Bali – Culturally Speaking

Why is Bali called The Island of the Gods? Located just 8 degrees south of the Equator, no one can argue that the Bali is one of the world’s most beautiful and diverse islands.

Legend says that the Supreme God created the sky for Gods, the Earth for animals and seas for fish.

As for man, an earthly island paradise was needed and Bali was born. Visiting foreigners agreed and began to spread the word about this heaven on earth where man and Gods, nature and spirits exist in harmony.

Enter tourism.

While an increasing number of tourists can and do negatively impact popular destinations, Bali has proven to be the exception. It is not paradise lost and Bali has maintained its alluring appeal better than other major tourist destinations. Experts agree this is largely due to the Balinese strong cultural beliefs and village systems of mutual cooperation. Unlike Hawaii, the vibrant pageantry, religious festivals and other cultural events in Bali are mainly for the Balinese people, not tourists.

Balinese see themselves as brothers and sisters of one mother – Mother Earth, and this sense of belonging extends to the strong community systems that have been in place for centuries.

The Banjar (village level government), the Subak (agricultural council) and the Sekhe (social activities club) are the key elements which keep Balinese culture alive. When a man marries he is expected to join his village Banjar and must participate in meetings. Every family has a myriad of ceremonies from birth to death of which the whole village helps and attends. Giving your time and participation in your village’s activities are just as valuable as contributing money. In fact, time becomes a type of currency. A village member can be ostracized if seen as not giving as much time as others. A newborn baby cannot touch the ground for three months while the spirit connection is bonding with the baby. On day 105, a ceremony, just as important as a wedding, is held to celebrate the union of human to earth by having a priest give a blessing while touching the baby’s feet to the ground. In these ways, the entire village becomes one big family with shared goals, hopes, dreams, and visions.

Temple offerings

Saying that religion is an integral aspect of Balinese life is an understatement.

Their unique version of Hinduism can be seen not only in their many temple festivals but in the several rituals performed daily. Balinese Hinduism incorporates elements from Buddhism, animist beliefs (the belief that all non-human entities, including plants, animals, and objects, possess a spiritual essence) and ancestral worship.

What catches most visitors’ attention the first time they visit Bali are the small palm-leaf offering baskets adorning houses, shops, roads, temples and even motorbike seats. Called Canang Sari, (translated as essence tray) these gift baskets are filled with flowers, small bits of food and always incense. Placing the gifts with such care and grace, the women encircle the smoke toward the sky like setting a butterfly free. The daily ritual is the Balinese way of thanking the Gods and requesting the demons to stay away.

People of Bali see the universe as consisting of two worlds which balance each other.

Core to this belief is the view of Sekala and Niskala (the seen and the unseen,) that which we cannot see is of equal importance and must be respected. Duality is at the center of this spirituality. It’s all about maintaining the balance between good and evil because without each other, neither can exist. An example of this is the black and white sacred cloths draped over trees, statues, and worn in outdoor ceremonies. Black + white = balance.

Particularly amusing, Balinese people have a special custom for naming their children. All Balinese people are named one of just 4 names – Wayan, Made, Nyoman and Ketut, both the men and the women. The names are given according to the order of birth, with the first born, be it a girl or a boy, named Wayan. Made (pronounced ma day) is given to the second one, followed by Nyoman, and Ketut. And if the family happens to have another child, well – they just start over again with Wayan! As you can imagine, nicknames are widespread.

Despite years of continued tourism and contacts with the Western world, the islanders have kept their fascinating culture and traditions intact.

If you talk to the locals, you’ll likely hear how certain days work best for planting a tree or getting married; days of the month that are suitable for digging a well or getting a haircut – all of these wondrous beliefs and traditions ensure the preservation of their culture, and to the outsiders, Bali forever remains just as exotic and enchanting as the folklore says it is.