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Outside of India, Bali is the largest Hindu outpost in the world. Put in another way, it's the furthest reaches of the Hindu empire. On Bali Hinduism has developed along lines all its own. In fact, the way in which the Balinese practice their frontier Hinduism is still their greatest art.


Hinduism is at least 3,000 years old and dates from the creation of the Vedas, compilations of prayers, hymns, and other religious writings. Hinduism doesn't have a single founder or prophet. There is only one god, though its many different manifestations are named and classified in great detail.


The Balinese call their religion Agama Tirta ("Science of the Holy Water"), an interpretation of religious ideas from China, India, and Java. Agama Tirta is much closer to the earth and more animist than Hinduism proper; the two sects are as different from each other as Ethiopian Christianity from Episcopalian Christianity.


If a strict Hindu Brahman from Varanasi ever visited Bali, he'd think them savages. Although the Hindu epics are well known and form the basis of favorite Balinese dances, the deities worshipped in India are here considered too aloof and aristocratic. Often the Balinese don't even know their names.



The Balinese have their own trinity of supreme gods, the Shrine of the Three Forces. Because of the caste system, 200 million people are shunned in India. On Bali only the older people still believe in the caste system; the young ignore it. In India a Hindu must be cremated at once in order to enter into heaven; because of the expense, on Bali sometimes a whole village will temporarily bury its dead and later stage a mass cremation. In India widows must not remarry but on Bali they can--here, even high priests marry. In India, worship at home is all-important but on Bali group worship is preferred.

Balinese Animism
The Balinese are scared witless of ghosts, goblins, and the like, which disguise themselves as black cats, naked women, and crows. Spirits dominate everything the Balinese do, and they are constantly offering fruit and flowers to appease angry deities. If put in our society, a Balinese would show all the classic symptoms of paranoia and neurotic disorders, but on
Bali these traits are ritualized and institutionalized. There are sun gods, totemic gods, deer gods, secretaries to the gods, mythical turtles, market deities. Clay figures of the fire god are put over kitchen hearths, bank clerks place pandanus-leaf offering trays on their desks. Ngedjot are placed in the courtyards of every house; these offerings consist of little squares of banana leaves holding a few grains of rice, a flower, salt, and a pinch of chili pepper. No one eats until ngedjot are placed at the cardinal points in the family courtyard and in front of each house. Though mangy dogs eat the offerings as soon as they touch the ground, their essence has already been consumed by the spirits.

Gods and goddesses, who protect or threaten every act performed by a person during his or her lifetime, inhabit stone thrones and statues or simply hover in the air. Gods are often invited down to visit earth and are gorged with offerings and entertained with music and dance, but eventually they must go back home because they're too expensive to maintain. The Balinese always try to stay on the good side of all the forces. If the spirits are kept happy, the people can relax and even grow lighthearted. Children carry flowers to shrines and learn to dance at an early age to please the gods and the raja.

Feasts mark special periods in an infant's first year: three days after birth, 42 days after the first bath, 105 days after birth, and 210 days after birth--the first birthday celebration. At each stage of the agricultural cycle ceremonies are held, offerings made, and holy texts chanted. Even cockfighting was originally a temple ritual--blood spilled for the gods. During the 1965 political bloodletting in which 50,000 Balinese were killed, victims dressed in spotless white ceremonial attire before being led away to execution. Devils were believed to live in the communists or their sympathizers, and their deaths were necessary to cleanse the island of evil. Heaven? The Balinese believe heaven will be exactly like Bali.

The Balinese religion divides most concepts into polarities: heaven and earth, sun and moon, day and night, gods and demons, man and woman, clean and unclean, strong and weak, hot and cold. The interaction of these contrasting pairs runs the world, creates harmony, and determines one's fate. Thus the Balinese witch, Rangda, who symbolizes evil, plays a useful role in guarding the temples. In Balinese folk medicine, headaches are cured by spraying the head with a mixture of crushed ginger and mashed bedbugs--a heated or irritated condition cured with a cooling medicine.

Spatial Orientation
The Balinese are one of the few island peoples who don't look towards the sea but upward towards the mountains. They believe everything high is good, powerful magic, healthy. The ocean below is sinister, filled with poisonous fish, sea snakes, and sharks. The highest of the island's mountains, Gunung Agung, is known as the "Navel of the World." The sacred mountains are "north," the sea "south"; these are the cardinal points and their villages, houses, and even their beds are aligned in these directions.

There's an unending chain of festivals, over 60 religious holidays a year. The basic tenet of the Balinese religion is the belief the island is owned by the supreme god Sanghyang Widhi, and has been handed down to the people in sacred trust. Thus the Balinese seem to devote most of their waking hours to an endless series of physically and financially exhausting offerings, purifications, temple festivities, processions, dances, and cremations. Festivals are dedicated to woodcarving, the birth of a goddess, and percussion instruments; there are temple festivals, fasting and retreat ceremonies, parades to the sea, celebrations of wealth and learning.

Get a Balinese calendar; besides offering faithful pictorial representations of simple, realistic folk scenes, they show the most propitious days for religious activities. Try to catch one of the full moon ceremonies, a traditional affair that can last for some days. Lots of praying, singing, and dancing--a wonderful opportunity to interact with the people in their own environment on a special occasion. Your hotel owner will tell you what to wear or perhaps even dress you in traditional attire. Incidentally, ceremonies concerning people take place in homes rather than temples. The temples are only used for ceremonies to gods.

On this extravagant occasion you'll see most of
Bali's popular art and all the more important religious symbols. Cremation liberates the soul of the dead, allowing it to journey to heaven to rejoin the Hindu cycle of reincarnation. Bodies are buried twice on Bali: once at death, and again after being exhumed and cremated. These funerals are a time of tipsy hilarity, gossip, offerings, and dances, all brightened by continuous gamelan music. First the deceased is "re-awakened," the grave opened, and the remains placed on a decorated wood and bamboo tower, a fantastic creation of tinsel, paper, flowers, mirrors, silk, and white cloth. Because of pervasive power lines all over the island, the really tall towers of the past are seldom used today.

The corpse is then carried in a noisy procession to the cremation grounds. On the way it's spun around on top of men's shoulders to confuse the soul and prevent it from finding its way back to its house, where it might make mischief for the living. While tourists trip over themselves taking pictures, the splendid tower, offerings, and coffin are then set ablaze. As matches are considered unclean, blowtorches ignite the pyre, blasting both the cranium and feet, enabling cremations to take place even when it rains. Up until 1903, widows were burned in the great fires of the dead. After the blaze subsides, the eldest son rakes the ashes to make sure all the flesh is burned. To free the soul, the ashes are carried out to sea and scattered.

The Balinese don't sell tickets to their cremations, but they sell transport to the ceremonies. In tourist resorts you'll see signs announcing the event, as well as the address and telephone number of the transport agency. The local tourist office also knows when and where cremations take place. Some don't need advertising: the 1993 funeral for the last raja of Gianyar drew 50,000 people, almost two percent of the total Balinese population.

At least 20,000 temples grace
Bali. If you see pura in front of a word, it means temple: puri, on the other hand, means palace. All temple complexes and historical sites now charge Rp550 admission, and you must be appropriately dressed. Not all sites require a sash, but all require at least a sarung. It's also common to sign a guest book. At some of the more obscure sites beware of guest books in which zeros have been added to all the preceding figures, making it appear donations have been substantial. Menstruating women are barred. Notice the exuberant ornamentation; carvings on temples are like the flowers and the trees. Bring binoculars to observe the extreme detail.

There are temples everywhere--in houses, courtyards, marketplaces, cemeteries, and rice paddies; on beaches, barren rocks offshore, deserted hilltops, and mountain heights; deep inside caves; within the tangled roots of banyan trees. At most intersections and other dangerous places temples are erected to prevent mishaps. Even in the middle of jungle crossroads, incense burns at little shrines. Four sites in particular stand out: Gunung Kawi, Ulun Dau Batur, Ulun Danu Bratan, and Besakih. The last is the Mother Temple of Bali, the state temple. It lies on the slopes of Gunung Agung, the "Navel of the World," the holiest mountain on Bali, where all the gods and goddesses live