that exist in the world. The Barong dance is about those forces, good versus evil. The dance is performed to traditional music performed by musicians using local instruments. Barong is a Lion-like creature. He is the King of the spirits, leader of the army of good, and enemy of Rangda, the demon queen. The performance features actors in elaborate and colorful costumes as they tell the tale. The Barong costume takes two actors while the Rangda actor wears a mask with large fangs.

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The dance opens with two playful monkeys teasing Barong in a peaceful environment. The Rangda character appears and wreaks havoc. She casts black magic upon the dancers in an attempt to defeat the servants of the Barong. Graceful Balinese dancers express the stories of the dance using body language including gestures of fingers, hands, head and eyes. The dance ends with the final battle between Barong and Rangda in which evil is defeated.

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As my bus returned to Benoa we passed a large monument in the center of the roadway in Denpasar. In most cities the central figure of a monument is a famous resident or leader. Here it is the Hindu God, Rama, and his monkey servants that dominate this impressive expression of the importance of religion in their lives. I never did get to those famous Bali beaches but I did learn to appreciate the Balinese culture and its deeply spiritual foundation.

©Jim Chamberlain

Last modified on Sunday, 01 July 2018