A holiday in Bali to experience the way Hinduism is practiced there. Also to enjoy the unique architecture of the various kinds of Hindu temples that are sprinkled throughout the island and the people.
15.01.2011 - 22.01.2011 27 °C
'Ubiquitous' would be a grave understatement to describe Hinduism and its symbols in Bali. Temples, idols, prayers, symbols, religious offerings, deities and spiritualism are just about everywhere and sprinkle this outpost of Hinduism at every turn of the road or head in what is otherwise the largest Muslim nation in the world. Of course, the manner in which it is practiced here is completely different from India and to experience this difference is why we planned a holiday in Bali earlier this year.
Hinduism is said to have reached Indonesia from India as early as the 4th century AD. Initially it was prevalent pretty much throughout the archipelago and even now some prominent temples dedicated to Shiva can be found on the neighboring island of Java particularly around the city of Yogyakarta (sometimes pronounced with a ‘J’ instead of ‘Y’ – as in Jogjakarta). Along with Buddhism, Hinduism reached its peak around the 14th century before the eastward march of Islam vastly diminished the influence of both religions. Although Hindus now form a little less than 2% of the overall Indonesian population, more than 88% of Bali’s people are said to be Hindu and practice it in a manner that is quintessentially Balinese as we discovered during our holiday.
Along with the smaller neighboring island of Lombok, Bali is usually identified with luxury sea-side holiday resorts and the pleasure-seeking bars and pubs of Kuta, Legian and Seminyak – localities close to Denpasar International Airport. But venture a little deeper into the hinterland of this 6,000 sq km island and there is a whole different world waiting to be experienced. A world of simple, gentle and soft-spoken people with a ready smile on their face; of primary forests that attempt to conceal scenic rice paddy terraces and coffee estates; of small villages each of which proudly maintain their own version of temples and of simple dwellings that, space permitting, have their own miniature temples.
Balinese Hinduism is deeply interwoven with art and ritual, and is less closely preoccupied with scripture, law, and belief. It lacks the traditional Hindu emphasis on cycles of rebirth and reincarnation, but instead is concerned with a myriad of local deities and ancestral spirits. With kebatinan (search for inner self), these deities are thought to be capable of doing good or harm depending upon various factors. Balinese place great emphasis on dramatic and aesthetically satisfying acts of ritual propitiation of these spirits at temple sites scattered throughout villages and in the countryside. Depending upon the time of the year most villages have functions where you can witness dances and shows connected with religious festivals, sometimes performed by professional artists or sometimes by the local school children.
A Balinese temple is called ‘Pura’, and unlike the common towering indoor Indian Temple, it is designed as an open air worship place within enclosed walls, connected with series of intricately decorated gates to reach its compounds. Inside, especially in the smaller temples, one will normally find a temple each for Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the protector) and Shiva (the destroyer). Although there are idols depicting dwarpalaks (gate guardians) at the entrances, curiously the temples themselves do not house any deity as the Balinese believe that gods are formless and omnipresent.
Each of these temples has a more or less fixed membership; every Balinese belongs to a temple by virtue of descent, residence, or some mystical revelation of affiliation. Some temples are associated with the family house compound (also called banjar in Bali); others are associated with rice paddies, and still others with key geographic sites. The temple spires are a common feature with Indian Hindu temples but while the Indian ones are made of stone and tower tens of feet, the Balinese ones are much shorter and are made of thatch from various sources like rice or coconut. These are eye-catching along with their other distinguishing feature - they are in separate tiers and decrease in width and size as the height of the spire increases.
After a brief hop to Yogyakarta to see the temples at Borobudur and Prembanan we based ourselves at a small family-run hotel in the central town of Ubud in the hills almost at the centre of the island. Post breakfast Yogi, our local guide and driver, would pick us up at Monkey Forest road and drive us to the various temples and other sights to return after lunch when we relax by the pool to read. Evenings would be spent walking around and ending with an excellent meal at one of the numerous restaurants in Ubud.
The temples in Bali do not in themselves have any history and most of them have been built and re-built again as they have been periodically destroyed by the earthquakes that sometimes strike this region. Although we saw and visited many temples during our stay, the names that stick in the memory are Pura Tirta Empul, Pura Kehen, Pura Ulun Danu, Pura Tanha Lot and Pura Luhur Ulu Watu.
At Pura Tirta Empul we were fortunate to see pilgrims and worshipers in their hundreds as it was the day after the full moon. We witnessed families, groups and individuals take the ritual dip in the temple pond and then gather to pray with their offerings in fresh clothes – either individually or as a group. The offering – incense sticks, money and flowers – in simple trays made of palm fronds was so similar to those that are sold outside many of our temples. In contrast Pura Kehen was completely bereft of any humans and we enjoyed the solitude amongst the moss covered trees and steps. Pura Tanah Lot and Pura Luhur Ulu Watu are on the coast. While the former is on an island that gets cut off with high tide, the later is located at the edge of an imposing cliff with the sea and the waves forming a spectacular backdrop. At Pura Tanah Lot once again we were able to witness a microcosm of Balinese people in their traditional best as they had turned out to come and worship. Men in their Udeng (headgear), Kamen and Saput (coverings for legs) and women in their kebaya (a transclucent top) and kamen or sarong (for their legs). While some were stuck on the island others were praying, making offerings and just enjoying the outing eating ice creams and Es Teler momo caca the local sweet refreshment with no fixed recipe but essentially containing coconut flesh, coconut gel cubes, palm fruit, condensed milk and crushed ice. The temples of Pura Ulun Danu – one tall and one short – were located on the banks of a picturesque lake and the waters of the lake and the hills around formed a great backdrop.
In between we witnessed the women of the house making their daily offerings outside their homes, farmers praying at the temples in their fields, a group of matriarchs preparing a colorful offering of rice-paste for an upcoming temple function, school children going to school carrying a broom to clean their classroom before classes and that most iconic of Balinese pictures – a procession of women on their way to the nearby temple carrying offerings of Gebogan containing a tower of fruits, vegetables and palm fronds decorations called dulang. One village’s main street was uniformly decorated with temporary bamboo mini-temples – white on one side and yellow on the other – obviously another manifestation of the villagers’ reverence. Bali’s rice paddy terraces at the Pakerisan Valley and in Jatiluwih are UNESCO World Heritage Sites but if you are not able to visit these in the west of the island, many picturesque ones can be seen in and around Ubud while traveling between the temples. If you have kids they will appreciate your taking them for a day to the Bali Safari Park south of the airport where they can see a show featuring orangutans and various birds. A good photo opportunity at the Safari Park is to pose with a baby orangutan.
We spent a week in Bali including a couple of days at Yogyakarta. Basing ourselves at Ubud turned out to be a good decision because of the choice of hotels and its central location with quick accessibility to most of the well-known temples. Of course, there are other hotels, some of them quite up market but the OKAWATI Hotel run by Mrs Okawati and its spacious villa like rooms and tucked away from the main road was more than adequate for us. Yogi’s van was reasonably priced as per the distance done per day and he himself was very knowledgeable about the island. I contacted him over the internet and we agreed on the itinerary and other details before we met at the airport on our arrival. We thoroughly enjoyed our slow paced holiday at Bali and came away completely charmed by its gentle people and their distinctive way of Hindu life. Some day we sincerely hope to return to another part and to a different experience.
Photos - http://www.flickr.com/photos/nileshkorgaokar/collections/72157625952726746/
Climate and Best Time to Go – Being on the Equator, Bali enjoys a temperate climate throughout the year. Days can be warm and nights cool because of the forests and the insular climate. Australians flood the island during the Christmas and New Year holiday season and so it would be sensible to time your holiday to the Indian holiday season of April-May and Oct-Nov.
Getting There – There are no direct flights from India to Bali. We flew Thai Airways via Bangkok as it provided the quickest and most convenient option. Air Asia may be cheaper but the website warns that Indians may have to apply for a transit visa to transit thru Kuala Lumpur. Compare fares, timings and transit rules using integrators like cleartrip.com, makemytrip.com and yatra.com.
Getting Around – Public transport is almost non-existent and the best option is to hire a van with a driver preferably who will also serve as a guide. Foreigners hire motorcycles and for a younger person this may be a viable option. The need for driver’s license needs to be checked.
Visa Formalities – Visa is on arrival for most nationalities including Indians and can be obtained quickly at the counter at various rates depending upon the duration of the stay. We paid $25 each for a seven-day visa.
Places to Stay – Ranging from the top-end to the budget you will be spoilt for choice. We stayed at Lonely Planet’s Choice in Ubud – The Okawati Hotel. It’s a family run place headed by the very friendly Mrs Okawati and features about 10 very spacious rooms some of which face the small swimming pool. The restaurant overlooks rice paddies where villagers gather snails. Meals other than breakfast have to be pre-ordered. The hotel features Wi-Fi internet that we were able to negotiate for free use.
Places to Eat – Again you will be spoilt for choice of cuisine. Restaurants and bars line the main Monkey Forest Road on both sides with hostesses standing outside trying to entice you in. A meal for two with excellent service will set you back by about Rs 2,000.
Temple Formalities and Attire – Some temples restrict entry only to locals and you may not be allowed entry allowed as a foreigner at all. At other places you would be required to be wear proper attire – Kamen and Saput for men and kamen or sarong for women. Our driver cum guide was carrying an extra pair or two of these pieces of attire for us to get access.
Currency and payment – The conversion rate is 8,800 Indonesian Rupiah to the US dollar which works out to 178 Indonesian Rupiah to the Indian Rupee. You can withdraw cash from most ATM’s and your bank account will be debited according to the day’s prevailing exchange rate. Money changers will also accept US dollars and different rates that are open to negotiations. Most hotels and restaurants accept major credit cards. MasterCard has designated Indonesia as a country that is unsafe to use their cards and on return your card will be replaced.