Bali... Island of the Gods

There was a time when the whole of South East Asia was totally Hindu. The first inroads into this idyllic society was made by Buddhism which did not totally disrupt the ideals of Hinduism. Next came Islam with its militant determination to convert the whole world. The peace loving Buddhists and Hindus were an easy prey. They were incapable of combating such a deluge. It is a miracle that the island of Bali weathered this onslaught. The very word Bali conjures up a vision of an enchanted island, a gem set in the middle of an emerald ocean totally isolated from the rest of the world. Today it is the only place where Hinduism is a living culture. Hinduism in India has been constantly shaped and molded into various shapes due to the constant foreign attacks, but somehow this little pocket of green known as Bali seemed to have escaped the Islamic onslaughts and retained its original culture. No doubt much of it has been tainted with Buddhist practices since Buddhism had been gently pushed out of India and had found a foothold in all of South East Asia.

Lord Vishnu on Garuda Eagle
In ancient Bali, nine Hindu sects existed, namely Pasupata, Bhairawa, Siwa Shidanta, Waisnawa, Bodha, Brahma, Resi, Sora and Ganapatya. This is a division which had been made by Adi Shankara and still exists both in India and in Bali. Each sect has its own specific deity as their names imply. Even today you find temples to all these deities but unlike the temples of India, there are no figures inside the shrine. One of the few figures you find is of Ganesha and sometimes of Vishnu astride the Garuda. Most of the figures of Ganesha look quite ferocious but Vishnu generally has a pleasant expression. Many horrific figures of Krishna slaying Putana and Arjuna holding the bow are to be seen in the airport as soon as you step out of the entrance. In fact the big lighted board showing “I am in Bali” has this Sanskrit sloka written under it.  “Aum Swastiastu.” I was really so happy to see this but sad that nowhere in India either in the airport or anywhere else do we find Sanskrit slokas or statues of gods in public places.

Of course I was anxious to find out the differences in the way Hinduism was practiced in Bali and in India. The most noticeable difference lay in the fact that there are no idols or priests and no elaborate rituals as we have in modern India. Another important fact is that a lot of Tantric practices have crept into Bali, like the offering of meat and fish and even liquor at the temples.  Of course this roused my curiosity. Peering into the past I realized that the Hindus who had originally come to settle here had been merchants and traders and even brigands and pirates of the seas. They came in their little trading boats and eventually settled down on this island which must have seemed a good place to settle, rather that brave the seas and go all the way back. This meant that no Brahmins had come to Bali. Of course the Brahmins were the custodians of the Vedas and thus the knowers of the rituals etc. So these ancient settlers must have started practicing some form of Hinduism with only a very vague idea of its basics and what we see today is the outcome of their efforts.

Shrine with offerings in paddy field

Hinduism is a religion with infinite scope for individual differences so no doubt these practices  however diluted they are from the original, still pass off as Hinduism. The merchants who had come must have realized that they would have to start farming if they wanted to eat and thus started cultivating rice and even developed a complex irrigation system to grow rice in wet paddy fields. These fields are still a joy to behold. A small shrine is always kept in the middle of the field to guard it from spirits and of course birds, when the harvest is ready. There is a guardian deity for every field. I was struck by this sweet idea which exemplifies the basic Hindu concern for Nature and an understanding that the whole world is imbued with just one spirit.

Balinese Hinduism has roots in both Hinduism and Buddhism, and also adopted the animistic traditions of the indigenous people. This influence strengthened the belief that the gods and goddesses are present in all things. Every element of nature, therefore, possesses its own power, which reflects the power of the gods. A rock, tree, dagger, or woven cloth is a potential home for spirits whose energy can be directed for good or evil. Balinese Hinduism is deeply interwoven with art and ritual. Ritualizing states of self-control are a notable feature of religious expression among the people, who for this reason have become famous for their graceful and cultured behavior.

Another important difference between Balinese and Indian Hinduism is that in the year 1960 there was a great revolt between those who supported the traditional caste system and those who rejected it. Luckily for Bali the latter group won and Bali no longer follows the ancient caste system. How I wish India would also be able to follow suit and do away with the caste system which is the bane of our lives.


Uluwatu temple
Uluwatu Temple

We had taken a villa in Bandung, near the Uluwatu temple which is the second largest in Bali. It is a sea temple (pura segara) and is dedicated to Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa in his manifestation as Rudra (the fierce form of Shiva). Strangely enough all the Hindu gods are displayed in their fierce forms in Bali. Temple is “pura” in Balinese and this temple is built on the edge “ulu”of a 70 meter high cliff “watu” projecting into the sea. The cliff is said to be the petrified boat of the goddess Danu. Apparently the original temple was modified and expanded by the Javanese sage, Empu Kuturan in the 11th century. Another sage constructed the Padmasana shrines and he is said to have attained “moksha” or liberation here. This is known as “ngeluhur” “to go up”. Because of this the temple is commonly known as “luhur”.

Uluwatu temple
Macaques at Uluwatu Temple

A good thing to note is that the whole Uluwatu site is home to a hoard of grey long-tailed macaques, which are known for being swift and cunning pickpockets. Therefore it would be wiser for visitors not to wear loose, dangling jewellery or clothing when visiting the temple. We had a close encounter with one of these long-tailed thieves when we sat at a restaurant drinking fresh coconut water. My daughter-in-law had put her dark glasses on the table and quite unexpectedly a huge fellow sauntered up and casually picked up her glasses and pushed off.  This was apparently a common occurrence and one of the men ran after it and threw a banana. The humans had to take part in a game in which some object is bartered for the one which the monkey has taken off. But the fellow was too clever and simply took the banana and refused to let go of the glasses. The man tried again with another banana and some threats and at last he deigned to let go of the glasses and sauntered off with the banana without a care in the world! My daughter in law was not at all happy with her glasses which had bite marks – an exotic memento of our Bali visit!! 

We had gone to the temple once in the morning and again in the evening, at sunset time. Both times were memorable. The temple is situated in a huge complex. Before entering, everyone has to drape themselves in a silk scarf. Most western tourists are very casually dressed and perhaps that is the reason why they are asked to cover their western clothes with this scrap of material. However I was fully clad as I usually am and had a shawl to boot but even then I was not allowed to enter. No one was allowed to enter the temple unless they wore a typical Balinese sarong or long cloth which was draped round the waist. My poor grand-daughter who had already read about this had specially worn a Balinese sarong but even she was refused entrance since her top did not have full sleeves! I felt that the man at the gate was really being too strict. Perhaps he felt that if he showed leniency to one person he would have to give the same benefit to everyone else. However we could peek in through the gates on all four sides. There were no idols, only some small structures and no sign of any priest. Apparently if you wanted any ritual to be done you had to give previous notice to the priest who would come and give some instructions.

One of the most important concepts that Balinese ceremonies have in common with Hindu festivals is the concept of desa and kala which refers to how a festival or ritual should fit both the place and time context - the specific and the general context. Many of the ceremonial art forms such as wayang kulit and topeng are highly improvisatory, providing flexibility for the performer to adapt the performance to the current political situation thus making it more interesting to the spectators.

Goddess Saraswati
Bali is renowned for its diverse and sophisticated art forms, such as painting, sculpture, woodcarving, handcrafts, and performing arts. Balinese cuisine is also distinctive but very hard for a true vegetarian. However we did manage to find a restaurant run by a farmer who cooked only the vegetables from his farm which was directly below the restaurant.

Balinese performing arts often portray stories from Hindu epics such as the Ramayana but with heavy Balinese influence. We went to one such dance called the Kechak Fire Dance which took place most evenings in the Uluwata temple which we had visited in the morning.

Of course the most striking thing about the temple was that it overlooked the sea. In fact as I said in the beginning it was perched on a cliff hanging over the sea with the waves beating on the rocks below. Since it was facing the west the setting sun was a marvelous drama which we participated in when we went to watch the Kechak and Fire Dance which always took place at the end of the day with the awe inspiring view of the sea as a background. We went on the full moon day of the Sanskrit month of Chaitra which is the birthday of Hanuman so the full moon was rising in the east on one side while the sun set in a burst of crimson in the west. It was quite an unforgettable scene.

Most temples have an inner courtyard and an outer courtyard which are used for dance and drama performances. Balinese rituals are accompanied by a combination of music, dance and drama. The performances that take place in the inner courtyard are classified as wali, which are sacred rituals offered exclusively for the gods. The outer courtyard is where bebali ceremonies are held, and these are meant both for gods and people. Performances meant solely for the entertainment of human beings are held outside the walls of the temple and are called bali-balihan. This three-tiered system of classification was made to protect the sanctity of the oldest and most sacred Balinese rituals and prevent them from being performed for a paying audience.

Gamelan Orchestra

Balinese percussion orchestra music, known as gamelan, is highly developed and varied. This dance is unique since it did not make use of the usual “gamelan” orchestra which normally accompanies every dance drama. Instead the so called music was made by a choir of seventy men who made the typical “chk chk” noises with their tongues. This goes on relentlessly for over an hour. You can imagine the strength of their vocal chords. This drama has its origin in an ancient “trance dance” called Sanghyang. In those days one of the dancers went into a trance and communicated with deities and ancestors who answered their questions and conveyed their wishes. The modern Kechak is actually based on the famous Hindu epic known as the Ramayana. The story of Rama had obviously made a great impact on the minds of all people over the whole of South East Asia. We find it being re-told in various forms in Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia.


To the mesmerizing tchk tchk noises of the “orchestra” we watched the ancient legend being replayed- how Ravana, the wicked King of Lanka kidnapped Rama’s wife, Sita and took her to his stronghold in Lanka. With the help of the great monkey Hanuman , Rama went to Lanka and killed Ravana and rescued his wife. Ramayana is the story of great love and sacrifice. It portrays the many faces of love – the love of a son for his father and mother, the love between brothers, the love for a wife and the love between friends. This is why it has stood the test of time and still gives great joy to those who read it or watch it being enacted.


The dance started at about 5.30 pm when the sun was slowly slipping into the arms of the sea. It was an open- air ampitheatre in the temple compound with tiered concrete seats. We had just about managed to get some good seats when a troupe of seventy-five male dancers in Balinese costume came on to the scene shaking their hands up in the air and chanting the fast paced “chk, chk” sounds. All of them wore nothing above their sarong and all had a bright red hibiscus flower in their right ear.  For some time this bizarre orchestra held the stage as they went round and round with their arms thrown round each others’ shoulders, sometimes squatting and sometimes standing maneuvering themselves into certain specific patterns. They had their backs to the audience and faces towards the center and thus made a sort of bastion with space in the center.


Suddenly Rama and Sita appeared and took their places in the centre. Rama’s brother, Lakshmana was also there. Then came the golden deer which was actually a demon in disguise. Sita begged Rama to get it for her and he left reluctantly with strict instructions to Lakshmana never to leave Sita alone. Rama obviously killed the deer but as it died, it imitated Rama’s voice. This threw Sita into a panic and she orders Lakshmana to go and save him. He is reluctant to go but at last he is persuaded and draws a magic circle round her and tells her never to go out of it.

 All this time the human orchestra is surrounding the actors and making appropriate noises depending on the scene which is being enacted, sometimes clucking furiously fast and sometimes slow. Ravana the wicked king of Lanka or Alanka Pura as it is called in Balinese, now comes in the form of a mendicant yogi and begs Sita to give him food. Unsuspectingly she comes out of the circle and offers it to him. He immediately grabs her by the hand and drags her away. The eagle, Jatayu now tries to stop him and is killed by him.

In the next scene Rama and Lakshmana return and Rama is bereft at seeing the empty ashram. They search for her and meet Hanuman, the white monkey, in the forest. Rama gives his ring to him and asks him to find Sita.

The next scene is in the garden of Alanka Pura where Sita sits and bemoans her fate to Trijata who is supposed to be Ravana’s niece. Hanuman now appears and gives her Rama’s ring. She is very happy and gives her hair ornament to be given to Rama. She begs Hanuman to ask Rama to come and rescue her. Before he leaves Hanuman destroys the park. Ravana’s servants rush in and bind him and set fire to his tail. Hanuman jumps round with flaming tail, setting fire to the whole of Lanka.


It was quite a scene to watch the fire surrounded by the “chk chk,” chorus. It was quite a big conflagration. But the people were in control and got it down to manageable proportions. Hanuman now freed himself and addressed the audience. The all male orchestra now slowly made its way out in the same manner as they had come in. Hanuman now decided to play with the audience. He jumped up the aisle and pulled some of the audience into the arena and asked questions and generally made himself interesting. Obviously these things were additions to amuse the audience and were not part of the original script.

Island of the Gods
With an estimated twenty-thousand puras (temples) and shrines, Bali is known as the "Island of a Thousand Puras", or "Island of the Gods".

The calendar in Bali is filled with all sorts of festivals. One of the most bizarre which I had seen on my first visit was the cremation. Apparently most people are too poor to cremate a person separately so these bodies are kept in the grave until the end of the year when an auspicious date is chosen. Then all the bodies are piled up on a chariot like structure and the whole thing is set on fire. It’s quite a spectacular sight and one which I had never forgotten.  

Unfortunately we hardly had time to visit any of the temples for which Bali is famous. However one day I went on my own to Ubud to visit an old friend called Indra who was a disciple of the famous lady known as Ibu Gedong who was a Gandhian and had won an International peace prize. I had been to her ashram known as the Gandhi Ashram when she was alive. Her disciple Indra had started an ashram on his own and I made a visit. It was a charming place set on a small slope. They taught yoga and followed the Gandhian principles of food etc.

Tanah Lot
Tana Lot Temple

From there the driver took me to a lovely temple right next to the ocean. The grounds were littered with plastics and paper since they had just finished the celebrations connected with the full moon. We went along the beach and I was fascinated to see that the sand was pitch black. I thought it might be dirt but was told that this was the peculiarity of this beach. It was one of the few black beaches in Bali which they were trying to promote. I suddenly noticed that many women seemed to be picking pebbles from the beach. On inquiring about this I was told that this beach was filled with shiny black pebbles which were a rage with many house designers. The pebbles were used on paths and on walls and many other things. I collected a few and was thrilled to see how black and shiny they were. I realized that this must be the famous temple of Tanah Lot. When we went to the gate of the temple the driver told me sadly that I wouldn’t be allowed inside but I decided to try. There was an old man sitting inside watching my movements with keen interest. Two ladies were busy cleaning up the compound which had been badly littered. I peeped in and asked the man if I could come in and he beckoned me to come. I was so happy. I ran in and they thrust a small basket of flowers into my hand. One of the ladies who was brandishing a broomstick in one hand signed to me to go and sit in front of the main temple which was set on an elevated platform. I gathered that it was another Shiva temple, with Brahma and Vishnu thrown in for good measure. Anyway I was so pleased to have been let in and even allowed to do a puja on m own that I didn’t want to waste time in asking about their belief system. I did my own little puja and I was surprised that the old man who I had taken to be a priest of some sort refused to accept a dakshina (monetary offering). In fact the sweeper lady who had given me the basket also refused to take any money. This is a great thing in this country. There is very little corruption and hardly any petty thievery. How I wished I could say the same about India. In fact it was a source of wonder to all of us how the villa in which we stayed was never locked at night. They just closed the doors and that was it. No one bothered to go round and lock the doors. My son had rented a car from a lady and another unbelievable thing was that when we left the country, he asked her to come to the airport to collect her car and she told him very sweetly that he could leave it in the parking lot and keep the key under the foot mat on the driver’s side. Of course he couldn’t believe this and kept on clarifying these instructions with her. In the end this is exactly what he did! When we see the number of thefts and deceits which are practiced in most of the other Asian countries, you will realize the greatness of Hinduism when left to itself without any contamination from other cults.

As we left I must say that I felt really sad that we had so little time to explore the many facets of this charming island which seemed to be composed of a bit of Hinduism that had been frozen in time!

                                          Aum Tat Sat