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" The three most important features in all of Bali's history . . . were -

*  the development of irrigated rice agriculture,

*  the adoption of Indian religion and culture,

*  the growth of tourism.

But of these three it is the Hindu religion, in its distinctive local variant, which
famously (and clearly) defines Bali today."

Robert Pringle, A Short History of Bali - Indonesia's Hindu realm.

Allen & Unwin, 2004.

                (my emphasis)


Whilst it might be argued that the easy life (brought about by fertile soils and very productive, irrigated rice lands) allowed time for religion and the arts to flourish in Bali, few would try to argue that religion does not define Bali today, nor that burgeoning tourism may shape the face of Bali tomorrow.


Agama Hindu.

From the outset don't let me even try to convince you that this is a learned treatise on Bali's religion, or even that I have an adequate knowledge of my own religion let alone Bali's that would give me any credibility to write such a piece.

Think of this as a 'bule's' (white faced person is perhaps the most polite interpretation I have heard) embryonic learning, picked up from several trips to that island and many conversations, some quite stilted and some even reticent, with drivers and even more casual acquaintances, and a lot of reading, not the least being Pringle's book quoted above.

If you know nothing of Bali's unique religion (It's commonly called 'Hindu' but because it's so different it's more correctly called 'Agama Hindu' or by the Indonesian Government 1* as 'Bali Hindu Dharma'.) and are a bit curious about what you will surely have easily seen in Bali every day but perhaps not recognised and almost certainly not understood on that island paradise, then this might be a simple starting point to further investigation or it might just enough to satisfy an idle curiosity.

(1* It is interesting for tourists to note that the Indonesian Government requires every citizen to profess affiliation to one of five officially sanctioned religions - Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism or Protestantism.)

I'm afraid that a bit of history can't be avoided within the story as it's from the island's history that the defining signatures of this unique religion have come and in the coming have themselves defined Bali. I'll try to keep it simple.


Most certainly!

Bali's Hinduism is a unique signature, not only within Indonesia (much of which initially adopted Hinduism well before Bali' but which is now mainly Muslim) but within the other Hindu nations and enclaves of the world.

Not even in India, the birthplace of Hinduism, is the religion of Bali used or perhaps even understood.



The Beginnings.

Bali's earliest recognisable religion, long before the beginning of written history, most probably  would have been a form of animism (the worship of natural features, notably the streams, the forests, the mountains and volcanoes in Bali) and ancestor worship derived from their greater social ancestry within the Malay and Polynesian peoples who settled most, if not all, of the pacific islands thousands of years B(efore) C(hrist). Animism was later influenced by the beliefs of the early immigrant travellers, traders and settlers from what we now call Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and so on right around that south east Asian coastline to (principally) India and beyond.
Remarkably the original beliefs of both animism and ancestor worship still feature strongly in Bali's religion.

These immigrant travellers, walking across the dry land bridges that existed through Thailand, Sumatra and Java in the great ice age of about 18,000 years ago.

(How long ago is that? Think of western Christianity's history of only 2,000 years since the birth of Christ and multiply all that has happened by 9!)

Mixed with the ancestor, animism and nature worship, of what might also have been early Australasian inhabitants too who could have arrived 40,000 years ago, this early example of fusion and selective adoption and adaptation has been a characteristic of Bali's inhabitants from that time to this.

With the arrival of sailing traders from distant shores the Balinese first learnt of various aspects of India and its civilisation and culture, particularly in the areas of art and architecture. This absorption probably came through the influence of already 'Indianised' Java rather than directly from India and Indians. Although Bali's art certainly became 'Indianised' neither of India's two great religions, Hinduism or Buddhism, had any initial influence or recognition in Bali.


[ The Indian-isation of the local cultures was not confined to Java or to Bali but was spread throughout the lands and countries known to the earliest western civilisations as 'Further India'. These included the island chain of Thailand - Sumatra and on through to Timor and perhaps even Irian Jaya- New Guinea, all of which was often known then as the 'Indian Archipelago'.

As a recognised name for the region 'the Indies' or the 'East Indies' was common in early written histories and 'Indonesia' was not used until the mid 20th century.

As a name for the whole area 'South East Asia' was not commonly used until the Second World War but when independence eventually came to the area shortly after the end of this war it was the term 'Indonesia' that was chosen as the name to unify the diverse corners of the new country, recognising for ever the early and sustained links with that influential country, India. ]


Growth Through Peace and The Early Priests.

Perhaps strangely, it was not conquest by India over Bali, or even by Java over Bali that brought religion to the fore in either country. Nor was it the influence of the stream of traders who openly practised their religion on Bali's shores. Not in Java or in Bali was the introduction of the mixed Hindu and Buddhist religions really a religious process but was, in fact, the consequence of a political process.

In both Java and later in Bali, the early native chieftains were simply local men with intelligence and charisma that brought respect from their neighbours. This respect gave them an influence within their local area and this influence was what made them local chieftains. It was not until the Indian concept of 'Rajah', something greater than a 'chief', became known to them, that some chief's horizons began to expand beyond their own little patch. With this concept of expansion came the need for advisors to explain how progress and to hasten the process of becoming 'Rajah-like'; to reach that state before their fractious neighbouring chiefs became rajahs first and swallowed them up. For this was the process of becoming a rajah, expansion of territory, of influence, of respect and of power, at the expense of the others who became subordinated - if they survived.
Like the Admiral's response to the British Queen during the earliest America's Cup yacht races - there was no second place.

This process of growth was well known in India and the process involved the use of priests, known as Brahmans, as advisors to the potential rajah and to the established rajahs once they had become accepted. It was not religious advice that the chiefs (of Java initially) sought from these Indian priests but, recognising that their priestly studies had both developed them intellectually and also sorted out the most successful men, they became a ready made and non-threatening tool to direct the chief's path to greater power and thereby to survival itself. What followed has become known as 'the summoning of the Brahmans' and this is an appropriate phrase for the Brahmans did not just come, they were invited and welcomed.

In Java first, the Indian priests brought their knowledge of how to gain power and hold it, and an appreciation of politics and of the pomp and splendour that came with success and became the signal of success. The new Chiefs-becoming-Kings in Java developed palaces and courts, and the new trappings of dress, behaviour and language were also adopted to define those with power and to separate those who without power but who were accepted onto the fringes. With these trappings of culture and status also came the adoption and adaptation of the great Indian religions by the new kings.

Arguably the pinnacle of this development was the flowering of the great Hindu Majapahit kingdom on Java. The Kingdom eventually spread it's cultural influences to Bali and to Lombok and, in curious fact, through most of the islands (thereby warranting the better known title of the Majapahit 'Empire') which are now claimed by the Indonesians as their own, before decaying in Java but leaving behind its tentacles, particularly in Bali and to a much lesser extent in western Lombok.

With this cultural and religious Indian-isation of Bali there also came the twin benefits of writing and consequently of recording. Initially the language of the Javanese courts was naturally that brought by the Indian Brahman priests, the religious language (Sanskrit) used in northern India and the writing was in Kawi, an ancient Javanese script derived from Sanskrit. From these early records on stone, lontar palm leaves and copper plates come the earliest reasonably reliable records of Balinese history. Some of the earliest examples can still be seen (and  unfortunately handled) in the museum in Singaraja, the old Dutch occupation capital on the north coast and on a stone pillar (with the date 914) still kept in the village of Belanjong just off the main hotel strip of Sanur in the south.
These and the language of the common people that developed from them are the basis of 'Bahasa Bali' (the language of Bali) which is still spoken in the country districts but is being overtaken by the language of all Indonesians, 'Bahasa Indonesia', which is itself perhaps suffering from the rise of 'Bahasa Tourist', mainly English, the language of Bill Gates and Microsoft and drunken Australians.



The Religious Blend.

Almost incidentally with the establishment of kingly power came the adoption of parts of different religions into the established rites of animism, again to distinguish the kings from lesser beings at least initially.

The religions were both Hinduism and Buddhism and both co-existed (and still do even in some of the most important shrines like Pura Ulun Danu on Lake Bratan) and were often combined, but neither survived the the association with the local religion intact. In the mid 1920's an earth slip in the Pakerisan River valley revealed the earliest signs of the Indianisation of Bali that can be seen and touched. Amongst the rubble at the bottom of the valley were clay stupas, small domed buildings which commonly cover religious objects at Indian temples and which can also be found at the Borobudur monument in eastern Java and at ancient temples such as the Buddhist Angkor Wat in Cambodia and others in Vietnam. With these stupas were clay impression stamps or seals used to mark soft clay (and perhaps wax) making a form of recognised signature. On these seals were incised religious mantras that also are unquestionably Buddhist.

On Bali, however, it was Hinduism, blending with the beliefs of the pre-existing animism, that did the better of the two religions in winning 'hearts and minds'. (To coin a currently popular, or un-popular phrase.) In so doing, however, the Agama Hinduism of Bali became almost a foreign religion to those of the Indian sub-continent today as there are mixed elements of both of these great Indian religions combined still with elements of pre-existing ancestor worship and the animism of the ancients. It is a characteristic of the Balinese culture that little is rejected simply because it is different. Where  the new religions were deemed to have facets that improved on current practise, those aspects were adapted into the existing religion and this testing and acceptance of new ideas continues today as the newest religion of tourism confronts religious practise. Anyone who has been in Bali when the religious day to celebrate metal occurs will have been struck by the attention to detail that occurs when cars, busses, motor bikes and bicycles are decorated and taken to the temples to be blessed. This practice began as a day for the warrior class to give thanks and to seek continuing protection at the temple where their kris (wavy edged daggers and swords) were blessed by the priests.
From daggers to taxis - a change that could perhaps only be at home in Bali.



The Tie That Binds.

Religion gives life purpose and focus to the Balinese.
For a Balinese, God is every where and in everything at all times.

When a Balinese awakes his first thoughts are for his religion, perhaps earlier for the women than the men but equally essential for both. Religion guides their day and their life from birth through to death and even into the hereafter where the rewards of a good life will be enjoyed.

The continuing merry-go-round of festivals and the rites of their religion provide a fellowship with others in the family and with the village community and even provides a cohesive force across all of the island. That such a powerful and all-pervading force can not just occur but can indeed dominate life and circumstances in such a small island is initially a surprise but perhaps the power exists because it is a small island rather than despite the size. A larger place and a bigger population might just give rise to variations and even dissent which would be at least weakening if not destructive. Religion directs the layout of the family house, the place of the house within the village and the layout of the village itself. The cycle of the 210 day Balinese calendar is a cycle of religious rites. Religion has an impact on the working life of every Balinese where the day can be interrupted by attention to religious rites of family and village ceremonies and by the need to give specific days of labour to the temples.

There is a recently revealed story of the village near Tirta Empul that kept a sacred stone wrapped in a protective white cloth in the village temple. At the full moon on the fourth month of every  Balinese year (A Balinese year is 210 days.) they ceremonially take the stone some distance to the sacred spring where it is bathed in the holy water. No one in the village knew exactly why this was done, only that it had always been so. Comparatively recently a Dutch language expert deciphered the inscription on the stone revealing that it commemorated the construction of the bathing pools at Tirta Empul in the year 962 - on the full moon of the fourth month!
The reason for the ritual may have been long been forgotten but, without question, the rite was known and maintained, to the day, for over a thousand years.

Religion also has an enormous impact on the arts of Bali. There is usually a religious theme or history to the dance performances which often occur in the temple grounds. The themes of painted art are frequently religious and based on the epic Indian Hindu stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Wood and stone carving frequently have a religious purpose and although they are not considered icons they frequently depict gods and goddesses. Wood and stone carvings are regularly blessed and decorated with a flower or a wrapping of check cloth, even significant boulders along the road (especially at intersections) and trees will receive similar attention.



A Faith of Harmony and a Guide for Life.

In the simplest of terms, which may be the best approach for a religion which is so complex, Agama Hindu is about caring and respect. Caring and respect for family and friends; for others, for the natural things around them and the man-made objects they work with every day; for ancestors and deities; for forests, fields and foods. Agama Hindu influences life from before birth to beyond death, and not only in the waking hours either. Balinese sleep with their head towards the seats of the gods in the mountains and their feet towards the lair of the demons in the sea.

Agama Hinduism is also about balance and it is the daily task of all Balinese to firstly establish and then maintain the balance between opposing forces. Not just the forces of good and evil although that might be the easy way to sum up the whole. The balances are far more complex and more detailed than that in Agama Hinduism. There are the pairings of things as simple to the western mind as high and low: of up and down. There is left and right and black and white and good and evil, fire and water, earth and wind encompassed in the magical beliefs entwined with the religion. There are Kaja and Kelod, towards the mountains and away from the mountains which is really not the same as north and south. But there is east and west and their importance to the travels of the gods of the sun and the moon, two opposites in themselves. There is strong and weak; healthy and ill; clean and un-clean (which is not quite the same as dirty); creation and destruction - growth and decay - life and death.
These pairs are seen as opposing poles of the universe, constantly struggling against one another for dominance and so tending to create disorder and turmoil. It is only the intervention of man, through prayer and devotion, that maintains some form of order in this universe.
One of the pair does not exist without the other and it is the purpose of religion and prayer in Bali to maintain a stable and peaceful balance between the opposing poles, not the defeat of one and the ascendency of the other as is found in many other religions. That struggle for constant balance is what daily engages the rituals of the Agama Hindu priests and every Agama Hindu follower.



The Religious Day.

When the Hindu religions in Java and Lombok became almost totally displaced by the more aggressive spread of Islam, the Hinduism of Bali became unique. It is a religion of daily life which blossoms at (frequent) special times.

The day begins in every Balinese household with recognition of the ancestors at the family temple always located in that part of the family compound nearest the sacred Mount Agung, the seat of the gods on earth. From the house compound respect is paid at the workplace, whether it be an office, a rice field, the taxi, the forest or the beach, where an offering will be made. In places like the Kuta Art markets (which every tourist to Bali will surely see) The little square offerings will overflow from the market shrine on the corner and spread across the adjacent road although sometimes the offerings placed on the ground are to appease the spirits of the underworld, the demons (the opposite of the gods), who are responsible for misfortune if they are ignored or slighted.
There are always three temples in each village. Again, closest to Mount Agung is the temple of the ancestors, the first of the family to settle the area. Here, every 210 days of the Balinese year, on the anniversary of the temple's original consecration, a special ceremony, 'Odalan', is held and attendance is expected of all the members of the extended families who first settled the village. This is a ceremony which usually lasts three days. In the centre of the village is the working village temple where the daily activities of the village take place, the local 'council' meets and the gamelan orchestra practises, and it is where the gods who look after the village are honoured. On the seaward side of the village, furthest away from Mount Agung, is the temple of the dead, the cemetery and an open space where cremations take place at a proper time after the burial.



The Island of Temples or the Temple Island?

Each district also has its own temples and maintains a shrine at the most sacred temple of all, at Besakih on the slopes of Mount Agung.

Despite the origins of Balinese Hinduism in India the temples of Bali are most unlike their counterparts in India. An Indian temple is a roofed building, often with sumptuous construction, finish, ornate grounds and surrounds and finely detailed decor (picture the craftsmanship and material qualities, durability and varieties of that Indian tourist spectacle, the mausoleum known as the Taj Mahal). The Balinese temple is really an enclosed parcel of ground, marked out by a defining brick or stone wall. It has no roof so the gods can come down from Mount Agung whenever they are summoned. It owes its heritage to the simple piles of rough stone, the megaliths and occasionally the more structured pyramids used by the animist forebears of the Balinese.
The wall is to separate the profane world from the finer significance of the interior and it is space that exceeds structure in importance. The buildings within the enclosed space are mainly practical in their functions, places to store relics and ritual materials, spaces to display offerings, space for the gamelan and the dancers, spaces to meet, greet and rest. The area closest to the mountains is the only part devoted to structures of religious significance. Here you will find seats for the gods when they visit, a platform for the priest(s) and shrines to the ancestors and deities. Unlike Indian temples the Balinese gods are only visitors to the temple. The highest column in the corner closest to holy Mount Agung, the home of the gods, will be a seat for 'the great unknowable one', Sanghyang Widi Wasa, the supreme being who is rarely even mentioned by name. The lower columns are seats tor the Balinese 'Trinity' of Brahma the creator, Wisnu the preserver and Siwa the god of destruction and re-birth.

Although every temple in Bali is built to comply with the same fixed principles no two temples are alike in shape, size or decoration. These details are left to the decisions of the Master Sculptor who is the builder and who is guided by his own physical stature and build. For example once the size of the ground space is set the religious artefacts go next to the wall that is closest to the mountains and the main entrance is on the opposite side nearest the sea. The width of the entrance is a fixed number of times the length of the Master's foot, the height of the gate a number of times his arm span and the length of the front wall a certain times the height of the gate. These dimensions are known to the Master because his Master, probably his father, told him so, and he was told by his father and so on - it is as it has always been. The master knows all of the designs that are appropriate to the temple, the spreading arms and hands of Kala above the gateway to bar entry to any insidious demons, he knows where he can put a swastika, ancient magical symbol of good fortune, where the birds and the monkeys and the deer can go, and where he may be different as on one famous temple on the north coast of Bali which has the figure of an early Dutch traveller, on a bicycle which has flowers for wheels, inscribed into the wall.
The hereditary nature of the stone carvers art is made possible, even essential, by the nature of the stone which disintegrates fairly rapidly making the renewal process one which is on-going and which provides opportunity for current commentary, like the bicycle rider mentioned, in the work. The system of measurement used makes each temple unique in dimensions derived from the individual builder but also ensures an overriding common proportion from one temple to another which is harmonious and recognisable to those who look with an experienced eye.



The Supreme Unknowable God - and Others.

Balinese Hinduism recognises one supreme god, Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, the great unknowable one. The supreme god is only infrequently the object of a Balinese' prayers however and, in a situation not too unlike the trinity of Christianity, it is to the triumvirate of gods at the next level that offerings are directed. These three are -

Brahma the creator god in the south who is recognised by the colour red or crimson,

Wisnu the protector and preserver god in the north recognised by black and

Siwa the destroyer and the god in the centre.

This trio is only the start for those who would understand Bali Hinduism. Like the branches of a tree  there sprout a veritable pantheon of supporting deities. In the west is Mahadewa (yellow), in the east is Iswara (white), in the north west is Sangkara (green), north east Sambhu (blue), southeast Mahesora (pink) and south west Rudra (orange).

[ Students of ancient Chinese civilisation, culture and especially art, will perhaps see similarities in this arrangement of a circle, directions, colour and an important concept, with a system used within the Hann Dynasty (about 2 centuries before and after the birth of Christ) where the 5 essential elements - water, fire, metal, wood and earth, were depicted around a circle.

1.  The earth, yellow in colour was the centre of the circle, encompassing the whole of the year, capable of absorbing water and represented by a 'ts'ung' - a circle with a smaller square in the centre.

(Does this ts'ung shape remind you of the 'lucky' Chinese coins still used in some Balinese decorative art objects and still often uncovered on beaches after a storm?)

2.  Water, black in colour, is on the north of the circle, symbolises the winter season of the year, capable of putting out fire and is represented by the 'black warrior' usually shown as a snake or a tortoise.

3.  Fire, red in colour on the south side of the circle, encompassing the summer season of the year, capable of melting metal and represented by a bird, the mythical phoenix which is re-born in the flames of a fire.

4.  Metal, white in colour, is on the west of the circle, symbolises the autumn season of the year, capable of destroying wood and is represented by a tiger.

5.  Wood, green in colour on the east side of the circle, encompassing the spring season of the year, capable of overcoming earth and represented by a dragon.

What a neat arrangement of a never ending circle that could only have been devised by the gods or the Emperor, to be seen in some way every day by even the simplest peasant and thereby prove the  existence of a superior entity.

It strongly hints at Chinese influence in Balinese religious development and perhaps Indian too.  ]

If you think you now have a grasp of the Balinese ethereal world stop and consider that like the tree mentioned earlier there are the demons in the roots under the surface, and these too, need to be appeased with exactly equal devotion and respect to keep the universe in balance.


Religious Festivals.

In addition to the island-wide Odalan Festivals mentioned above which are celebrated on the particular anniversary day of each temple, in every Balinese year of 210 days there are five special 'Tumpek' days when particular parts of the culture are celebrated all over the island.

1. Tumpek Landep,

2. Tumpek Uduh,

3. Tumpek Uve,

4. Tumpek Kuningan and

5. Tumpek Wayang.

These are days when different parts of the visible world ('Niskala') are honoured. Tumpek Landep is the day when the working tools of the Balinese daily lives are honoured. It is often called the day for metal because the most obvious signs are the highly decorated cars, motor bikes, buses and even trucks parade in long lines to the local temples to be blessed by the priests. During a recent stay in Bali we were staying in Pacung on this day and the parade, with Polisi escorts and Gamelans playing took over half an hour to grind slowly up the hill through the village. Traditionally it was a day to sharpen the weapons of war and bless them and the warriors who carried these 'tools'. As warfare has given way to more peaceful times the meaning has been broadened to include any of the tools used in life and also the skills of those who use those tools.




It is a common for the tourist in Bali to see people in the act of personal prayer.
Usually women and usually younger rather than older as the God's appreciate the most beautiful things, kneeling in a corner of the family compound or at a street or workplace  shrine including the beach if you're about early in the morning.
She may carry a tray balanced gracefully in one hand, holding several small square trays folded from fresh green palm leaf and containing some greenery, a flower - often a golden yellow marigold for its godly colour and perfume, some rice - maybe the more expensive red rice in the most affluent houses, a dry biscuit or cracker, perhaps a candy or a cigarette and a smoking stick of incense.

These are the daily offerings to the gods and to the demons. The incense smoke is the ladder to the gods, carrying the prayer to the gods and carrying their blessings back.
A flower held delicately in the finger tips is used to sprinkle holy water from a small bowl onto the offering as it is put in place. The hands are held in prayer with the thumbs lightly touching the forehead as the prayer is silently recited. Sometimes the flower will then be flicked away to help carry the devotion to the gods.
The final act of the ceremony will be that graceful wave of the hand through the incense smoke to waft it upwards, carrying the prayer and the essence of the offering.

There is a more detailed account of the temple prayer ritual at this link.   'PRAYER'.



Comment and additional information on this subject will be welcomed.
filo @ adam dot com dot au.



Bali; A Traveller's Companion. Various writers, Archipelago Press. 2001.

A Short History of Bali - Indonesia's Hindu Realm, Robert Pringle. Allen and Unwin. 2004.

Bali. Apa Photo Guides. 1977.

Various airline In-Flight Magazines.

Papineau's Guide to Jakarta. Andre Publications. 3rd Edition, 1976.

Bali 1912, Gregor Krause. Pepper Publications. 1922 - reprint 2002.

A Short History of Chinese Art - Michael Sullivan. Faber and Faber, London WC1. 1967.

Various friends and some very casual acquaintances in Bali.



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