Bali is overwhelmingly Hindu while the rest of Indonesia contains the largest Muslim population of any country. This was put into focus during our trip to Lombok, the island to the east and similar in size to Bali. It is strongly Muslim. We had all but forgotten the frequent calls to prayer and were surprised by the sheer number of mosques and in fact a bit shocked to see how many enormous mosques were under construction there. Through loudspeakers we heard entire services, not simply an initial call to prayer as we heard in Turkey.
The Hindu beliefs are mostly quiet and seemingly personal invoking one’s own collection of spirits centered around a balance between good and evil. I have tried to get a handle on the faith but it seems rather loosely defined and in Bali has been influenced by earlier animistic beliefs and centuries of its own development making it different from Hinduism elsewhere.
There are temples and shrines everywhere and these are constantly attended to by placing offerings. Such offerings, placed throughout the day, consist of a palm or banana leaf tray that is filled with flowers, rice or other food and set along with lighted incense at the place of worship then sprinkled with water. They are made to pacify good spirits and discourage evil spirits; a tray is placed on the shrine, often in a niche to satisfy good spirits while another is placed on the ground to ward off evil. A particularly vulnerable place for evil to enter is at a junction or crossroad so the offerings are frequently placed on pavement at intersections or driveway entrances. There needs to be a balance between good and evil and this is clearly represented by the black and white cloth normally used to wrap shrines.
Many ceremonies take place according to one of the Balinese calendars and many involve the full moon. Processions with colorful trays and boxes of gifts and food are brought to the temple. We have seen several of these where an entire village will walk to the temple wearing traditional regalia which varies from place to place. It usually creates a bit of a traffic jam as the entire road is occupied by the procession but things soon clear up since the temple is never very far away. Other ceremonies may occur in rice fields for example in hope of a good harvest.
Nyepi, the Balinese new year is an event we witnessed in March. Literally “the day of silence”, it is a day of meditation and reflection. No activity of any kind is permitted, no cooking, no leaving the house, all business and traffic is forbidden, even the airport is closed for a 24 hour period. We were told to stay within the grounds of the hotel and were given an exception to the embargo on electricity so we had lights but everything around us was dark. And we even got to sneak down to the pool but we were told the hotel would get in trouble if any of us was seen out on the street.
In preparation for Nyepi elaborate paper-mache ogoh-ogoh or demon images are created over a period of weeks. On the evening before Nyepi these giant monsters are paraded through the streets and finally burned along with great commotion and noise meant to chase demons away. On the day of silence the demons and evil spirits will be tricked into believing everyone has left so they might just as well move along.
The belief in spirits can be seen in art, carvings and statues. In front of temples, businesses and homes bizarre creatures are featured and are usually carrying clubs or other weapons meant to threaten evil spirits. Bali is a great place to see carved objects whether from the wide variety of wood or easily carved stone of many kinds and colors.
So, Hindu Bali has presented me with yet another religious belief system to try to understand. I wonder, does this system make the people who they are or does who they are fashion their beliefs?