bali culture

BALI IS NOT JUST THE BEACH

Bali is a diverse island. Known as the Land of the Gods, Bali is a predominantly Hindu Island, unlike the rest of Indonesia, which has a population of mostly Muslim followers. Bali culture is unique, there’s no doubt about it. Many visitors to Bali flock to the beaches, but in between the sea and surf, most people integrate some sightseeing into their travel plans.

The main attractions in Bali, other than the picturesque beaches, are the temples. There are far too many to count, but they do range in size and location. It’s not uncommon to be walking down one of the main shopping streets of Kuta and suddenly find yourself face to face with a temple. Small Balinese temples can even be found on the beaches. And no matter what time of the day it is, you’ll always find someone praying to one of the many Hindu Gods.

Learning about Balinese Hinduism and its beliefs will ensure you get the most out of your visits to some of the island’s main temples such as Pura Luhur Ulwatu, Goa Lawah, Pura Taman, Pura Luhur Lempuyang, Gunung Kawi Temple, Tirta Empul, and Ulun Danu Bratan to name but a few.

What’s more, there’s certain etiquette that all visitors, no matter what your creed is, should follow. There have been a number of instances over the years where tourists to the area, who had little to no knowledge of the religious practices and customs in Bali, unwittingly offended the locals, and according to them, angered the Gods and awoke the demons.

Knowing about Balinese Hinduism will also impress your new Balinese friends, which you’ll surely make since they’re some of the friendliest people on earth. For the local Balinese, there are two things that remain important over everything else – their religion and family.

Spiritual Offerings in Bali

Everywhere you walk in Bali whether it’s down the main Legian strip or in the remote rice paddy fields of Ubud, you’ll see small pallets of offerings. An anomaly in Indonesia, the Balinese Hindus make offerings to the Gods every day. Every Balinese home, shop, restaurant, hotel and club will have them sitting in front of their premises for protection and a sign of gratitude.

Small woven baskets made out of palm leaves contain colorful flowers, incense, gambier, tobacco, lime, betel nuts and sweets. These offerings, known as Canang Sari, symbolize the three main Gods of Balinese Hinduism – Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma.

Every day, without fail, you’ll see women dressed in the traditional Balinese dress making their ritual offerings. To the Balinese, this is a simple gesture, but to foreign onlookers, it’s quite spectacular and intriguing. It’s the locals’ way of thanking the Gods for all the peace on the island and in the world. The philosophy behind these colorful offerings is simple – it’s their way of showing their self-sacrifice because of all the time and effort they take to prepare them!

While such spiritual offerings might seem pretty and kitsch to the tourist, you really need to see them being made to understand how much this ‘sweet’ religious practice is ingrained into the daily lives of the Balinese and how much effort is put into them every day.

The Balinese Caste System

If there’s any place in the world where the caste system is still very prevalent, it’s Bali. The Balinese are big believers in karma; this equates to one of the West’s favorite sayings “What comes around goes around.” You’ll often hear the locals say “Be good, so you get good karma” or “He wronged me, karma will get him!” In fact karma and Balinese Hinduism go hand in and hand. You’ll very rarely hear a local losing his or her temper – they believe that the said situation is in the Gods’ hands and they will take care of it in the near future or the next life.

The caste system in Bali is divided into four parts – the religious leaders and elders, the rulers, the merchants and then the lower class, which is made up of farmers and the majority of the population fall into. Balinese Hindus believe that your caste is a result of your past life. The way people address each other is a sign of the other’s caste and place in society and marriage and relationships between different castes is unofficially prohibited.

Temple Etiquette in Bali

Going to Bali and not visiting at least one Hindu temple would be like stepping into an ice cream parlor and leaving empty handed.

Balinese religious ceremonies and temples are considered to be an integral part of everyday life in Bali. And although many are open for visits from tourists, you need to bear in mind that they’re still holy places of worship, which means that you must always show respect at all times.

Whenever anyone enters a Hindu temple in Bali, no matter if they’re a man or a woman, they must wear a sarong and sash. At the more populated temples, you can hire these. However, if your plan is to visit numerous temples in Bali, you could always buy your own as they’re relatively cheap and a great souvenir. As well as renting a sarong, you’ll also be expected to make a small donation. 10,000 rupiah is said to be sufficient, which will help with the maintenance of the temple.

As well as wearing a sarong and sash in a Hindu Balinese temple, you should also make sure you don’t expose too much skin; this is especially true of the upper body. Bare shoulders in a Hindu temple in Bali is considered inappropriate and disrespectful so make sure you cover up.

It might sound strange to you, but bleeding in a temple is also not acceptable. Any person, who is bleeding, which includes menstruating women and people who have an open wound are not permitted to enter. The same goes for people who’re mourning a recent death of a family member and a pregnant or nursing mother.

It must be noted that if you’re lucky enough to get invited to a Balinese ceremony in a church, you’ll also have to abide by their dress code – luckily for us, their national dress is beautiful and elegant. Balinese Hindu ceremonial attire consists of a kebaya, which is a delicate lace woven blouse, a sarong and a sash for women. For men, Balinese ceremonial dress includes a button-down white shirt, a special cloth headdress called an udeng and a piece of material that wraps around the sarong called a saput.

The most important thing to remember is that these tourist attractions in Bali are places of worship for the locals. While in a temple remain inconspicuous, especially when people are praying.

Bali temples are full of statues and grand structures. Again common sense must prevail. Climbing on and crawling all over such sacred statues is forbidden, so it’s worth trying to explain this to any smaller children who might be accompanying you before entering the temple to avoid making a scene.

In a Nutshell

When you do get to step onto the glorious shores of Bali, it’ll immediately become apparent that the local Balinese culture is still prominent, as is their religion. Balinese Hinduism has a long colorful history, but what sets Balinese Hinduism apart from many other religions in the world is how much it’s still ingrained in everyday life and routine – it’s clear that adherence to religious tradition permeates all aspects of everyday life in Bali.
From a young child, the Balinese will be taught the practices and beliefs of Hinduism, and they too will later pass their knowledge, beliefs and traditions onto their own children. This is one of the most beautiful things about the Balinese and Bali. Despite Bali being a tourist hub where capitalism and corruption are said to be prominent, the people still maintain and live by their values, which is why, we too should respect their beliefs, traditions and rules.

The strong beliefs and adherence to their faith are what makes Bali such a charming place to visit. Immerse yourself into the unique culture and traditions of Bali and you’ll be able to see firsthand the plethora of colorful rituals and numerous festivities on a daily basis. Even though Bali accommodates to and accepts the different attitudes from Western tourists, it’s imperative that all visitors to the island employ common sense.

Bali is a place where I can connect. It’s where I discovered my spiritual side and where I learned to accept and find myself. My respect for Bali and the Balinese runs deep. To me, it’s so refreshing to people genuinely practice a faith that they strongly believe in without imposing it on others. It’s a huge part of what makes Bali special, but one thing’s for sure, the Balinese are big believers because of their desire to please the Gods, not the tourists, and this is something admirable.

By Victoria Zurakowski