Bali's traditions: discovering local culture in 10 pictures
The majestic island of Bali is often admired for its breathtaking landscapes, paradisiac beaches or incredibly colorful sceneries. But the local culture is often less known or talked about in travel stories, while it is made of beautiful traditions passed between generations. These traditions are often taking root in the relationship locals cultivate with the natural world, as well as in Hindu myths and beliefs as the predominant philosophy on the island. Let's discover the marvels local culture has to show through 10 pictures and traditions.
Note: This post is a retelling of the learnings on Hinduism traditions I was taught during my trip to Bali. This is not me talking about my personal beliefs or trying to convince you to believe a certain thing rather than another, but simply shared knowledge on the local culture of the island.
1. Galungan ceremonies: Bali's most important holiday
Every 210 days on the Balinese calendar, the ceremonies of Galungan take place. Galungan is one of Bali's most important holidays (along with Nyepi, or silent day), and lasts for 10 days. It celebrates the fight between dharma (good) and adharma (evil) according to Hindu traditions. It's also a time to honor the ancestors through different prayers, offerings and ceremonies. On the first day of Galungan, locals wear traditional clothes for the prayers of the day: these include a batik kamben (a sarong tied around the waist), as well as a kebaya (a white lacy top) for women and a udeng (a white headdress) for men. Galungan ends with Kuningan on the tenth day, when the spirits of the ancestors leave earth. It is a very significant time in Balinese culture, reminding people to stay united with their spiritual strength.
2. The making of Penjors
During the time of Galungan, you can see Penjors standing at every entrance of houses or temples: these tall decorated bamboo poles symbolize prosperity. Some also say they represent a sacred dragon, or Mount Agung, Bali's highest volcano. Penjors are usually made a few days before the start of Galungan to last for at least a month: it is a complex and meticulous work, requiring patience. Several elements are essential to the making of Penjors: the bamboo pole meant to hold the structure, palm leaves woven into complex designs, a white and yellow cloth wrapped around the base (representing the spiritual inspiration), flowers or fruits offerings (for protection from the Hindu god Vishnu). The shape of the Penjor also has its signification: the straight part of the pole is meant to represent the good, whereas the curved part the evil, and it's part of why it needs to be adorned beautifully to compensate for the negative energy.
3. The traditions of water purification
Water is present in most rituals in Bali: it is a symbol of fertility and life, and is believed to hold purifying and cleansing power. On the island, there is a strong belief around the way water can hold imprints of memories, therefore seen as a doorway for a lot of prayers and rituals, to carry intents. In the several water temples around Bali, the ritual of Melukat, or water purification is carried out. It can take different forms depending on the event or intention but is usually performed with holy water, or tirta, from springs and bathing pools in the temples.
4. Morning offerings in Bali
All over the island, you can see little offerings bundles set out in entryways, temples, on the streets, and even on the beach or at the bottom of waterfalls. Offerings (called Banten in Indonesian) have a central role in the practices of Balinese Hinduism: they are made every day in Bali, and take different forms or meanings. The ones we see most frequently and pretty much everywhere are called Canang sari: a little basket made of woven pandan or banana leaves, flower petals, food, incense sticks. There's a reason why these are so colorful: every color of the offering is meant to represent a divinity, and therefore carry a special prayer or intent to the gods. Another kind of offering, called Mesaiban, is done every morning. It consists of a little bit of rice being put on banana leaves in the house yard, after cooking the meals of the day, as a form of gratitude for the food.
5. A day for the goddess Saraswati
In Hinduism beliefs, Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge, wisdom, creativity and the arts. She is celebrated in Bali on a special day every 210 days, called Hari Saraswati, where the offerings take the form of books to honour knowledge. During this day, people usually don't read or write in books as they are kept for ceremonies. In Ubud, Pura Taman Saraswati is a beautiful temple dedicated to the goddess. The temple is surrounded by a water garden of lotus ponds: this flower is the one Saraswati is seen sitting on in most representations. According to Hindus, it symbolizes purity and spiritual enlightenment.
6. Balinese traditional music to fend off bad spirits
During the ten days of Galungan, a special tradition takes place at night as soon as the sun sets. Around 7 pm, you will see kids stroll around the villages at dusk holding the Barong, the figure of a mythological creature representing the king of the spirits, while dancing or playing gamelan, traditional music. This ritual is called Ngelawang. It originates from the mythological story of the fight between good and evil, and is meant to fend off bad spirits on the island by scaring them away. The barong is often represented with thick fur, a wooden mask ornate with complex paintings. The official Barong dance is performed in temples, and the Barong has his place in the processions of Galungan.
7. The naga, serpent divinity of Asia
The figure of the naga, this half-serpent half-human deity, is represented across Asian mythologies in the Hinduist and Buddhist beliefs, but also in local folklore. In Sanskrit, Naga means cobra. Nagas are believed to be the protectors of seas, rivers, lakes and any existing body of water. On the other side, they are as well believed to be responsible for natural disasters related to water. The beliefs variate according to the myth in one country or another, but essentially Nagas are seen as guardians and protectors and are associated with water and fertility. In water temples, such as Ulun Danu Beratan in northern Bali, it is common to see Naga figures close to the water.
8. Giant stone gates guarding temples
In Bali, the temples and palaces have special entrances, called Candi bentar. These entrances consist of two high stone gates with no doors but opening in a passage to the monument's compound. The gates are perfectly symmetrical, seemingly a single structure split in two to create a way through. The Candi bentar marks the demarcation between the outside world and the sacred inner area of the temple, but also the transition between different spiritual levels inside the temple. In religious beliefs, it is said that if an evil spirit tries to pass through the gates, they will merge to crush it. It is also a traditional expression of Balinese architecture, nowadays built at house or beach entrances too.
9. Frangipani flowers and their traditional meanings
Frangipani trees grow almost everywhere on the island of Bali: streets and ponds are often covered in fallen flowers. Consequently, they are one of the emblems of Bali, and are used in offerings, for prayers or rituals. As part of the beliefs around Nature and the associated deities, flowers are believed to be natural entities with an important meaning. With their white color, they represent the Hindu god Shiva and symbolize purity of heart, while their yellow represents the Hindu god Mahadeva. During prayers, Frangipani flowers are usually held between the fingers before being tucked behind the right ear.
10. The local culture of rice, a practice to find balance
Rice is used in many different rituals in Bali, on top of being the main food source of the island. Cultivating rice is done according to the Subak system, an irrigation system linked to a local water temple, through a complex social hierarchy where everyone has their own role in the irrigation and cultivation processes. These roles also include prayers and offerings for a good harvest. Through this system, people working the land are in a close relationship with Nature, but with gods as well: this philosophy of balance is called Tri Harta Karana, where reaching spiritual happiness is done through balance between nature, humans and gods. Maintaining a harmonious relationship is set to be the way for harvest to be fruitful.