Hindu Beliefs in Bali

 

typical carved stone figure holding club
typical carved stone figure holding club

 

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.

 

An example of traditional Balinese painting
An example of traditional Balinese painting

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?

Climbing Mount Batur

Climbing Mount Batur, the second highest peak in Bali, had been one of the many things we had planned while Amy and the rest of the Hemers visited. Getting there and getting set up to begin a hike that got us to the top before sunrise was the challenge. The closer the date got the more I lost my enthusiasm. Do I want to get up before 4 in the morning, hike with a flashlight and climb 700 meters (2300 feet) before breakfast? Can’t I just stay in bed or hang around the pool while the others do it? Can’t I legitimately use the excuse that I’m too old for this? I claimed I was indifferent; I’d climbed other volcanoes and they are all kind of the same: a steep rugged climb, a bit of time at the top then a difficult descent on tired legs.

That didn’t work. No one forced me to go but I chose to go and so our party of seven started out with three guides in the cool morning darkness. There is a union of sorts that requires hikers to use a guide, it helps the local economy and keeps climbers from getting lost or hurt. Fair enough. On a mostly level densely forested footpath we left the edge of Lake Batur and the village of Toya Bungkah. The roosters weren’t even awake. Of course we started climbing before long and after an hour or so we cleared the dense jungle into more open woods. The path was rough with tree roots, boulders and loose volcanic gravel. When things got steeper they really got steeper; the path goes straight up with nothing so much as a switchback. One of the guides stayed with me as the more agile climbers kept a more rapid pace. He would put out his hand and pull me up in places where the path rose well over a foot over a tree root or through boulders. With age starting to show and knees a bit creaky, I guess I have lost my high altitude lungs since we have been at sea level for a couple months now.

It was a very strenuous climb and among the fifty or so hikers I finished dead last. But we made it just as the sun rose and what a glorious sight it was. The valley below encompasses a large crater lake, the largest in Bali, and fertile agricultural land. There is evidence of recent volcanic activity all around including a several hundred acre patch of black lava near the lake. We were at the top of Gunung Batur, 1717 meters above the Indian Ocean looking down to the sea, looking across to Indonesia’s second highest volcano on the island of Lombok, nearly 100 Km away and at the tallest volcano on Bali, 2567m high Gunung Agung. Mount Batur sits inside a huge caldera the remnants of a much larger volcano long ago blown to bits by earlier eruptions. That volcano must have been very large because the caldera is roughly 15 Km in diameter and is ringed by what’s left of its jagged edges.

When the excitement of the sunrise was over we waited our turn for breakfast. No one had to carry gas up here to prepare our food, it was heated by steam from within the still active volcano. Our guide took us down a sharp bank to reveal the “cooker”, a pocket in the rock where egg and banana were placed and covered with rice straw. Steam rose readily from the earth. Soon we were served a soft-boiled egg and a steamed banana spread between two slices of bread. And a big mug of kopi Bali, the typical Balinese coffee prepared by steeping very finely ground coffee that leaves a heavy layer of sludge at the bottom. We needed that.

Too soon we began the trek down taking a different path. We rapidly dropped a couple hundred feet down a path of loose lava gravel that filled our shoes and about wrecked our knees and ankles. An overlook gave us a closer view of the immense lava flow below. Farther down we sat to rest a bit before we came upon an active group of monkeys, another steam vent and a bat cave. Down some more. Down still more. As we re-entered the forest we took a rest; we had more to go but were pretty happy we had made it. Eric and I posed for a picture congratulating ourselves for his having been the youngest at six and I at 12 times that being the oldest to climb the volcano that particular day.

Our hike ended. We were all tired but elated at the overall experience. All we needed now was some gasoline to get the Suzuki APV up the torturously steep road out of the caldera. There are no gas stations down in the bowl but gas is sold in small quantities, usually 2L soda bottles for the ubiquitous motorbikes, at most of the small shops in the area. Our hotel arranged delivery of 10 liters of “premium”; it arrived by motorbike in two much used plastic jugs along with a funnel. This kind of delivery is normal.

Up on the rim we had a delicious Balinese meal in a place overlooking the splendor we had just experienced. I’m glad I’m not too old for this.

 

 

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Bali International School

I guess it’s only right that I should devote a bit of time to Bali International School (www.baliinternationalschool.com) since it is the reason we are here. In February, Stephen received a rather urgent request to replace a teacher here who had broken contract before the ending of the year and her credentials fit nearly perfectly. She is currently teaching 11th and 12th grade chemistry and biology and 10th grade general science; try and find someone to do that on short notice!

The school was founded in 1985 to serve expatriate children and now numbers about 300 students from pre-school through grade 12. The students are from many countries, principally Europe, North America and Australia; many are from marriages of mixed nationalities such as Japanese-British. The faculty as well come from all over the globe so the students get to hear a variety of English accents; most of these students are skilled English speakers which is different from the other places we have been.

This school like most international schools fills a need for quality education that is recognized worldwide. It, like most, belongs to an international accrediting group and like many uses the International Baccalaureate (www.ibo.org) program to give its graduates global standing. This is particularly important in parts of the world where educational standards may be poor or difficult to assess. Students must meet certain academic qualifications to enroll and of course they need quite a bit of money. For the most part the students are hard working and capable and since it is a private school it is rather free of the myriad problems besetting public schools at home; it’s a great place to teach.

The campus, in a quiet residential neighborhood of Sanur, was created by combining several properties and their villas and a variety of building types and styles. Its well tended tropical grounds and air conditioned classrooms make for a pleasant learning environment and it has what is needed to provide a quality education, including a library, auditorium, music rooms, playing fields, a swimming pool and so forth. Each student has a computer so can find plenty of resources online but effort is made in all fields for hands-on learning as well. We got to see an exhibit of student art work last week and it was impressive. One student had created a series of endangered Indonesian animals using waste plastic and packaging materials, another had created a collage titled “war is terrorism with a bigger budget”; these same students are enrolled in higher level IB courses.

We have gotten splendid support from the school. They pay all our travel expenses, provide housing, sent us to Singapore to renew our visas and even put us up in a hotel in Ubud for one weekend when our permanent lodging wasn’t ready. Staff at schools such as this are usually paid pretty well by teaching standards with transport, moving in and relocation costs, health care and other benefits covered. Career international teachers move from place to place every two years or so and therefore need to plan carefully to be prepared for retirement; US teachers don’t pay taxes and do not participate in Social Security. Of course, for us it has been a post-retirement adventure and overall has allowed us to travel to all sorts of places. Some such as Jordan, Egypt and Israel and Hungary and Spain from the relative closeness of Turkey, and Peru, Colombia, Cuba and Chile from the closeness of Ecuador. We went to Italy from Azerbaijan just to escape a bit; we went to Georgia and saw decrepitude worse than Havana. Best of all though is living in a place for a time to get to know it not as a tourist but with a deeper familiarity, its people, places, history and food. Turkey, Ecuador and even Azerbaijan were that way. You could go back to places or spend more time there than if you were on a fixed itinerary. How many times did we go to Cappadocia or visit the Grand Bazaar. How many times did we travel the backbone of the Andes or sink down to the coast on those never-ending descents from 11,000 feet to sea level. Here it’s rice paddies, in Turkey it was apricots, figs and wheat, in Ecuador it was bananas. All of them have volcanoes. The world is a fascinating place and international teaching has been a great door for us.

Well, I guess I didn’t say that much about BIS, did I.

Tenganan

Our motorbike excursion took us to Candidasa, a beach resort town along the coast north and east of Sanur. We spent a couple of relaxing days here at a villa situated on the beach and surrounded with tropical plantings including numerous coconut palms.

Our main reason for choosing this location was to go to Tenganan, one of Bali’s oldest villages and a place of deep traditions predating the arrival of Hindu and other religions. The trip to the village climbed up through lush tropical forests. The village, carefully arranged according to plans revealed by their creator, consists of two parallel streets facing the ocean to the south and Mount Agung, Bali’s tallest volcano, to the north. Private homes and places of worship are set to the edges and a long central area between the two streets provides common places for meetings and markets. No vehicles are permitted inside the walled village so it is quiet and peaceful. The social structure is very rigid forbidding mixing with other Balinese and steeped in ceremony and a highly organized form of governance. Tourists have only recently been permitted to enter and only a few were around when we were there. We got our first close look at caged roosters that were held in bamboo cages outside of many homes. These birds are used throughout Bali in cock fights and are prized possessions as part of a rich male culture of gambling.

We came in search of ikat weaving. Ikat is a specific type of weaving in which threads, warp (the threads that run the length of a fabric) or sometimes weft (threads that go across the fabric) are dyed according to a desired pattern before weaving begins. The pattern is conceived and then bundles of thread are wrapped according to the pattern so that they resist color when dyed. If several colors are used, then several tying and untyings must take place to develop the various colors in the pattern. Once this dyeing is completed the loom can be warped and weaving begins, often on a simple backstrap loom. Ikat is believed to have originated in Indonesia but developed independently in Central and South America as well as in Japan, India and Uzbekistan. While it is often done using silk, wool or cotton, the ikat of Tenganan is done exclusively with locally produced hand spun cotton. The dyes in the best work are derived from natural materials; the dyeing process may take weeks or months.

While no ikat weaving is easy, warp ikat is simpler than weft ikat because it is possible to see the pattern emerge as the loom is threaded and care can be taken at this time to properly align threads. With weft ikat the loom is threaded with plain threads and the pattern develops as weaving progresses; this requires much closer attention to get the alignment right one thread at a time.

What makes Tenganan unique is its double ikat. In addition to this small village, there are only two other places on earth where double ikat is practiced, in Japan and India. Here both warp and weft fibers are resist dyed so the pattern must be conceived in both directions before weaving and all elements of the weft must align with those of the warp in order to get a clear design. From creating the cotton thread, to tying, then dyeing the fibers and finally weaving the fabric may take most of a year. The product is considered to have mystical powers.

We didn’t delude ourselves, as textile junkies we knew we were going to buy a piece and we knew the price would be high. It was.