Living Heritage on the Island of the Gods

Written by

Stuart Walker

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Despite its precarious position on the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ and, in recent times, being inundated by tourists, the Indonesian island of Bali is managing to sustain its rich cultural heritage and a way of life that is deeply rooted in religious traditions.

This morning I woke up to an earthquake. At 6.09 there was a magnitude 5.2. It began with a sense that furniture was being clumsily moved around, but soon the whole house was vibrating and rattling. Then it died away and the rain began – a heavy, windless tropical rain that washed away our worries. By 6.30 the sun was high and the heat was back.

Tourists outnumber the Balinese by 2 or 3 to one, and so the usual schlock fills the shops, and there are endless self-oriented indulgences in the form of spas and massages and tranquillity resorts that offer the seeker all the spirituality that money can buy. Despite this – and the inevitability of it all becoming more so – the Balinese people we have encountered have been truly gracious. They are quick to smile and have a placidity and an elegance that is rare in the West. They work hard, with long hours for relatively little pay, yet they are able to retain a sense of quiet optimism about life; it is written in their faces – an aspect of equanimity that their Hindu faith might describe as good karma.

Intricately crafted shadow puppet made from cow hide.

Temples and shrines and offerings to the gods in the form of food and flowers are pervasive. Religious faith is not shuttered off on Sundays – out of sight, out of mind. It is part of every-day life and present everywhere – with small shrines in the shops, fields, and villages. At every entrance, one steps over offerings, and black and white cloths are draped around statues, indicating light and dark, good and bad, and that polar opposites of life are interwoven and inseparable; the important thing being to strive for balance. And every house has its own family temple, practically as large as the house itself.

Black and White Cloth – a Sign of Balance.

Traditionally, the houses are designed for multi-generational living, and the domestic temple is the place where the ashes of ancestors reside, an ever-present reminder that life is short and how we treat others is – as all good parents tell their children – how others will treat us.

I have never before encountered a culture in which religion is such a prominent and visible part of people’s lives. It is the first priority, with family coming a close second, and the pursuit of money a distant third. And this makes life very different from anything experienced in modern, post-industrial societies. Which is not to say that the people are not industrious. In the rice paddies, the subak cooperative water management system ensures the farmers all have a fair share of the water, which is directed to the different plots via canals and weirs; it has been in place for over a thousand years. This ancient system is not only democratic and supportive of egalitarian farming practices, it has also “enabled the Balinese to become the most prolific rice growers in the archipelago despite the challenge of supporting a dense population.”

Mask carving.

There is also a rich craft tradition that includes the carving of ceremonial masks and the making of shadow puppets from cow hide, both of which are used in religious ceremonies to recreate episodes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. There is also high-quality weaving, batik making, ceramics, beautiful hand-painted kites, brick making, furniture of wood and rattan, and slim, illustrated sacred books called lontar, with narrow pages of palm leaves inscribed with text and drawings strung between intricately carved bamboo covers.

Balinese kites – inspired by Nature.

During our stay, my wife and I felt very honoured to be invited to a ceremony hosted by members of the royal family. It was a post-cremation ritual to aid the soul’s passage on its journey. We were asked to wear the traditional sarong or kamben, with an overlay saput, a narrow cloth tied at the waist, and I wore the traditional male headdress, the undeng, another type of tied cloth. We were met at the entrance door, on a busy main thoroughfare, and led through a maze of passages between buildings within the enclosing outer wall, eventually arriving at the area housing the family temple.

Scores of people – men, women and children – were already there, all in traditional garb, men sitting in one area and women in another, but there was no strict segregation. People were chatting and making offerings – hundreds of offerings of flowers, fruit and rice – at the brightly lit and decorated inner temple. A youth gamelan orchestra started playing – brass gongs and bells, two-headed drums or kedang, bronze xylophone-like instruments known as gambangs, and the suling, an end-blown flute. A man with a microphone sat cross-legged reading prayers from a lontar book, and all the while, a high priest dressed in gold blessed offerings with the aid of tinkling bells and the wafting of incense smoke.

Balinese Masked Dancer.

And then came the sacred masked dances known as Barongs – elaborately clothed male figures in layers of colourful, richly decorated robes, with a traditional sword or keris strapped to the back under the robes with only the handle protruding. The dance is highly expressive and is both artistic and religious. Hands, feet and head move in a staccato-like manner – angular but tightly controlled. The masked Topen Sidakanya dance at the peak of the ceremony features a masked figure of an old man with a disconcerting, buck-toothed smile. Among other things, the message of the dance is that we can all counter the evils of the world by doing good.

As the dances came to an end, people gathered to sit cross-legged on the ground before the main altar, hands together at the foreheads in supplication. At which point we felt, as the only Westerners present, that we should say our goodbyes and leave the families to complete their traditional rites.

1. Cultural Landscape of Bali Province: the Subak System as a Manifestation of the Tri Hita Karana Philosophy

Read more of Stuart Walker’s articles and reviews in SublimeDesigning SustainabilityDesign for LifeDesign Realities

About the Author
Professor Stuart Walker: Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University, Visiting Professor, Kingston University, Emeritus Professor, Lancaster University, UK, University of Calgary, Canada. Latest book: Design for Resilience: Making the Future We Leave Behind, The MIT Press

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