Beauty, balance and harmony in Bali

In the West, the reasons for the Bali bombings in 2002 soon became clear: Islamic extremists killing non-Muslim Westerners, as in the World Trade Centre attacks, except this time — shockingly for Australia — the terrorists were Indonesian. But there exists a very different view, held by many Balinese, that would surprise most Westerners.

Many Balinese blamed themselves for what they now refer to as “bom Bali”. They believed this evil act occurred when and where it did because Bali had lost its way; the balance between spirituality and materialism had been lost. Kuta, with its chaotic crassness, lust for the dollar and non-stop good times, was the epicentre of the imbalance.

To someone from a country where people look for someone to sue when they fall over drunk, such utterly stoic acceptance of responsibility is arresting. No, it’s staggering, given neither the perpetrators nor the intended targets of the bombing were the Balinese themselves.

More than 92 per cent of Balinese are Hindu, which makes their collective character, behaviour, outlook and way of life vastly different from the rest of mostly Muslim Indonesia. In the face of many invasions by outsiders, whether colonisers or tourists, it’s the devout practice of Hinduism that has kept the core values and Balinese way of life more or less the same for centuries, perhaps more so now than before the bomb. Perhaps because of the bomb.

Over the centuries, many have wanted to claim this island paradise as their own. Even tourists and expats have always liked to think they “discovered” it. In the 1930s, Western artists and intellectuals flocked to Bali to paint the tropical landscapes and terraced rice paddies — not to mention the bare-breasted women. In the 1960s, surfers safaried to Bali’s wave havens. At the same time, the educated hippie nomads who were into cultural tourism and cheap travel put it on their Sydney-London route.

The common factor they all found was beauty: in the landscape, in the people and in the culture.

The world is not short of island paradises; we have more than our share in Australia, with arguably better beaches, more temperate weather and equally lush vegetation. So what is it about Bali that makes it so special?

For some it’s suntans, shopping and cheap massage, but for most it’s the culture, deeply rooted in Bali’s unique version of Hinduism and influencing every aspect of daily life. The vibrant visuals of Balinese spirituality are as pervasive as the humid air, from lavishly decorated temple celebrations, to the ubiquitous offerings, to the tiny floral decorations of life’s most humble necessities.

The Balinese impulse to make everything beautiful and harmonious has a solid spiritual basis: everything in the human world either pleases or displeases God above the mountains and the demons below the earth and the sea. The Balinese invest a lot of effort daily, and much expense at times, in trying to maintain the balance between the forces of good and evil.



The outward expression of the desire to please God and placate the demons is not a once-a-week or special-occasion affair with the Balinese, but rather daily observance, first and foremost through offerings and prayer.

There are countless styles of offerings ranging from the simple canang you see everywhere every day, on the ground in front of homes and shops, on shrines, perched on cash registers and counters, on the dashboards of taxis and even on the beach (it’s believed the sea is inhabited by demons).

These are trays fashioned out of coconut leaf into which incense, flowers, rice, banana and sugarcane are placed. They can be to give thanks to God (placed up high) or to appease the greedy demons (on the ground). The person placing them must wear a sash, and they are activated by lighting the incense stick and sprinkling holy water on the contents. Once the essence of the offering has been given and received, it doesn’t matter if it is eaten by mangy dogs or kicked by careless passers-by.

For special occasions there are higher, more elaborate styles of offerings, sometimes of towering height, usually carried on the heads of women to the temple. Magnificently colourful, they are made up of meticulously arranged rows of fruit, topped by rice cakes, then flowers and coconut leaf decoration.

Another type of offering that gives all of Bali a festive air, especially when newly put up in front of every household and temple, is the penjor, erected by the men and decorated by the women. These are arching bamboo poles decorated along their length with products of the land such as rice, coconut, banana and cakes, ending with a dangling cili (rice goddess and an important Balinese symbol of life and fertility). They hang gracefully over the streets and beaches.

Most offerings are created by women, though the men make those featuring meats or bamboo structures. The making of offerings is believed to bring good karma to the maker. They are all made entirely of natural materials, so have a short shelf life, and are carried on the head, the most sacred part of the body.



In Bali, ask how long it will take to get somewhere and the answer will go something like, “Twenty minutes … if there’s a ceremony, half an hour.” There are ceremonies going on all over the place every day of the year and chances are you’ll bump into one.

There are five different categories of ceremonies: to honour God, including temple anniversaries; for higher powers like ancestors — cremations, for example; for the consecration of priests and priestesses; to mark human rites of passage, including birth, the first menstrual period, tooth filing and marriage; to placate the evil demons and bring harmony to the world. The latter — purification ceremonies — are at particular times of the year, such as new year, when everyone goes into the sea (or river) to symbolically cleanse their body and soul, or after calamitous events like the bombings.

Ceremonies for temple anniversaries (odalan) are among the most common because there are so many temples and shrines and their odalan dates vary. These involve prayer and procession, to present colourful offerings, and music and dance. The temple is decorated with flags and umbrellas, creating a festive atmosphere.

While an individual will participate in countless ceremonies in their lifetime, by far the most important — and the most public — is the final one: cremation. At Balinese cremations there is no mourning or sorrow, as this would only confuse the departed into hanging around as a ghost rather than being liberated to better things through reincarnation or union with God.

A cremation is a joyous, rowdy occasion where the whole village accompanies the colourfully decorated funeral tower through the streets. Some of the men play instruments and beat drums while others carry the tower on a bamboo platform; the women balance offerings on their heads, all dressed in their sarongs and laughing and smiling throughout the proceedings.

The body of the deceased — which may have been temporarily buried, sometimes for years until the right time — is carried on the tower, and a relative may ride cowboy-style on the sarcophagus, which is fashioned into the form of an animal, most often a bull or cow, in which the body will be placed for burning at the cremation ground. Once burnt, the ashes are scraped together and ground and put into the sea or river.



The desire for balance extends from sacred places to the ordinary surrounds of home and business. First-time tourists delight in the gorgeous gardens and outdoor bathrooms, the flower-decorated statues, the lotus ponds and garden shrines, and all the tiny attention to detail that seems to enhance everything. Even back in the 1920s and ’30s, tourists remarked on the Beauty of the early hotels and lodgings.

Eka Kurniawan, manager of the beautiful Sukhavati Retreat near Canggu, explains the three-tier structure in which balance must be kept through respect: “With God at the top, humans in the centre and nature below, we must have respect for God, all other humans and the natural world. So you see, the respect is both vertical and horizontal. This is how we keep the balance.”

It is incumbent on the people to create a lovely environment to give back to nature for the bounty it bestows. “Even if you are establishing a business, you must make a nice garden, for example, and create a good environment to show respect for nature and ensure harmony,” says Eka Kurniawan. “If we don’t give something in return, nature will turn on us, and God will be angry. This is what was happening in Kuta before the bombings. The respect and the harmony had been lost. Things were not balanced.”

The sacred interdependency between God, humans and nature that must be nurtured and kept in balance is enshrined in the Bhagawad Gita (III: 11, 12, 14): “They who enjoy what nature has given them without returning anything are thieves.”

Flowers are used everywhere, in both elaborate and tiny ways, to give a touch of loveliness to the humblest object. Old concrete stairs are beautified by rows of frangipani flowers. An outdoor bathroom may have a watergarden and fountain, and garden statues are daily groomed with a hibiscus in the hair or a frangipani behind the ear.

The black-and-white cloth, poleng, seen draped around the base of trees, on statues and in ceremonial clothing, is perhaps the most common and important motif of balance. It is similar to the yin-yang symbol in that the black-and-white pattern represents the balance of opposing forces that give meaning to each other — light and dark, good and evil and so forth.


Artistic pursuits

It’s often said that all Balinese are artists, yet there’s no word for “art” or “artist” in the Balinese language. This could be overstating the case, though once it might not have been an exaggeration. In The Island of Bali (1937), still regarded as the definitive book on Balinese culture, Miguel Covarrubias wrote that this was because Bali’s tropical fertility made it so easy for everyone to grow their food that they were left with plenty of time for artistic pursuits.

It does seem, even now when not so many grow rice, that most Balinese you meet do something artistic. Our guide paints, one taxi driver plays gamelan, another does wood carving and everywhere there are traditional dance and gamelan groups performing for both devotion and entertainment.


Dance and drama have traditionally provided a means to learn the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabarata; depicted the struggle between good and evil; and even, through trance dancing, invited a divine force to enter the body of the dancer.

Wayang kulit, or shadow puppet theatre, considered the most sacred art form, both entertains and instructs. The characters are derived from the Hindu epics and often represent aspects of human nature, but the story is created by the dalang, or puppeteer. Again, it Deals with the struggle between good and evil.

Then there’s wood and stone carving, the many textile crafts, basketry and jewellery making, all undertaken to an extent that seems out of proportion with the size and population of the island — even taking into account what’s churned out for the tourist market.

Noel Coward gently mocked the Balinese devotion to arts and crafts in a flippant verse dedicated to Charlie Chaplin, who had also visited Bali:

“As I said this morning to Charlie

There is far too much music in Bali,

And although as a place it’s entrancing,

There is also a thought too much dancing.

It appears that each Balinese native,

From the womb to the tomb is creative,

And although the results are quite clever,

There is too much artistic endeavour.”

Of course, it was Coward who averred that only “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”. If he found Bali overpowering, even in jest, his reaction wasn’t typical. Many Europeans before and since have happily embraced the island’s riot of colour and graceful movement and even perceived the sense of balance at the heart of both its art and religion, epitomised in the black-and-white poleng. A balance which, even after bom Bali, was swiftly restored.


Balinese Hinduism — one God

The Balinese practise a form of Hinduism called Agama Hindu Dharma, which is quite different from the Indian tradition. It emerged out of the blend of Indian Hindu and Buddhist beliefs and practices being grafted onto the pre-existing indigenous animist beliefs, which include ancestor worship and belief in spirits and demons in nature. The Balinese believe in one God. The Hindu trinity of Visnu (the Creator), Siva (the Destroyer) and Brahma (the Protector) is simply different manifestations of the one God. The supreme God is known as Sanghyang Widi Wasa.

Knowledge of the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, daily worship through prayer and the making of symbolic offerings are all essential to being a devout Hindu. Everywhere, there are not only offerings but also statues and bas reliefs depicting characters, deities and scenes from the Hindu texts.


Bali eye

For centuries, foreign artists have felt the lure of Bali, but it was the visiting painters and academics of the early 20th century who both appreciated and influenced the images of the landscape, people and culture that made Bali known to the outside world.

German artist Walter Spies settled on the island in 1927 and, until his death at sea in 1942, was highly influential in encouraging Balinese artists to develop in different directions, such as painting scenes of everyday life rather than religious narratives, and put their work up for sale. His house (pictured), now part of a hotel near Ubud, became a magnet for academics, writers, artists and other celebrities including Margaret Mead and husband Gregory Bateson, and Miguel and Rose Covarrubias.

Dutchman Rudolph Bonnet moved to Ubud in 1931 and with Spies formed the Pita Maha artists association to maintain standards and organise exhibitions abroad. Canadian musician, photographer and filmmaker Colin McPhee, another Spies associate, spent the 1930s in Bali studying gamelan music and fostering its practitioners. He later composed symphonic works that drew on what he had learned from Balinese musicians.

In 1966, Australian enfant terrible Donald Friend settled in Sanur. While the paintings of the Europeans often featured bare-breasted beauties, many of Friend’s depicted boys and men in a colourful landscape.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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