A Travellerspoint blog

August 2012

Embedded in a Balinese Procession to appease the Gods, Bali

A Peek inside one of the great cultures of Asia................Ramdas Iyer

After my first trip to Bali in 1995 I was totally convinced that if there is a Paradise on earth it must be centered in Ubud, Bali. The sensory effects of the land combined with a predominantly Hindu people whose purpose in life seem to be one that is committed to ritual celebrations placating their various gods is a truly uplifting experience. Upon my return after nearly a decade in 2004 I was pleased to observe that the core of the culture was still intact but I could see irreversible changes taking place along the fringes of the villages and in the towns. Even though there was no concerted effort by Indonesia’s fairly secular government to disturb this idyllic Island, pressures of a growing Islamic population, commercial opportunism and mass tourism centered mainly around the beaches was a source of cultural erosion. As a frequent visitor to rain forests I can see similarities between deforestation of forests and cultural erosion of societies.
While many writers and photographers have highlighted Balinese culture in wonderful articles, I chose to present here my own photographic journey and the cultural richness of Bali using my own experiences growing up in India in a Hindu family performing similar rituals. The details of these ceremonies were extracted from various sources with spare commentary interspersed by me. An important distinction between Hinduism practiced in Bali is very dissimilar to the Classical Hindu practices. The paganized version practiced here is much akin to the brand of catholism I witnessed in Chichicastenango, Guatemala where petitions to Christ are made with animal sacrifices. Even in India today there are many paganized versions of pre Hindu styles of worship that exists alongside with Vedic Hinduism.

The question I hear frequently is how Bali became a Hindu Kingdom. As early as 200AD the SriVijaya Kingdom was established in Sumatra by the strong naval powers of south Indian kings. This kingdom eventually became the Mahajapit Empire occupying Sumatra, Java, Bali and later Cambodia. Buddhism and Hinduism alternated as the state religion between 500 AD and 1300 AD. With the spread of Islam under the sword, Hinduism was relegated to tiny Bali while the Javanese slowly converted to Islam after 1300. Since Hinduism and the Indic religious culture was ingrained in the Javanese mainland culture that the elites ruling Java left Bali alone as a safe haven for Hindus,

The Balinese devote most of their waking hours to an endless series of offerings, purifications, processions, dances, and dozens of other religious rites. Ceremonies and festivals guide a Balinese from birth to death and into the world thereafter. There can be few places of comparable size where ceremonial obligations hold such a sway over people's lives. There are festivals dedicated to the art of woodcarving, the birth of a goddess, percussion instruments. There are temple festivals, fasting and retreat ceremonies: parades to the sea to cleanse villages, special prayer days for the dead, nights of penance (sivaratri), harvest festival, blood sacrifices, and house deity anniversaries. But some ceremonies-such as the extraordinary mouse cremation at Ababi village near Tirtagangga takes place once every 10 years. I have personally witnessed elaborate cremation ceremonies in Bali that is a macabre spectacle.
In this article I wish to highlight the Pura Taman Ayum temple procession in Mengwi village during the Galungan ceremonies, an annual festival to appease the Island spirits. We all like parades but no parade on earth can match the colorful religious processions of the women of Bali.
A basic tenet of the Balinese religion is that rituals and ceremonies maintain harmony between the two equally powerful forces of good and evil, and that the proper and harmonious behavior of the people brings the supernatural forces under control.
Starting at the home of my guide Ketut I joined the cavalcade dressed in sarong and sash, with his family members. Over the years many small community platforms have been erected all over the island. Some big and some small, where the locals gathered to build decorations, stitch flowers into garlands, make religious paraphilia or even carve wooden effigies for funerals. Female members of Ketut’s family gathered at a nearby community platform with me firmly embedded with them. I knew they were teasing me a little bit including asking me to marry somebody’s daughter, They had all prepared elaborate offering platters some weighing in excess of 20 lbs. The platters consist of sweet cakes, glutinous rice, sumptuous quantities of fruits and flowers all decorated with cut patterns made from palm fronds.
Nobody is left out; peasants as well as aristocrats take part in the preparations. Rules govern exactly how much food, oil, palm leaf strips, lamak, and symbolic money are offered. Men ready the temple grounds; hanging friezes, canopies, and banners, building bamboo platforms and altars, slaughtering pigs, erecting penjor poles, performing guard duty, and covering the genitals of statues with checkered cloths.
Fashionable dress shows respect and is also a mark of social prestige. Women don rich handspun kain and ornament themselves with jewels, scarves, and pounded gold in their hair. At festival times a young woman looks her best. She's allowed to wear lipstick and makeup at religious events but not in daily life when it would be considered too flirtatious. Infant girls wear flowers in their hair and bright sashes around their tiny waists. Men wear a brocaded head cloth, kris, and colorful sarung.

We then proceeded to join the many women emerging from various corners of the village, all wearing the same pink-laced blouse and matching floral sarong. It was so well orchestrated that new entrants smoothly merged into the procession. After a couple of kilometers of walking we stopped for a while waiting for a neighboring village to join the procession. Then suddenly through the rice fields emerged over a 100 women dressed in white lace blouses and dark floral sarongs. Caught in the confluence of these streams of caparisoned women made me feel like I was in the Sangam at Allahabad, India where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet kicking off one of the largest religious gathering mankind has ever known with 15 million people taking a holy dip on Maha Shvrathri day.
What is great about Bali is that it is poor with rich traditions. So the people have a great self-dignity. One could tell the wealthy from the not so fortunate ones from the gold jewelry worn by some of them. Rarely have I seen a more egalitarian social festival that brings all people together using one common denominator: the welfare of the community. I must admit that the Haj maybe another one such event.
After 4 km about 200 of these fine women escorted by a few men and myself reached the grounds of the temple. I realized that I was the only non-oriental in the entire gathering and was often the subject of an occasional flash photograph by a camera-toting member of the Balinese diaspora.
The women systematically placed their offerings in front of the shrine of the trinity Siva, Vishnu and Brahma. There was no orchestration, no fumbling nor stumbling. There was no rehearsal nor was judging it all purely organic.
The priests began their chanting and amidst the clanging of bells and prostrations of the women, I made an exit towards the gate not wanting to make a spectacle out of private worship. I wish to make this point about the spectacular Hindu temples in India. They do not seek World Heritage status because doing so would interrupt the private nature of worship between man and his creator. While I would like all of humanity to enjoy cultures I myself would find it hard to be a non-believer amongst believers.
Here in Bali large celebrations, lasting for days and mobilizing thousands of people, are performed with startling efficiency. A large temple festival is like a stage for a lavish form of metaphysical theater, a three-ringed circus of the arts when the temple comes alive with devotees who crowd into the courtyard and parade between the shrines. For three or four days almost without break, ritual dances, festive music, dramas and cock-fights ( see my blog on travellerspoint) are performed as if the occasion were a costume party instead of a fervid act of worship. Finally, bloated with sensory pleasure, the gods are invited to return to their heavenly spheres.
No one who has encountered a Balinese procession will ever forget the total immersion into Balinese culture and the wonderful opportunity to interact with the people on a special occasion. Am I blessed!
Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:07 Archived in Indonesia Tagged bali indonesia culture hindu balinese galungan Comments (2)

Centerstage in a Balinese Cockfight, Central Highlands, Bali

Religion and Roulette in a delicate balance


As an entrepreneur who had literally bet his house on his new business, I needed some serious relaxation in Paradise. It was indeed Ubud in Bali that I chose for that time. During this second visit in 2004 after 9 years of yearning to return, I spent a full week exploring the Hindu culture of Bali. Staying at “Taman Rahasya “ a coconut Grove that translates to secret grove in Sanskrit and great views of the volcano , Mt. Batur, I launched project "go Native". The backyard lead to miles of paddy fields with locals planting rice, kids flying kites and butchers chasing pigs, while ducks and geese were taking cover awaiting their turn at the abbotoir.Here I had the good fortune to meet a young guide/driver who helped me to simply merge with the locals.
The purpose of this trip was to attend several Hindu temple ceremonies, including the 210 day cycle Galungan and Kuningan ceremonies during when the island fills up with red-colored arc-shaped coconut leaf and bamboo decorations. With thousands of temples “dressed up” in new yellow clothes, small rural roads become incredibly pretty. The Kuningan holiday takes place ten days after Galungan, bringing the holiday period to a closing time. On this day, a special ritual ceremony is held for the ancestral spirits. The cockfight.


Cockfights have the ceremonial purpose of ritually spilling blood, an important pacification of the demons that escort Hindu temple festivals. In fact, cockfight is required, not just allowed at every Balinese temple festival or religious ceremony. The blood is an offering to the hungry forces of evil. But times are changing fast in Bali. The Indonesian Government has officially banned this sport after pressure from western animal rights organizations. Being an insider in Ubud and a ranking Hindu from India, I was given the inside track to one of this culturally significant battle of the cocks.


Dressed in my linen shirt, colorful sarong and head dress I quickly made my way into the massive gathering in front of the temple. Cock-fighting is the Bingo or slot games of the third world. Unlike the monotonous whir of the slots, there is literally blood and guts here - like the Romans throwing the Christians to the lions. There are crowds that jostle and shout. There is lots of frenzied action. Even if you don't bet, the scene may be worth the effort of getting there. Although this is almost exclusively a man's sport, there are always ladies who show up to sell snacks to the spectators.
The cocks that are used in cockfighting are specially treated in preparation for the cockfight. They are fondled, massaged, plucked, bathed, deloused, and fed the choicest mixtures of corn, rice, egg, and proprietary strength-building ingredients. It is said that a mixture of chopped grilled meat and jack-fruit leaves thickens the blood and prevents serious bleeding when injury results from the fight.
As the only foreigner albeit of Asian descent, I was given every courtesy by the frenzied crowd. Someone dragged a rickety chair for me to sit down. I had not gone digital SLR yet and I was a simple point and shooter having decided to finally rest my film SLRs for this paradise vacation. Standing on a chair is taboo in Asia since the oft soiled shoes in a tropical environment is nasty. I wish the westerners understand this too. They put their feet everywhere, much to my dismay. I cleverly removed my sandals, slipped a pair of ankle socks that I always carry in my back pack for walking on hot surfaces in the tropics. This way I could stand above the fray to witness this religious cock fight and present it to you here.

The ceremony started when the cocks are brought to the arena in small, flexible bamboo cages. The cages are lined up around the edge of the arena, inside the barricade, and their handlers’ squat behind them. Then a white-clad priest advanced to the center of the arena and presented offerings on the ground to the spirits “ butas and kalas”, chanting over them, ringing his bell over them, and finally pouring rice wine on the ground. Then he made similar offerings to the gods in a shrine built up off the ground at a corner of the arena. Blood shedding was on its way.

Usually there are 3 fights & each cockfight between 2 birds ends after three rounds or when one cock is no longer able to continue fighting. After the fights, the crowds don't automatically disperse like at the end of other sporting events, instead males will just stay behind chatting about the match or about arcane facts of cock lineage similar to equine racing. Often the visitor like me misses most of the significance. The preliminaries and the post script, the daily treatment of the fighting cocks, the arcane lore of the sport, and especially the intricacies of the betting are as integral a part of the story as the fight itself. And, unfortunately, they are aspects that most people miss because they occur in such a seemingly chaotic fashion as to make them unintelligible to anyone but the person who would take the time and trouble to investigate.
I hope these images contribute to your understanding of one of the great “blood sports” of Indonesia

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 16:47 Archived in Indonesia Tagged bali indonesia hindu cockfight Comments (1)

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