Bali is literally saturated with culture. Everywhere you will find temples and everywhere in the streets you will find the typical small offering baskets. Not a day goes by without somewhere a ceremony (upacara) being held. However, the Balinese version of Hinduism also still has animistic elements.
A little over 3 million people live in Bali of which most live in the coastal areas in the south. The vast majority of the Balinese is Hindu but the number of Muslims steadily increases because of immigrants from Java, Lombok and other parts of Indonesia looking for work.
The largest part of the people living in Bali are ethnic Balinese who’s ancestors live on the Island for centuries. Although the Balinese are Hindu their version of Hindu is far different from the one practiced in India. In the past the Balinese combined Hinduism with the animistic religion of their forefathers. Particular the rituals and the dramatic arts were adopted from the Hinduism, there’s less emphasis on the mystic and philosophical aspects of this religion.
Religion is of high importance in all facets of life, the Balinese are in fact bound to all kinds of rituals and ceremonies from birth till death. His or her role in the community is of great importance during life. The Balinese live in a strong collective community, every village or desa is divided in banjars to which every wedded villager belongs. The banjars are responsible for festivals, wedding ceremonies, cremations and resolving issues in the community.
Someone owning a rice field has to be a member of Subak, a town government that divides the water over the fields, repares the dams and gathers once a month in the temple. The Subak is also responsible for the offering and harvest festivals.
The majority of the Balinese population is Hindu, behind India Bali has the highest concentration of Hindu followers. In the past centuries the Balinese have mixed Hindu and Buddhistic elements from India with existing indigenous religious customs. That’s why the Balinese variant of Hinduism puts more emphasis on the earth and animism.
This variation of the Hindu religion is on certain areas a lot less strict than the variant from India. The caste system is treated a little bit less strict, mariage regulations are more liberal and the higher studies of Brahmanen are somewhat of a mystery for most. The Balinese put more emphasis on frequent ceremonies and rituals, visual behavior is more important than the fine print of Hinduism.
The different gods of Hinduism in Bali are just a manifestation of a supreme being, the God Sanghyang Widhi. For Balinese the most important is the manifestation of the holy trinity: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the protector and Shiva the destroyer.
After that the closely to nature related protecting spirits are of high importance. They have the power to create wind, rice and water. Shiva is the manifestation that is worshipped the most by Balinese because they feel his power the most when ill or suffering.
The Balinese also think it’s important to first honor the Gods that can destroy you which is the reason Vishnu is honored regularly since he has the power to decide over the harvest of rice fields, whether they’re successful or fail. When you look at the underlying levels of Balinese Hinduism you will find the animistic elements.
Dualistic thinking is typical for animism, the world is divided in good and evil. The good mountain is contrasted with the evil water which is the reason that the mother temple Pura Besakih is located on the slopes of the Gunung Agung.
The Balinese strongly believe everything has a soul, not only living beings but also objects like a motor or a book, which is why there are ceremonies dedicated to motors. The body is the barrier between the inner and the outside world. In the outside world there are spirits, monsters but also practitioners of black magic who are out to hurt other people. To protect yourself you need to exercise certain ceremonies and rituals. Since their independence since 1945 the Balinese have become more self-aware of their religion and they’ve enforced their religious organisations.
This has resulted in the implementation of the Satya Hindu Dharma in 1956 and the Parisada Hindu Dharma Bali in 1959. After the communistic massacre in 1966-1967 the Bali Hinduism had been recognized by the government as one of the official state religions in Indonesia. This recognition for the Balinese also means a recognition of the Balinese identity and way of life.
One of the many rituals the Balinese daily spend a lot of time on is offering, offerings in any imaginable shape, color and substance for the gods, forefathers and demons in the Balinese world.
These offerings are first meant as a gift, to show gratitude to benevolent spirits and to spawn evil demons so they won’t disturb the harmony of life. A fairly complicated system determines the dates for the many kinds of offerings.
Simple offerings are done daily and more labor intensive offerings are made especially for certain rituals. Certain offerings require a ritual, spiritual and physical purification and can only be executed by a priest. The still popular but forbidden cockfights were originally blood offerings that a village had to make in order to purify themselves from bad influences.
Because the offerings are gifts to higher beings much attention is given to them even when it’s just about small offerings. Besides the occasional sustainable goods like money, clothes and sometimes a wooden mask, most of the time it’s organic materials that are offered. The rule is that an offering can only be offered onze to the Gods and thus needs to be produced over and over again. Different offerings are required for different rituals and there are hundreds of variations depending on the region or village. From a symbolical perspective it’s about giving back the elements that make life on earth possible to the original creator.
That symbolism can also be seen in the decorative motifs and shapes that visualize or represent the Balines universe. In that certain colors refer to the holy trinity of Brahma, Wisnu and Shiva.
Just like in India the Balinese believe in reincarnation. In Bali-Hinduism one believes that a person after death will return as human being again. This opposite to India where one believes that a person can return as a person, plant or animal depending on how the person lived his or her life. To guarantee the reincarnation it’s of vital importance that a person is cremated in order to separate the soul from the body.
The cremation is the most complex Balinese ritual which takes days to be completed. Not only the body is being burned but also a large number of valuable ritual items especially made for the occasion. A cremation is a costly and long process and it can take months or even years before the actual cremation takes place. Rich or important people are embalmed while the poor are wrapped in swaddling clothes and temporary buried.
The less fortunate on Bali, meaning the poor people, have to wait with cremating the dead until they saved up enough money or a mass cremation is held. Once a date is picked a whole team of ritual expert, artists, priests, family, friends and neighbors will participate in carrying out the many offerings and rituals.
On the day of the cremation the body is carried in a colorful tower of bamboo, wood and paper. The hight of the tower is directly related to the status and wealth of the deceased, depending on their status the towers can be up to 30 meters high.
A white cloth hangs from the tower to down where it’s held by the family to symbolise the connection they had with the deceased. On the way to the place where the cremation will take place the tower is being rotated on every crossing to prevent the soul of the deceased reentering the body.
At the end point the body is put in a wooden sarcophagus after which the sarcophagus and the tower are burned separately. During the whole ceremony not one tear will be shed because that would make it difficult for the soul to leave. A few days after the cremation purification rituals and offerings are done to come to a final closure.
Dance and theatre are part of the many rituals and ceremonies that are typical for Bali. Through dance and drama the Balinese not only provide more insight in their religion but also in the cultural aspects of their daily life. The Balinese use dance and drama to express their dedication to the gods.
After the Majapahit warriors subdued Bali in the 14th century, Javanese mini-principalities and courts soon appeared everywhere, creating that unique blend of court and peasant culture, which is Bali – highly sophisticated, dynamic and lively. The accompanying narrative for dance and drama is to a large extent based on court stories from pre-Majapahit Java. Even the Indian epics, another favorite of the stage, especially the wayang, use Javanese, complete with long quotes from the ancient Javanese Kakawin poetry So Javanese culture, which disappeared from Java following Islamization in the l6th century, still survived in Bali in a “Balinese form”, which became classical Balinese culture.
However, colonization brought about the fall of classical Bali. With the rural courts defeated and with new lords of the land, the centre of creativity shifted to village associations, and to the development of tourism. The 30′s and 50′s were particularly fertile decades; while the old narrative led theater survived, lively solo dances appeared everywhere, accompanied by a new, dynamic kind of music called gong kebyar. This trend continued in the 60′s and 70′s with the creation of colossal sendratari ballets, representing ancient Indian and Javanese stories adapted to the needs of modern audiences.
The most important aspect of a dancer is getting divine inspiration. Many Balinese dances are inspired by the famous Ramayana tale.
Dances like the Rejang and Baris Gede in which no use is made of dramatic elements are part of the Wali dances and considered the most holy form. The ceremonial dances that are performed in the center square part of the temple are mostly based in Hindu-Javanese eposes are part of the Bebali dances. The Gambuh and Wayang Wond are part of this group of dances.
The secular dances that are performed on the outer square outside of the holy area of the temple are part of the Balih-Balih dances. A number of classic and modern dance forms like Kecak, Legong and Baris are part of this category. Somewhat unfortunate is that most dance shows on Bali are intended for tourists but still worth while watching.
For centuries Wayang theaters in Indonesia tell the epic tales from India such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata,Wayang Kulit is the only form performed in Bali. In Wayang Kulit leathers pupets are placed behind a white transparant screen which is backlit by an (coconut) oil lamp creating bizarre silhouettes. The puppets are controlled by the Dalang who’s the puppet master who has a big amount of tasks. Besides controlling the dolls the the Dalang sings, directs the orchestra and does the voices of the puppets.
In a traditional show the Dalang has to do this 9 hours straight in a lotus position. Flexibility and an excellent stamina are requisites for the Dalang. For tourists there are shorter performances of around 2 hours length. In an average show the Dalang uses 30 to 60 puppets and he is able of controller 7 to 8 puppets simultaneous.
The Wayang Kulit shows are performed during many temple ceremonies and at transition ceremonies in family houses or on their land. The performances are not solely for entertainment but also have the purpose to exorcise demons and evil spirits.
Gamelan is the most prominent element within the traditional Indonesian music and inseparable from rituals and ceremonies. The composition of a Gamelan orchestra can slightly vary but the organisation is based on certain instrument groups each with specific functions in the orchestra.
A Gamelan orchestra usually consists of bronze percussion instruments like drums, kulingtangs, gongs and xylophones. Besides that there are flutes, string instruments and sometimes singers. In Gamelan music it’s all about the harmony between the musicians leaving no room foor solos.
Gamelan is traditionally considered by the Indonesians as holy, it’s their believe that every instrument in a gamelan orchestra is inhabited by a spirit. The musician always needs to treat his instrument with care and respect.
Traditionally Gamelan is only played during certain occasions like ritual ceremonies, Wayang shows and for people highly placed in society. Gamelan also is performed during dance shows, temple rituals and village rituals.
The oldest Balines paintings date back to 1444 en 1458. Traditionally the art of painting was used to visualize religious and mythological stories. Old-Javanese and Balinese versions of the Ramayana and other folktales were very popular in royal family. The characters were visualized in the style of the Wayang. At the end of the 19th century painters started using more and more perspective in their work, the characters and their surroundings started to look more natural.
Because of the interaction with Western painters who came to live on Bali the Balinese style went through a transformation. The shades of grey commonly used in traditional paintings soon replaced by a lively use of color. In 1927 the German artist Walter Spies was the first of a number of influential Europeans who settled on Bali soon followed by more.
The local artist were heavily influenced/inspired by the paintings of the European painters who introduced landscapes and romantic portraits. In the 30′s three important art centers were founded in Ubud, Batuan and Sanur which became the platform for artists like Ida Bagus Kembeng, Anak Agung Gede Sobrat, Ida Bagus Rai en Ida bagus Made Togog.
After 1965 Bali was opened for tourists and many Balinese, Javanese, Sumatran and western artists settled in the area between Mas and Ubud. There was a lot of experimenting with many new styles. But in the work of many artists old folktales were still a reoccurring theme next to the daily life in Bali with all it’s rituals and dramatic plays.
For Batik liquid wax is applied to textile using a tjantik (waspen) or a tjap (stempel). When the cloth is immersed in a paint bath the paint will only attach to the parts which are not covered by wax. This process is repeated several times in order to get a colorful cloth. Batik is one of the cultural heritages dearly loved and still worn a lot by Indonesian people, every friday is Batik day and though not mandatory most people will wear Batik on fridays. Batik is not only used as clothing but also as decoration.
Initially the Balinese batik was inspired by the Javanese patterns and dominated by the characters from the Wayan mythology. In the modern batik the topics are a lot more varied and also executed in a contemporary way. Popular are the use of elements from nature such as birds and fish but also common events like cremations and tourist attractions. The religious and mythological topics are still used but mostly in a more modern interpretation. The Balinese use Batik to emphasize their cultural and religious identity but that actually goes for whole Indonesia.
By wearing certain kinds of batik one can reveal the subtle differences in age, gender, status and kasta. The Balinese use batik for people but also for decoration of buildings, altars, sanctuaries and statues.
Like the Javanese the Balinese have developed the arts of Batik to unprecedented heights. In doing so, the Balinese especially optimized the ikat and the double ikat technique in which thick-dyed threads are woven.
The ritual Balinese clothing consists of different types of textiles in different lengths and different ways the clothes are wrapped and knotted around the body.
Until the thirties the Balinese women were usually naked above the waist. Only during offerings in temples and festivities at the Royal court, the upper part of the body was covered. The traditional shoulder-free Batik for the upper body has in many parts of Bali already been replaced by the kebaya from Java.
Wood carving used to be primarily applied in the architecture of temples and palaces. Items produced for regular sale were only produced on a small scale. The woodcarvers were originally brahmans who only produced ritual objects or for the court. Their disciples learned the craft from them who then in their turn taught their children.
The traditional wayang form was often applied to depict religious scenes from the epic stories. The traditional applications resulted in detailed wooden demons and mythical beings that were used for decorating pilars, doorpanels, beams and shutters. They protect the buildings from evil forces. Starting in the 30′s a new style arose which is influenced by the German artist Walter Spies and the artist community Pita Maha.
The objects became more realistic, inspired by every day life. The ordinary people and animals that were carved would especially become popular amongst foreigners. After 1970 wood carving became very popular and on Bali the village Mas, close to Ubud, is known as the epic center of wood carving on Bali.