Introducing the land of the Gods Bali
Posted on : 14 December 2012
Categories : Culture and Heritage
So there I was on my second day in Bali: stuck in traffic again. The island forms a bottleneck just between Denpasar and the airport. Motor bikes are beeping, cars are jammed. There has to be more to this place, right?
Of course there is. This is Bali. It’s not a world-famous tourism destination for bad traffic! So what is it about Bali? I wanted to dig a little deeper and see why this “land of the Gods” is so special.
In a mere couple decades, Bali has grown from a traveler backwater to being internationally celebrated. It was happening long before Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.Is it just the beaches and beautiful weather? Why do so many around the world know “Bali” even before “Indonesia”?
Bali is extraordinary: a Hindu island within a majority Muslim nation (the most populous on earth, in fact, is Indonesia). It is an island so synonymous with tourism, that it's hard to think of Bali without the word holiday. But there is much more to it than great surfing and a driving economy catering to a foreign clientele.
The population of Bali
Three million people live on this island of Bali. The majority are packed into the southern portion.
The Indonesian archipelago is a volcanic one and volcanic ash is what keeps the soil fertile enough to support such a dense population. 96% of the population is Hindi. In fact, all of Indonesia used to be Hindi, then Buddhist, and only in the past few hundred years has it converted to Islam. Bali just never changed.
Why do I keep bringing up the fact that the Balinese are Hindi? Because it’s so ingrained into their culture and psyche that I can’t not stress it. It’s more than a religion. It permeates every aspect of their society.
“Bali is a still a place with rich traditions and culture.” Our guide tells us soon after picking us up from the airport.
That’s what I was curious about. The casual tourist to Bali wouldn’t be able to tell this. It takes a little bit of effort to get beyond the tourist crush of Kuta Beach and the foreign restaurants of Seminyak. If your entire holiday remained in that sphere, Bali would resemble almost any other resort town in the world.
After the arrival of mass tourism is the island still as traditional as it once was? How exactly are the Balinese keeping their culture? And what does it mean to be Balinese?
Characteristics of the Balinese
Our tour is a slender man with a big smile. He wears a Balinese Udeng—a typical hat of many styles and colors that men wear. When praying, they switch to a white one.
There are said to be over 30,000 temples in Bali because nearly every family has one within the grounds of their compound. Every day three offerings are set out. They usually include rice, flowers, and incense inside a little banana leaf plate.
Ceremonies and festivals are also central to the Balinese culture. The cremation ceremony lasts for three days. A Balinese person wouldn’t think twice about heading off to work during one of these ceremonies or any other of their holidays, while a Javanese might be inclined to work more to boost his or her income.
A Balinese highly values these holidays, ceremonies, and festivals. During ceremonies, men wear a sarong. For everyday use, they wear a sarong over pants.
As for language, the Balinese speak their own language and when children speak to adults they use formal language and do not look directly at adults
The cuisine of Bali is similar to that of the rest of Indonesia except that they eat suckling pig.
As tourism grows, rice paddies get swallowed up in favor of hotels and roads get widened to accommodate the growing number of scooters, taxis, and shuttle vans. But this is mostly taking place in and around Denpasar, and the resorts of the south.
Meanwhile, the rest of the island remains waiting to be explored. Most visitors escape the beaches by heading to Ubud. Ubud is a center of spirituality and healing, but you wouldn’t know it if you didn’t look.
And yes, there is peace and quiet in Ubud, and it’s as simple as going beyond the main street.
Bali from a foreigner's Perspective
We met an expat who has been living in Ubud for the past seven years. He reinforced the fact that Hinduism is ingrained into the Balinese psyche. He told me that Bali is a center of energy, both positive and negative, and that it took him a long time to see these subtleties.
"Bali slowly reveals itself" he warned me. A lot of the beautiful spots are hidden. Many of the houses have views over the greenest of rice paddies, but you don’t necessarily catch these views from the street.
Ubud is also a center of wise men, or medicine men, or however you want to describe them. When I ask about the famous Ketut from Eat, Pray, Love, he more or less laughed and told me that “there are at least four good other wise men here, ones who really can read people.”
Ubud is definitely a place that needs to be explored more in depth. It also seems like a good place to linger for an extended time. I think I’ll be coming back to Bali.