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Bali: Festivals and ceremonies on the Indonesian island

I’m sometimes woken by cockerels in Singapore and for a minute imagine I’m in Bali. Then the alarm kicks in, followed by reality, and I remember it’s just the chickens on the construction site nearby. Oh well – school run it is then.

This disorientation is something of an occupational hazard these days, commuting as I do between family routine and urban Singapore, and the green rice-fields and gentle mysticism in Bali, where we have a villa.

 

Bali was my introduction to the tropics 12 years ago, and I was surprised by how exotic everything was – perhaps this was the norm in a Galapagos-meets-Denpasar sort of way? Now that I’ve travelled more extensively in the region, witnessed the change and development Bali has undergone in the intervening years, and come to know my own family of Balinese staff, I realise that things are a little more complicated in the land of temples and roosters.

Initially, what struck me was how much culture and tradition there was on show every day. Where else was I going to see a family of five in full traditional dress piled on a motorbike going about their daily business? Their Balinese version of Hinduism was evidently so interwoven with daily life and so demanding in its practice that the entire population was either dressed up to dash to an elaborate ritual or engaged in the constant production of coconut-leaf offerings to keep this enchanted world in balance and check.

 

Yet life for most Balinese is tough. So how and why do they devote so much time, energy and art to their ceremonies? I was once en route to the airport when a cremation procession closed down Seminyak to wind its way majestically to the beach – flight or no flight, I was obliged to sit back and enjoy the spectacle. A ceremony will always take precedence over convenience, and the Balinese are clearly always sincere in their beliefs – this is not a glorified theme park going through the motions for tourists.

Or is this really the whole story? The Balinese also devote energy and resources to their ceremonial lives because they’re obliged to. Ceremonies can’t be performed alone, so everyone must pitch in, even if it means time off work. This is not seen as a burden, but as an investment in the communal kitty. The help will be reciprocated when required, whether it’s to mend a leaky roof or feed a wedding party. It’s fascinating to participate in this mutual back-scratching (ngayah) at the real heart of Balinese society. It functions as an undercurrent to the showy surface of the ceremonial calendar, ensuring that the practicalities of life are taken care of too.

My personal Bali is therefore less about ticking off landmarks and more about the (sometimes gritty) realism of everyday life in Seseh. It’s a privilege to experience this, and a revelation to many of our guests, too, particularly if they previously saw Bali from a hotel. They’re thrilled to get the inside scoop when exploring the village or talking to our staff (many of whom live in Seseh). Perhaps, on their stroll, they’ll see a row of fighting cocks  fidgeting under bamboo cloches by the verge, or pass some neighbours weaving offerings and swapping gossip.

Such glimpses would be missed if you saw Bali via a guidebook, so here are some other background basics and festival favourites to get you started.

 

The Village Temple and the Caka Calendar
Temples celebrate their birthdays every 210 days (or six months in the Balinese Caka – or lunar – calendar). The gods descend from Mount Agung, in the centre of the island, to be entertained by the village for three days. Everywhere is decorated to within an inch of its life to welcome them and villagers don their finest ceremonial clothes as a mark of respect. They appreciate guests doing likewise, so temple etiquette will require you to wear a sarong and sash and to avoid positioning yourself higher than the offerings or the priest.

Canang Sari and Tumpek Landep
These are the small baskets of offerings seen everywhere on the island, and you should try to avoid stepping on them. They are a daily responsibility for women, who must first prepare them, then distribute them about their homes, villages, workplaces and temples. Mothers teach daughters how to weave the young coconut leaves into intricate containers and which fruits, flowers, leaves, cakes and coins to put inside. However, the increasing number of women in the workplace has been accompanied by the growth of commercial suppliers. Motorbikes teetering under enormous bags of mass-produced canang are now a common sight as they deliver to businesses and hotels in Seminyak and Denpasar.

Nor are traditional festivals necessarily immune to changing times. One of my favourites, Tumpek Landep (the festival of steel implements and tools), originally venerated kris daggers and spears, but now encompasses cars, motorbikes, taxis, bicycles, PCs, TVs and even mobile phones to mark their owners’ gratitude for their daily assistance.

Nyepi

The Balinese New Year is celebrated with a day of silence, fasting and meditation in order to take stock of life and restore its balance. In contrast to this, the eve is marked with noise and chaos to rid the island of mischievous spirits. Each village will have spent many weeks constructing huge papier mache Ogoh Ogoh, or demons – the more complex and terrifying, the better. As dusk falls, the Ogoh Ogoh are hauled out to the village crossroads where they are spun and jiggled to confuse the demons before being burnt in the hope that the demons won’t be able to find their way back into the communities.

When dawn breaks at 6am the next day, the whole of Bali falls into silent contemplation until the following morning. Having thoroughly stirred things up the night before, the island hits the lights and sits in silence for 24 hours, hoping to convince any bad spirits still at large that the island is deserted, so that they will pass on by.

Anything which might disturb this peace is banned – no fires are lit and there must be no physical activity, travel or entertainment. The airport is shut and the only people allowed on the streets or beaches are the patrolling pecalang (traditional security guards). Even hotel guests must remain within the hotel grounds until 6am the following morning, when the lights go back on and normal activity is resumed.

Galungan
Galungan comes around every 210 days to celebrate the victory of virtue over evil. It is preceded 25 days earlier by Tumpek Wariga, when the trees are informed that the villagers need their flowers and fruit to make the Galungan offerings. Festivities are wrapped up 10 days after Galungan when the ancestral spirits depart. This is a beautiful period to be in Bali, when towering penjor (intricately decorated bamboo poles) line every village street and decorate family compounds.

Calendar of Events and Festivals in Bali
Kemah Tinggi is available for rent on an exclusive basis, sleeping from 2 to 12 guests. A pool fence is available.

Thanks to Catherine Harhalakis for permission to reproduce her stunning images of Seseh during Galungan, pages 205-206.

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