Besides its enchanting nature and beaches, Bali has always been known to enthrall people with its unique culture and aesthetic traditions. The first time I visited Bali was in 2010 and at that point too, I was quite taken in by this aspect of Bali. I just returned from my 2nd visit to Bali , a trip organized by Skyscanner and again, I was completely mesmerized by the simple rituals and traditions of the Balinese Culture. I took a plunge into discovering more about these traditions while I was there. What struck me amazing was that most of their culture was so much similar to Indian customs and traditions.
Let me start my series on Indonesia with this my first post that takes you through 5 examples of the Balinese Culture that are just evident as you walk down their streets. Beginning with a quick introduction to Bali –
Background of Bali
Bali is actually a province or a small island of Indonesia. Unlike the rest of Indonesia, it is primarily occupied by the Hindus. The Balinese Hindus are said to possibly, have come from India – where some South Indians reached the coast and settled here. Some say that people gradually converted to Hinduism after their royalty welcomed the religion and embraced it. Either ways this explains the similarity that I seemed to find across Bali. Here are 5 of my experiences of the Balinese Culture that made Bali so endearing to me.
Galungan and Kuningan Festival
The first thing I noticed was these huge bamboo poles that were erected on every corner, every gate and every building across Bali. They are known as Penjor and are put up on occasion of their big festival called Galungan, which apparently had just got over. The fascinating thing that came up was this was a 9 day festival that celebrated the victory of good over evil. For those of you who are familiar with the Indian festival, you might be able to spot a similarity immediately. For those who are not, this festival was akin to the Dussehra festival that is celebrated in India over 9 days, with the same purpose – celebration of good over evil.
Interestingly the two festivals fall around the same time of the year. Galungan had just got over in early September while in India, we are now celebrating Dussehra . Quite like the tale of Lord Ram getting his victory over the demon Ravana, Galungan festival is celebrated as Lord Indra gained victory over the evil king Mayadenawa.
The end of Galungan Festival is celebrated as Kuningan. It is believed by the Balinese that during Galungan, the spirits of their ancestors visit their abode and hence, they must be entertained and kept happy during those 9 days that they visit. At the end of 9 days, when they are ready to return, yellow rice known as Kuning is prepared and hence, this day is referred to as Kuningan Festival. This entire celebration repeats itself after 210 days and hence, twice a year, you can experience these in Bali.
The Penjor added to the festive look of Bali and were a sign of the enthusiasm and vigor with which this festival is celebrated. The Bamboo poles are creatively decorated and usually have the harvest that the Balinese produced, tied at their top end. Penjor are kept in the town till they dry and fall off themselves. After which, a truck goes into every street collecting the remains and cleans them away. Since, I visited Bali just a few days after this festival had concluded, I was treated to the sights of these Penjors, merrily swaying in the winds, whispering their tales of the culture of Bali to me.
Canang Sari – A daily ritual in the Balinese culture
Everywhere you go, you are bound to find this lovely arrangement kept at the entrances of shops and corners of streets and even, beaches. This is called the Canang Sari (pronounced as Cha-nang). This is a daily ritual followed by the people in Bali. The Canang Sari is an offering of flowers, food and a few other things that is offered to the Gods and ancestors every day It is a way of Thanking them for the blessings that they have in their life. The Gods to whom these are dedicated to including the famed Indian Trimurti – Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma.
As for the ancestors, food , money and sometimes cigarettes are kept in the Canang. 😉
The manner in which these are arranged has a particular meaning. Each color of the flower signifies a particular deity and the position of the same is fixed in the Canang.
Another similarity that struck me was the dedication to the ancestors. While in India, we do not do it every day but there are some occasions in every region of India that are meant for a similar purpose. Interesting isn’t it?
Shrines and Temples
Walking along the streets of Bali, I came across these small shrines. Further on, there were a few houses that seem to have a full-fledged temple. Curious to know more, I was put in touch with a local Balinese lady – Risya by my Skyscanner team. Special thanks to her for her patience in explaining more about these to me.
The smaller shrines as you can see in the picture above are a part of Balinese architecture. They are called as Pelinggih and are shrines dedicated to the Gods and their ancestors. The Balinese worship three main deities – all of whom are known as Trimurti – both in India and Bali. These deities are Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma. Quite like the Hindus of India, the Balinese also, dedicate some of their shrines and temples to other Gods like the Sun God or Lord Surya. The Pelinggih are used for their daily prayers and generally, face the North East direction. The people in Bali worship these Pelinggih every day and offer Canang during the same here.
Similar to India, Bali Hindu system is also, divided into castes. The Pelinggih belonging to the lower caste families is called as Sanggah and the ones in the higher caste families is called Meranjan. As I understood from Risya, some homes have multiple Pelinggihs in their fold and these form a compound temple.
Interestingly, after she explained to me, I shared a picture of a home that I had found during my walk with two tigers guarding its gates. Turns out, that was the home of her uncle and the pictures that I had taken were of his compound temple. What can I say – the world is a small place alright!!!!
The presence of my favorite God – Ganesha
Lord Ganesha – or for those who are not familiar with him, he is the God with a head of an elephant. Extremely popular in India, he has a whole festival dedicated to himself and marks the tidings of a Good beginning. He is one of my favorites – for his tales of mischief and fascinating mythological stories. Finding him in Bali was quite exciting. He is a part of every Hindu home here as he is considered to be the Lord of knowledge and wisdom.
You will find a lot of his idols carved and sold as Balinese memorabilia. Fancy one?
The Balinese Dances
Right in the beginning I mentioned that the Balinese are known for their sense of art and creativity. Dance and music are an essential part of their culture. No celebration here is complete without it. I had the fortune of witnessing three interesting dance forms – the Pendet Dance, the Barong Dance and the Kechak Dance. Take a glimpse of the first two through this short video.
Each of them were unique in their own way but the one thing that was common among them all was the art of storytelling. The Pendet Dance was more of a welcoming dance while the Barong Dance told a story of a demon. The Kecak dance was dedicated to the mythological tales of Ramayana and performed certain incidents from the mythological tale. Quite like the Indian classical dance forms, the Balinese dances were characterized by standard hand movements (mudras we call in India), footwork and facial expressions. The use of their traditional musical instruments is quite predominant in these forms. Take a look at the live coverage of the same here. (Note: Please excuse the quality of the video – I was attempting Facebook Live for the first time :-))
Kecak Dance as shared live on Facebook.
The Barong dance with the demon like mask reminded me of the Kathakali dance that is typical of Kerala in India. Except that over here, he has a mask while in India, the face is painted to create a character.
The strange similarity between the Indian and Balinese cultures really had me intrigued and made my heart fonder. So much that I embraced a piece of their culture for a few moments. Needless to say, that I was quite comfortable with it. So much – that I blended right into it 😉
Let me know if you are equally fascinated with my discoveries of the Balinese culture. Do you also, find yourself getting immersed in cultures and comparing them to your own? Does that increase your fascination for a place? Have you ever been to Bali yourself and noticed these customs? If not, maybe you should head to Bali yourself and try spotting all that I have talked about in this post.
Getting to Bali:
- Denpasar is the official international airport in Bali. There are several flights to Bali from across the world. Singapore and Malaysia are the two places that have the highest frequency of direct flights. Skyscanner can help you with various options of for your flights.
- For most countries, you can get a Visa on Arrival at the Denpasar airport. All you need is your return ticket. You can check your eligibility for this on this website. The same is not charged for.
Travel Tips for Bali:
- Bali is good throughout the year. Just remember that being in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are reversed.
- Once in Bali, you can choose to stay at Kuta, Seminyak or Nusa Dua. Semiyak is slightly more expensive than Kuta but a little more quieter.
- You can get several of these cultural experiences as you walk down the streets of Kuta and Semiyak. For the dances and other performances, I will be sharing another post shortly.
- Please respect the culture of Bali – do not tread or step over the Canang. Do not attempt to touch the temples or the shrines.