Bali's Traditional Culture

Original general placeholder image.png?ixlib=rails 0.3
Bali's Traditional Culture
Bali offers a cocktail of culture, art, dance, music, and a rich spiritual life that is as stirring and foreign to the Western mind as it is warm and inviting. The colorful processions, towering temple offerings, haunting music, and sounds of prayers in the night are intoxicating and will leave you yearning to stay forever.
By Adam Skolnick, AFAR Contributor
  • 1 / 7
    Original general placeholder image.png?ixlib=rails 0.3
    A Life Marked by Ritual
    The Balinese believe that, until several months after their birth, babies retain a sacred bond with the divine realm from which they've just arrived, and their feet should not touch the ground. After this time, in which the baby is treated like visiting royalty, a shaman performs a ceremony and the family prays to the spirits that have brought the baby to this threshold. Then they cut the child's hair, touch its feet to the ground, and officially give it a name. Later in life, the tooth-filing ceremony (potong gigi in Indonesian or mesangih or mepandes in Balinese) is a rite of passage for teenagers, one of several coming-of-age ceremonies. The filing down of the canine teeth is symbolic of the change from animal to human, and also represents the controlling of desire, greed, anger, strong emotion, confusion, and jealousy. These family-centric rites of passage continue through Balinese life, culminating for the Hindu community in a traditional cremation. Instead of tears, though, families come together to celebrate the life of the deceased and ensure a proper send-off. Mass cremations are especially unforgettable if you're lucky enough to witness one—you can discover if any are planned during your stay by respectfully asking your hotel staff or inquiring at an information booth.
  • 2 / 7
    Original open uri20160815 3469 bj8ohr?1471295690?ixlib=rails 0.3
    Herbal Healing
    Balinese culture has its roots in the Majapahit Kingdom of Java, which date back to the 13th century; Jamu, Java’s traditional health and beauty system, has blossomed on Indonesia’s last remaining Hindu island. Jamu balances hot and cold elements through a regimen of tonics made from indigenous plants. Some tonics induce sweat, others relieve stomach problems, and kunyit, or turmeric, is a popular daily tonic used by millions to detoxify the blood and stimulate healthy circulation. Even in modern Bali, this ancient art thrives since it’s often more affordable to consult with a Jamu healer than a medical doctor. Jamu tonics are available from herbalists and in some cafés throughout Ubud. The spas at hotels like Komaneka at Bisma and Bambu Indah use these traditional spices and herbs as ingredients in many of their healing treatments.
    Photo by Luca Invernizzi Tetto/age fotostock
  • 3 / 7
    Original open uri20160815 3469 13f3u4i?1471295694?ixlib=rails 0.3
    Ceremonies and Processions
    In the villages around Ubud, processions often materialize out of the fog and proceed onto temple grounds where there are altars piled with fruit and flower offerings to the Hindu trinity: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Temple ceremonies are a regular occurrence, taking place almost every dark and full moon and at numerous other times throughout the year. Although these ceremonies are sacred, they aren’t sanctimonious; dogs and children wander free and easy, even as a priest’s chants ring over the crowd. The only rule is to dress traditionally in sarong and sash. When it comes time to pray, everyone sits knee-to-knee, blossoms tucked between fingers as the priest wanders among the flock dousing all with water from a holy spring.
    Photo by age fotostock
  • 4 / 7
    Original open uri20160815 3469 gxvqld?1471295699?ixlib=rails 0.3
    The Mother Temple
    On the shoulders of Bali’s most sacred mountain is perched its "mother temple," Pura Besakih, a complex of 23 temples. Several times annually, pilgrims flock here from around the island to make offerings at the clan temples (each family is part of a clan represented here) and at the largest and most important temple, Pura Penataran Agung, which is tiered and built into the mountain’s slope. Make sure to climb to the impressive second courtyard, which is as far as tourists are usually allowed to go. When the sky is clear, you can see for miles down into the valley and out to sea. The complex is most alive during the frequent festivals, when thousands descend in ceremonial dress and flow throughout the temple grounds.
    Photo by Bertrand Rieger/age fotostock
  • 5 / 7
    Original general placeholder image.png?ixlib=rails 0.3
    Visits to Other Temples
    A meditative hike up a mountain provides the proper peace of mind in which to visit Pura Lempuyang Luhur, a temple at the top of Mount Lempuyang. If you start out early in the morning, you'll enjoy a cool breeze and a spectacular sunrise. Balinese people have taken ritual baths in the waters of Tirta Empul since it was founded in 962. The waters are believed to have healing powers, both physically and spiritually, so people come from all over the island to purify themselves under spouts of cool water in the long, stone pools. Follow a contemplative morning visit to Tanah Lot, a 16th-century temple set atop a rocky island near Denpasar, with a rousing ATV ride along the beach from Aussie Bali Adventures.
  • 6 / 7
    Original open uri20160815 3469 1ayf725?1471295705?ixlib=rails 0.3
    Traditional Arts and Crafts
    Countless workshops and galleries are stocked with the work of the Balinese people descended from the Majapahit Kingdom. Classical Balinese paintings include Langse, which feature floral and volcanic motifs. Scroll paintings are still found on temple eaves, and some painters specialize in calendars, which are used to govern Balinese spiritual life. Craftsmen shape jackfruit or belalu wood into wonderfully intricate doors and columns and into magnificent masks used in temple dances. Bali’s stone carvers shape Hindu gods, happy Buddhas, and modern figures out of limestone and paras, a gray volcanic stone. While admiring these works of art helps you understand the culture, you may want to bring some of these beautiful pieces home—local crafts are carried in many shops around Bali, both in high-end shops like Kim Soo Home and in more traditional outlets like Seminyak's Folkart Gallery and Batik Popiler, where you can take a class in creating the textile designs yourself and buy beautiful examples as souvenirs. A stop at the Kumbasari Market affords visitors a moment to walk among locals doing their shopping and selling their crafts, produce, and wares.
    Photo by Virginia Thackwell
  • 7 / 7
    Original open uri20160815 3469 m8tjaq?1471295710?ixlib=rails 0.3
    Dance of the Gods
    Dance, traditionally a sacred art on Bali, is still performed regularly in temples all over the island. Men wear masks to dance the Barong and embody the king of the spirits. Exquisitely adorned women, in gold leaf and silks, dance the Legong, a delicate rhythmic tradition involving precise footwork, intricate finger and head movements, and striking facial expressions. The Barong and Legong are presented as entertainment for tourists. The Kecak, or Ramayana monkey chant, famously filmed in the documentary classic Baraka, is also a tourist favorite, performed in a circle of more than 100 chanting men as other dancers perform the story of the Ramayana. For a more secular example of these traditional dances, spend an evening in Nusa Dua at the entertaining Devdan Show, a 90-minute spectacular that incorporates Balinese dance and history (and as a bonus, traditional gamelan music) alongside hip-hop dance and circus arts.
    Photo by Jashim Salam/age fotostock