I arrived in Bali after a long flight that took me across the Equator, to the Pacific Ring of Fire. As a first destination, I had chosen Sanur, a town on the east coast of the island. I had read that the atmosphere was more relaxed there, compared to the resorts on the west coast, well-known for their party vibe. It wasn’t exactly so: Sanur proved to be a bit too inert for my taste, while places like Kuta, when I went later to check on the west coast, felt more tranquil and pleasant than I expected. But, well, this was the price to pay for having chosen my holiday destination last-minute, without getting much information about it – that year, my plan had been to go to Tibet, but due to a change in regulations, getting the visa had became prohibitive. I suppose that, in the case of Bali, this is a common trap: it is known to be safe, welcoming and beautiful, so it is tempting not to bother much with the preparations, and easy to remain caught at the surface of things.
On my way from the airport, I had to spend an hour or so in the heavy traffic of the capital Denpasar. After that, I got relatively quickly to my small hotel in Sanur. The only thing I had in mind was to collapse on my bed and after a bit of rest, to go to the beach.
It was around noon. When I got out of the taxi, I was struck by the strong, almost unreal light. To get to the hotel reception, I had to cross a large garden, decorated with statues of local deities, and full of flowering trees spreading dizzying fragrances. It was as if I had walked into a dream. I immediately fell in love with those trees, called frangipani, with long leaves and fleshy flowers colored in white, pink, purple or red, and yellow around the center. Their rich perfume, intensified by the heavy air humidity, made me think of a nectar of the gods. For as long as I stayed in Bali, wherever I was walking, I’ve been picking frangipani flowers from the ground — they were falling down a bit everywhere — to put them in my hair or hold them in my hand for a while, just to stay immersed in that divine scent. Since then, if I were to think of paradise, I wouldn’t be able to imagine it without frangipani.
I hadn’t chosen an expensive hotel, so I was amazed to discover the “room” I had been given. It was a detached little house with a generous terrace, under a tile roof with curved edges. The window frames were embellished with dense floral motifs in stucco. The interior was no less generous: a four-poster, imperial-size bed in the middle of the room, and massive wood furniture along the walls.
When I went out to explore the surroundings, I came across other gardens full of flowers, palm trees and frangipani, graciously populated with fountains and small pavilions. The buildings, even the most humble ones, seemed to embed genuine works of art: lacy patterns on the window frames, on the doors and even on the roof edges, with carefully chosen natural colors and materials, ample outdoor spaces, impeccably manicured, and imposing wood-carved gates, if not even large portals in brick or stone, decorated with statues. With so much beauty enclosed, almost any building designed according to the local tradition was like a small palace to my eyes.
It was quite common to see, in people’s courtyards, shrines dedicated to various Hindu deities. They were a sort of miniature pavilions, erected on brick pillars, meant to house offerings such as flowers, food, or fragrant sticks. The little baskets that contained offerings were placed not only in shrines or temples, but also on the sidewalks, in front of shops or houses – I had to be careful all the time not to step on them. In addition to flowers, some baskets contained colorful cookies, slices of fruits, and even cigarettes – depending on what the gods or ancestors to whom they were dedicated were supposed to like. Nothing seemed accidental. The offerings were arranged with great care, and it was clear that each element had its symbol and value, just like their strategic location. Religious beliefs were very much alive and present in people’s daily lives.
If I were to envisage the notion of “exoticism” pushed to the extreme, entailing a strong amount of foreignness in a natural paradise setting, I could say that I was just being exposed to the highest dose of exoticism that I had ever experienced. The houses, the temples, the fragrances in the air – they weren’t anything familiar. To me, an unforeseen visitor just landed on the island, the place seemed so bizzare and out-of-range that it almost felt like another planet. Not even the sunlight seemed like the one that I knew from home!
At a certain point during my walk, I stopped to gaze at a finely carved door: it had intricate motifs on its entire surface, perfectly shaped in the finely polished wood. In Europe, it would have been worthy of a princess’ chambers. When I looked more closely to see what was written above it, I was amazed to find out that the door belonged to a … hostel. A few enthusiastic young people who came out with their backpacks confirmed to me that it was indeed a place for low-budget, unpretentious tourists. Far from being a luxury, beauty was everywhere, accessible to all…
Carved wooden gates
I knew that Balinese Hinduism was unique, not only in contrast to the rest of Indonesia, predominantly Muslim, but also compared to the Hindu traditions of other countries. At the end of the 15th century, when Islam was massively spreading in the region, the nobility of the old Majapahit empire, of Hindu faith, together with their relatives and the members of their court, had taken refuge in Bali. For this reason, it was said that the present inhabitants of the island were descending from either aristocrats, or priests, or artists. Not only had Bali sheltered the remnants of the glory of the ancient empire, like a veritable open-air museum, but it had become a thriving home for arts, crafts, and religious rituals, which it had successfully preserved, relatively free from other influences.
Discovering the Balinese culture and traditions was first on my list of activities. I had one month to spend there, so I took it easy. It was said that the island housed thousands of temples. So, before getting into subtleties, I just started with the “must see”.
The first temple I visited was Taman Ayun, a strangely looking complex from the 17th-century. All I saw from a distance were several multi-layered roofs, very narrow and high, covered with a sort of dry, long grass – a local plant which, as I was about to find out, was called alang-alang. Those roofs supported by wooden pillars sheltered shrines with relics and statues of deities. Such structures were called meru , and symbolized the sacred mountain with the same name in Hindu mythology, home of the gods and center of the universe. In Taman Ayun, the tallest meru had a roof structured on no less than eleven levels – the number that symbolized royalty.
Meru towers in Taman Ayun
To get closer to the next temple, Tanah Lot, I had to rely on the ebb, because the rock on which it was perched was separated from the shore and only when the waters receded could one walk there. Before climbing the steps cut in stone that lead to the temple, all visitors entered a cave below the rock. I followed the crowd, curious. Inside the cave, I saw a Hindu priest blessing the devotees and sprinkling holy water. I was surprised to see that the water came from a natural spring, a miraculous source of freshwater right in the heart of the sea shore. Not fat from the spring, I saw some snakes with black and white stripes. I was lucky to notice them in time, because otherwise, I might have risked an uncontrolled reaction. Those serpents there were considered to be the protectors of the temple…
Tanah Lot Temple
At the southwestern tip of the island, after a long climb up a stone alley, I found the Uluwatu Temple. It was right on the edge of a cliff, almost seventy meters above the sea. From there, I could admire the steep shore hit by foamy waves, getting reddish in the sunset light. The place was full of naughty monkeys, so I was advised to be careful, because they had the bad habit of stealing from tourists everything that caught their attention, such as hats or sunglasses.
In the evening, the temple hosted traditional dance and music performances called Kecak. It was a representation of the Ramayana, recounting the adventures of Prince Rama struggling to save his beloved wife Sita from the hands of the demon Ravana, and receiving for that purpose the invaluable help of the monkey god Hanuman. The protagonists of the story, dressed in brightly colored costumes and wearing richly adorned masks or tiaras, were surrounded by a choir of men sitting in a circle around a fire, who were shouting and clapping: chaka-chaka-chaka. It was that unique sound, played at various speeds and intensities, that inspired the name of the dance (pronounced kechak). It was a progressive, hypnotic, trance-like rhythm. In the dark blue night illuminated by sparks of fire, I felt as if I had been being transported directly to the legendary dawn of Hinduism.
Kecak Dance at Uluwatu Temple
Everywhere I went, I saw banyan trees – the sacred abode of spirits and gods, according to the local beliefs. From their branches, top to bottom, their roots reached the ground to draw water, surrounding the tree trunk like curtains. They were offering protection on every occasion: a generous shade against heat and a thick foliage against the pouring rain. Some of them were so large that they looked like genuine temples made by nature, and even housed shrines where the locals brought offerings.
Banyan tree shrine
The Balinese religious practices, apart from their traditional Hindu foundation, contained elements of animism and Buddhism, as well as other specific customs and beliefs, inherited from time immemorial. Like in classical Hinduism, the Balinese worshiped the trinity of Brahma (creator) – Vishnu (keeper) – Shiva (destroyer), along with many other deities, starting with the popular Ganesha, the elephant-headed god whose statue was present almost everywhere, in people’s courtyards as well as in hotel receptions. In addition, the cult of ancestors played an important role: they had their own shrines where the relatives were bringing them offerings regularly, to help them in the afterlife. Buddhist saints (bodhisattva) were worshiped as well, as a result of the spread of Buddhism in Bali through the islands of Java and Sumatra in the first millennium AD.
The diversity of rituals and the originality of the architecture made Balinese religion appear very complicated at first sight. I confess that, although I was familiar with Hinduism from books, in Bali I felt quite lost at the beginning, and I would not have managed without the explanations of my guide – a young graduate from a local university, very enthusiastic and eager for conversation. He was called Agung, like the highest volcano of the island.
To make things intelligible, my guide began by explaining how he understood and practiced Balinese Hinduism in his daily life. To this end, he thought it would be easier if he would venture into several comparisons with a religion I was supposed to be more familiar with, Christianity.
– Like you in the West, Agung explained, we believe in divine justice that rewards each person based on their actions (karma), in the salvation of the soul (moksa) and in the afterlife – only that the latter, for us, implies reincarnation. We believe that the universe has three layers: the heavenly world of divine entities, the realm of men, and the infernal dwelling of the demons. Moreover, he continued, the fact that in Bali we worship so many gods does not mean that we are not able to understand the essence of divinity. In fact, just like you, we believe in the immortality of the soul and we believe in one God. Yes, he emphasized, for us all deities are different manifestations of the same Creator, just like rain, sunshine or forests are different manifestations of nature. We worship each one separately, but that does not mean that we ignore the unique divinity that lies beyond them.
His simple and conciliatory way of presenting things was irresistibly charming. I couldn’t help but reply:
– Dear Agung … with an approach like yours, maybe in other parts of the world history would have known much less fanaticism and cruelty against “paganism”!
Actually, many of the customs that I had witnessed, such as offerings for the ancestors’ souls, blessings with holy water, worshiping of statues and sacred relics … created an increasingly familiar picture. After all, such practices reflected fundamental motivations of the human soul, which by nature are universal. The exoticism was a lot more in the form than in the substance of the phenomenon. Of course, everything is in the eyes of the beholder … and everyone chooses whether to look more for differences or for what unites them.
Nevertheless, the “island of the gods” was still far from ceasing to surprise me …
At one of the temples I visited, Agung drew my attention to one of the pavilions near the entrance.
“This is where the cockfights take place,” he explained.
– Cockfighting, here? I replied, surprised. What for?
The basic reason was not entertainment, my guide clarified quickly, anticipating the typical reaction of a foreign tourist. On the contrary. The cockfights had a well-defined religious purpose, and they were even mandatory on major holidays and religious festivities. They were originally a form of animal sacrifice, acting as offerings to evil spirits, to appease them in order to ensure that they would not trouble in any way the ceremony scheduled for that day. Of course, the religious purpose did not make such custom less cruel — which is why the fights were usually attended only by men — nor less popular beyond the sacred realm.
Temple Pavilion, Ubud
On a different occasion, while we were on our way back to the hotel, we saw a lot of people in procession, accompanied by a sort of an orchestra. The cheerful sounds of the percussion instruments made the whole event borrow something from the atmosphere of a carnival.
– What’s this? I asked Agung, delighted with the view. What are they celebrating?
“It’s a funeral procession,” he told me, as serious as he could be.
His answer wiped immediately the smile on my face. Under no circumstances would I have guessed such a thing. I tried to look more closely, but I didn’t see anyone crying.
“It’s normal,” Agung explained to me, “for us death is a relief, and we must rejoice for the soul that is going to a better world.” The cremation ceremony is a happy one.
“But what’s there, in front of us?”
I pointed to what looked like a huge, red dragon.
“That’s … the coffin,” Agung replied. It is a Barong, a mythical animal that carries the soul to nirvana.
He explained to me that this was where the body of the deceased was to be cremated: in the belly of the Barong. The whole community participated in the ceremony.
“No one should cry,” Agung insisted.
“Easy to say,” I thought, deeply disturbed by the contrast between the nature of the event and the appearance of the ceremony. True, there was a certain degree of serenity floating in the air, which would not have been possible if everyone had mourned. However, many looked exhausted, which was not surprising, given that the preparation for the ceremony was long and expensive, as Agung revealed to me. A hidden sadness, suppressed under the slab of a noble detachment, seemed to accentuate the intensity of the moment exponentially. After all, a human’s reaction to death is naturally one of fear and pain, and whatever nature has planted in us is difficult to eradicate or sublimate. Religion tries to educate this reaction and, in the light of the beliefs it cultivates about the afterlife, to transform it, which in the end can help people feel less pain or despair, and eventually accept the situation… If it succeeds, it is not a small thing.
– The saddest ceremonies in our country are not the funeral ones, Agung added.
“Which one is the saddest?” I asked, curious.
– New Year! he answered promptly, as if to crown the paradox opened by the procession I had just seen.
He told me that, unlike the way in which the rest of the world was used to celebrating New Year, that is, through parties and entertainment, in Bali the event was marked by fasting, silence and introspection. The last day of the Balinese calendar, a date that varies from year to year, imposes an absolute ban on eating, drinking and talking.
“You’d better not be in Bali during Nyepi,” Agung told me. “That’s how we call the New Year’s eve. The airport is closed, as are the roads and beaches.”
Because it was a day dedicated to meditation, he explained to me, any activity that could disturb this meditation – travel, work, fun of any kind – was suspended. Moreover, special police teams in charge of protecting local traditions made sure that all these prohibitions were respected, by locals and tourists alike, including by imposing fines.
We were nowhere near Nyepi time, so I breathed a sigh of relief.
Before getting back to Sanur, Agung stopped at a coffee farm. He didn’t tell me anything, just:
– Go it. It’s something special. You’ll see inside.
And he could barely hide a mischievous smile.
I was immediately greeted by a small young woman, wrapped in a brightly colored sarong , who offered to introduce me to the coffee-making process on the farm. It was the most expensive coffee in the world, she told me.
I would have thought that Agung was sending me to a regular coffee plantation, and that the varieties cultivated there were being obtained through classical agriculture. It would have never occurred to me that the biological secret of that coffee was not about plants, but about … animals!
The key to obtaining the famous Luwak coffee was a small animal, a kind of round-eared, furry wild cat. Those civets were fed coffee beans, which they loved eating. During digestion, the grains were not destroyed, but fermented with the help of some special enzymes, which caused a reduction in their acidity and caffeine content. What happened next was not hard to guess: the beans were recovered from the animal’s feces, then washed, dried, roasted and … prepared as coffee. It was said that the processes undergone in the animal’s intestines gave the coffee grains a unique flavor.
The preparation of Luwak Coffee
To some like me, though, it sounded more like an irony. In my head, the image of the coffee could in no way be dissociated from the sight of the animal defecating in its cage, and this involuntary prejudice proved to be stronger than any curiosity. So I did not taste the most expensive coffee in the world, but limited myself to chocolate and ginger tea, which were offered as a consolation to those guests who had a more rebellious stomach.
Anyone who has read “Eat, Pray, Love,” or seen the film based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, may have been left with the impression that shamanism was widespread in Bali. In fact, it is not. Nowhere have I been able to find any trace of shamanism, with one exception.
In my first evening in the island’s capital, Ubud, I was looking for a place to have dinner. The rainy season had just started, the heat and humidity were at their peak, and the afternoon rain showers were getting longer. Most of the tourists had gone already, and some places were almost empty. New in town, I was wandering on some deserted little streets, immersed in darkness. Here and there, a dim light was disclosing the presence of a tavern or shop.
I was already getting tired of walking around, but I stumbled upon a small restaurant that seemed better lit and more animated, so I went in.
While I was waiting for the waiter, I noticed that the walls were full with pictures and something that looked like proverbs or quotations. When I looked closer, I saw the words: “Eat, pray, love.” I realized quickly that the whole restaurant was packed with quotes from the book and pictures from the movie, even seeming to imply that the author of the book herself used to come there. I don’t know if it was true or just a way to attract customers, but I remembered that one of the key episodes of the book, the one that changed the writer’s love life, took place in Bali, more precisely in Ubud.
But the bigger surprise was for me to notice, as I looked around a little better, that by that time the restaurant, without exaggeration, was full of nothing but single women, aged between thirty and forty, just like Elizabeth Gilbert when she was there … and, unfortunately, like me as well, an unintended passer-by. I realized immediately the power of the local myth that attracted year after year single women in search of meaning and balance, but secretly hoping that they would find love in Ubud, just like the author of “Eat, Pray, Love” did.
My assumption was to be confirmed the very next day, when a local offered to take me to a shaman. The proposal was not innocent. Because Elizabeth Gilbert had written in her book about a wise shaman to whom she went frequently, many of the lonely tourists who came to Ubud wanted to get to the same person.
“You need to book an appointment three months in advance if you want to see him,” the guy explained to me. Because the book made him famous, he is now very popular and busy. But no problem, he assured me, if you want a shaman I can take you to somebody else, no less reliable.
When I found out that he intended to take me to his shaman friend by motorcycle, at nightfall, through some remote villages, and it was not at all clear how I would come back and what kind of ceremony I would be dealing with, I did not hesitate to say no to his offer. I would not have believed if someone had told me that, in just a few years time, I would dare to go by myself to a shamanic ceremony, in the middle of the night, nowhere else but in the heart of the Amazon jungle…
Near Ubud, some villages were particularly well-known for their traditions. Each village had its own signature craft, practiced by most of the inhabitants and passed down from generation to generation. In the stone carvers’ village, stone statues of all sizes, of the kind that I had seen in temples or gardens, were displayed on several rows for miles along the road, while the local craftsmen could be seen at work in front of their houses. In another village, known for its wood carving tradition, I saw the beautiful frames and doors that typically decorated the Balinese houses, as well as myriads of statuettes representing deities: Rama and Sita, the legendary couple from Ramayana, Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, or the goddess Saraswati, the protector of arts, music and teaching. They were sculpted, with various degrees of precision, in different types of wood: some in a white wood that the locals called crocodile wood, some in mahogany or ebony, and the most precious, in scented sandalwood. Finally, in the village specialized in hand-painted fabrics – the traditional technique called batik – the imagination of local artists seemed boundless. Many of the works on silk or cotton that were on display, were veritable artistic compositions, incredibly elaborate, exceeding by far the level of mere pattern design.
Nowhere had I seen so much respect for traditions, and so much dedication in cultivating them. From what I was told, the craftsmen offered their knowledge for free to all who wanted to learn, and they were even proud to do so. They weren’t concerned at all about potential competition, on the contrary.
Rama and Sita
At the end of my journey, I was going to discover yet another artistic treasure, right in the open air, co-authored by nature itself. It was the result of an ecological rice irrigation system designed in the ninth century, an illustration of the local beliefs meant to ensure the harmony between man, god and nature – the same principles that informed Balinese architecture. The wisdom behind that concept, called subak, had ensured for centuries the sustainability of water and land use, along with the protection of the ecosystems.
The rice was grown on hills with dramatic slopes and deep valleys, and the terraces followed the curves of the hills so closely that from a distance they looked like waves, drawn with lines worthy of the finest engraving and superimposed in dozens of layers. Here and there, the steep slopes were marked by clusters of coconut or banana trees, as well as small shelters or huts with thatched roofs.
Rice terraces in Bali
The rice-specific green color had an almost hypnotic effect. Under a quickly changing sky with white and gray clouds, the shade gave unexpected depths to the dark green areas, strengthening even more, by contrast, the brightness of the fields that came directly under sunlight.
This was the image that I had in mind when I said goodbye to the “island of gods”. Bali had offered me a lot of interesting challenges, more than I had expected from a popular tourist destination, forcing me out of my thinking boxes every time my curiosity was getting deeper… And my endeavor has been well rewarded by the beauty of the landscapes and of the traditional arts, which acted like a genuine therapy: a therapy by beauty.