Bali was called “the morning of the world” by Nehru and is still “the island of the gods” to the Balinese. With its colorful temple ceremonies and sacred mountains, its cascading rice fields and tropical beaches, its rich traditions of music, dance and theatre, and the hospitality of the islanders, it is a destination with a difference.
Renowned since the 1920s as an island paradise, the strength with which the Balinese still hold this ideal is a principal reason for the island’s cultural integrity. Though 1930s writers mourned the soon-to-be demise of the island’s rich traditions as a result of tourism, almost everything then written about – ceremonies, religion, lifestyle, generosity, humor and hospitality – can still be seen in Bali today.
It is true that “the real Bali” has become harder to find, but it is seldom far away. A walk in the rice fields is a good way to start. The island’s culture, religious roots and oldest social institutions are all devoted to the cultivation of rice. Another good way to connect with Bali is to stay at accommodations that show sensitivity to cultural integrity, where staff have time to sit and talk about their culture and way of life, and may invite you to their community ceremonies.
Ubud is regarded as the cultural center of the island and is where a journey into the heart of Bali can begin. Half a dozen troupes perform traditional dance and gamelan music every night to world-class standards. Temple ceremonies, weddings and cremations are lavish public spectacles. Surrounding villages specialize in the cultural arts. There are several schools of painting, woodcarving and stone sculpting.
As a base it affords access to the highlands, from the rain forests on the slopes of Mount Batukaru, to the volcanic rawness of the Mount Batur caldera, and Bali’s central temple complex on Mount Agung. Besides its cultural grandeur Ubud boasts an elevation that takes the sting out the seaside heat while avoiding the rains of even slightly higher altitudes.
As a destination it serves world-class food in a wide variety of local and international restaurants. Where the seaside resorts of the island’s south coast are just getting going by 10 pm, Ubud has already gone to bed.
Relax, restore and renew have become the modern mantras, be this through reading by the pool, walking through the countryside and villages, or enjoying the affordable luxury of Ubud’s spas and massage. A growing center for the study of yoga, there are classes available for all interests and levels.
Bali is one of Indonesia’s 17,500 islands and with nearly 4 million inhabitants is home to less than 2% of the nation’s 240 million population. 97% of Balinese are Hindu, though the islanders’ practices are scarcely recognizable as having come from India. Syncretic to a high degree with ancient animism and ancestor worship, and with a firm Buddhist foundation, Bali’s Hindu practices were referred to as the “religion of holy water” until early last century. Rituals are divided into five categories: ceremonies for the gods, held in temples; life transition ceremonies including babies’ rites, tooth filings after puberty, and weddings; animistic ceremonies for the earth spirits; death rites and the ceremonies that lead to the deification of the deceased; and the initiatory rituals for priests.
Auspicious days for these ceremonies are determined using Bali’s complex 210-day calendar and an ancient Indian solar-lunar calendar. There is always a ritual going on somewhere and each rite is always both the completion of a previous ceremony and the preparation for some future one. Among several overarching philosophies, the two that most help the visitor understand Bali are the ideas of Tri Hitha Karana – the obligation upon all Balinese to maintain harmonious relations with each other, with the natural world and with the gods – and Rwa Bhineda – the dualities around which the world is balanced, including good and bad, dark and light, seen and unseen. This last, called Sekala Niskala, describes the Balinese experience of a spirit reality behind everything in the physical world.
Traditional culture in Bali functions on two calendar systems. The first is a 210-day cycle determined by the intercalation of a 2-day week, a 3-day week, a 5-day week and a 7-day week (2 x 3 x 5 x 7 = 210). This system, called the Wuku calendar, is of Javanese origin. The second is the solar-lunar Saka system from India that runs 78 years behind the Gregorian calendar we are used to. (2012 in the Gregorian calendar is 1934 in the Saka calendar. The Wuku calendar produces auspicious and inauspicious days at frequent intervals. For example, every fifth Saturday (5 x 7 days) is dedicated to a different celebration, including the honoring of farm animals, productive plants, shadow puppets, and metal tools (which now includes cars). Every fifteen days (3 x 5) is considered inauspicious and is dedicated to the earth spirits with extra offerings placed on the ground. The majority of temple ceremonies are determined by the Wuku calendar, occurring once in every cycle, or approximately every 7 months.
The ten days between Galungan and Kuningan (from the Wednesday of the 11th seven-day week to the Saturday of the 12th seven-day week) is a time when the ancestors are honored in every household’s family temple and sees the whole island decked in color. Every front gate is marked by an arching decorated bamboo pole that represents one of the mythological serpents wrapped around the foundations of the world. Many temples have their festivals in the weeks immediately after Galungan, so this is always a good time to be in Bali. New moon and full moons are considered powerful, although because they are calculated numerically, the calendar is sometimes a day out of sync with the actual full or new moon. Families always make offerings at the village temples for the full and new moon, and major temple ceremonies are often celebrated on a full or new moon on the Saka calendar.
The Balinese new year, called Nyepi, is a date on the Saka calendar, and is the day after one of the new moons on either side of the northern hemisphere’s spring equinox. The Saka calendar coming from India, this is a celebration from a northern semi-tropical climate, where seasonality mattered and the spring equinox marked the start of the agricultural year. The Balinese celebration is marked by an island wide exorcism and a raucous procession of demonic effigies through the center of a village on the night beforeNyepi, and then a day of complete silence for Nyepi itself, so that the banished spirits are not tempted to come back. The airport is closed, as are all roads. You are fined if caught out on the street, and in its purest application, no lights are turned on, no cooking is done, and there is no TV or radio. It is only when everything stops that you realize what peace and quiet really mean.
Massage in Bali has come a long way from the village traditions of deep massage to heal the muscular aches of rice farmers. While this work can still be found, it has been augmented from traditions around the world, creating a cosmopolitan style that relaxes, rejuvenates and renews, with whatever level of associated pampering you may desire.
( http://www.spahatibali.com )
The day spa closest to Umajati, Spa Hati is the commercial enterprise of the Bali Hati Foundation, which runs educational and health related programs for disadvantaged Balinese. A massage at Spa Hati makes you feel good in body and soul.
Maya Ubud Spa
( http://mayaubud.com/spa-maya/spa-maya )
Also on the same side of Ubud as Umajati, the spa at the Maya Ubud hotel offers a full sensory experience, with great massage offered in pavilions by a rushing river in a deep, forested gorge.
Ubud is one the world’s premier yoga vacation destinations. The combination of the Hindu Balinese culture, a warm tropical climate and a beautiful landscape make this an attractive and rewarding place to practice and study. A number of very competent schools with well-trained teachers have been opened, and classes may be found in numerous traditions now familiar in the West.
The Yoga Barn
( http://www.theyogabarn.com )
On the southern edge of Ubud, the Yoga Barn offers classes in a variety of traditions starting 7.00 am to 7.30 pm. The Yoga Barn and the related Kafe restaurant have become the hubs of Ubud’s yoga scene, and are the place to start when looking for classes.
( http://www.intuitiveflow.com )
This small studio on the west of Ubud, in Penestanan, offers classes inspired by the teacher’s studies with a local Balinese healer that communicate a genuine local healing tradition. Most of the daily classes are 9.00 to 11.00 am and 5.30 to 7.00 pm.
A Little Bit One O’Clock: Living with a Balinese Family
by Umajati owner William Ingram
An honest, heart-warming portrait of a Balinese family, and an exploration of the web of relationships that ties the family members to each other, their community, and their ancestors. Ingram’s book affirms some of our notions of Bali as a paradise, dispels others, and reveals a resilient people who forgive life its tragedies and celebrate its gifts. 240 pages. Ersania Books, Ubud (1998)
The Painted Alphabet: A Novel based on a Balinese Tale
by Diana Darling
Magic, depravity, spiritual ambition, sensuality, and love. The Painted Alphabet binds mythic and modern time together in a rich, slyly suggestive novel based on an old Balinese epic poem. In a fresh and startling picture of Bali – where witches coexist with tourists and talking animals – the novel explores a kaleidoscope of vanity, desire, and the longing for goodness. 209 pages. Periplus, Singapore (2002)
Island of Bali
by Miguel Covarrubias
Written in the 1930s by a Mexican painter living in Bali, this is the classic explication of the culture and lifestyle of the Balinese. Very readable and beautifully illustrated, most of what Covarrubias describes can still be found in Bali today, proving unfounded his fears that tourism would soon be the death of the island’s culture. 532 pages. Hesperides Press (2008)
Bali: Sekala & Niskala, Volumes I and II
by Fred B. Eiseman, Jr.
In Bali, what you see – sekala – is a colorful world of ceremony, ritual, dance, and drama. What you don’t see, what is occult – niskala – is the doctrine underlying the pageants, the code underlying the rites, and the magic underlying the dance.
Volume I: Essays on Religion, Ritual, and Art – Explores both tangibles and intangibles in the realm of Balinese religion, ritual, and performing arts. 368 pages. Periplus, Berkeley (1989)
Volume II: Essays on Society, Tradition, and Craft – Explores the tangibles and intangibles of Balinese geography, social organization, language, folklore, material culture. 383 pgs. Periplus, Berkely (1990)
Balinese Dance, Drama & Music: A Guide to the Performing Arts of Bali [Paperback]
by I Wayan Dibia and Rucina Ballinger
This book is for anyone who wants to know more about the music, dance and puppetry performances that can be seen nightly in and around Ubud, or at temple ceremonies anywhere on the island. Written by the island’s principle Balinese and English-speaking authorities on the performing arts, the book maintains an engaging style that shows the authors know their subject matter with the intimacy of the seasoned performers they both are. 112 pages. Tuttle Publishing (2011)