Discovering Balinese Hinduism through its beach temples and multicultural customs

It was at the cliff top temple of Uluwatu that I first got a feel of how different and yet how similar Balinese Hinduism is to the form that the religion takes in India. The stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata were the same, but they had a very unique Balinese flavor.

The Uluwatu temple is open air, like all other Balinese temples. No big domes, no temple priest, no idol. No sanctum sanctorum. Only a garden built around it, with monkeys chattering in the trees. This garden was full of people who had all come to watch the iconic Kecak dance. It took place in the temple’s amphitheater, which offered breathtaking views of the sea and the setting sun. Women in hijabs, Buddhist monks, Indians in saris, tourists from Japan — people from all over the world were present. The audience was composed of different skin tones, different religions, different ages.

People performing the Kecak dance

People performing the Kecak dance. All photographs taken by Gita Aravamudan

As the sun sank into the sea, we heard a strange, lively chant. The Vanara Sena had arrived. 75 bare chested, chattering male dancers descended onto the central stage with quivering hands extended above their heads. They sat cross-legged on the floor in circles, chanting 'chak-chak-chak-chak'. The pace, pitch and the movements kept changing. Over the next hour, we were totally absorbed in a simple narration of the Ramayana packed into just five episodes. No words, no extraneous music, just the incessant chak-chak-chak-chak. Dancers in intricate costumes—an evil Ravana, a beautiful Sita, a mischievous Hanuman—performed synchronised movements to the fast and slow music provided by the chak-chak troupe.

It was a familiar story, which we have heard countless times in our own homes back in India. But here it took on a different overtone. Balinese Hindusim somehow seemed more inclusive and more connected to the land in which it had grown over the centuries.

Hinduism came to Indonesia in the first century AD, and the versions of the Mahabharata which have been unearthed in the Indonesian islands date back to this period. They are apparently similar to the versions found in parts of South India. Perhaps Hinduism was brought to Indonesia by South Indian sea traders. Over the centuries, the Indonesian kings who were receptive to all spiritual ideas embraced both Hinduism and Buddhism, and fused concepts from these two religions with their own animist religion. By the fourth century AD, a couple of Hindu states had sprung up across the peninsula, especially in Java, where even the rivers were named Gomati and Ganga.

By the 13th century, Sufi Muslim traders from India, Oman and Yemen brought Islam to Indonesia. Over a period of time, the peaceful relationship between these various religions was disrupted. There were power struggles; Muslim sultans attacked Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms and other non-Islamic communities in the Indonesian archipelago. Each sultan wanted to carve out a region or island for himself. Four diverse and contentious Islamic Sultanates emerged. Hinduism had by then spread to Bali. It merged seamlessly with the animistic religion which already existed there. Although Hinduism was overtaken by Buddhism and Islam in the neighbouring islands of Sumatra and Java, Bali remained comparatively isolated. Soon, Hindus fleeing from other islands came and settled here.

Today, Balinese Hinduism reflects all these historic changes. According to the 2010 census, 83.5 percent of Bali's population is Hindu, 13.4 percent is Muslim, 2.5 percent is Christian and 0.5 percent is Buddhist. However, in Indonesia as a whole, only 1.7 percent of the population is Hindu. Though Indonesian Hindus also have a caste system, the divisions between the castes are more permeable. For instance, priests do not necessarily have to be Brahmins. Inter-caste marriage has further blurred the distinctions.

People visit the Tanah Lot temple

People visit the Tanah Lot temple

The temples of Bali are stunningly beautiful. The surrounding sea provides a magnificent natural backdrop to almost all of them. The iconic Tanah Lot temple, for example, is built on a rocky outcrop against which the waves of the brilliant Indian Ocean crash unceasingly. This unique site attracted Dang Hyang Nirartha, a high priest from Java, who came to preach Hinduism in Bali in 1489. Inspired by the sea, he built a temple dedicated to Baruna, the sea god. According to legend, when he faced opposition from the village chieftain, he shifted a large rock upon which he meditated out into the sea. He changed his sashes into sea snakes to guard it at its base. The rock’s original name, Tengah Lod, means ‘in the sea’.

Today, Tanah Lot is bustling with tourists. In 1980, the temple's rock face, which is continuously battered by rough waves, was starting to crumble. The temple itself was in danger of falling into the sea. It was then that Japanese government provided a loan to the Indonesian government to conserve the historic temple and other significant locations around Bali. Today, over one-third of Tanah Lot's "rock" is actually cleverly disguised artificial rock created during the Japanese-funded program. We happened to be in Tanah Lot on the day of the local community’s bi-annual festival, and were lucky to watch the long procession of devotees going to the temple with their offerings. It was a beautiful sight. The women in traditional attire were carrying offerings—food, clothing, live ducks, chicken, and flowers—on their heads.

On another day in Bali, as I sat on a mat under a tree on the beach after a dip in the unbelievably clear blue sea, I heard the gentle chanting of prayers which seemed to merge with the gush of the waves. The sound of the words “Om mani padme hum” came from a small open air enclosure facing the beach, which I soon realised was a temple. It was surrounded by upmarket hotels and an amusement park on three sides.

The previous day, the blaring music played by DJs in the hotels disturbed the tranquility. Today, the soothing hum of prayers made it seem like it was a festive day. Inside the simple temple was an altar carrying the figure of Acintya, the Supreme God of Indonesia’s monotheistic Agama Hindu Dharma. He is venerated in all temples—especially in Bali—and is the equivalent of the concept of Brahman. To most modern Balinese, he is known as Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa or the 'all-in-one' God. In front of the altar was a place for offerings. The priests sat chanting on one side, while the musicians played on another. The seemingly never ending line of devotees walked in and placed their offerings before Acintya.

After Indonesia gained its independence from Dutch colonial rule, it officially recognised only monotheistic religions. Under the new dispensation, an individual had to have a religion to gain full Indonesian citizenship rights, and so Hindus became orang yang belum beragama (people without religion). This affected Bali and other islands with large populations of Hindus. The local government of Bali, shocked by this official national policy, declared itself an autonomous religious area in 1953.

Acintya on a padmasana at a beachside temple

Acintya on a padmasana at a beach side temple

Today, Acintya represents the monotheistic Hindu religion which finally emerged as a result of this political turmoil. He is emptiness and represents the origin of the Universe. All other Gods are manifestations of him. Prayers and offerings are never directly given to Acintya, but to his manifestations. In the temples, therefore, there is no idol but just a Padmasana or lotus seat atop a pillar on which Acintya’s Prathima (representation) is placed only on festival days. The Padmasanas are also found in street corners and in the small shrines found in every home.

The Canang Sari or daily offering is another unique blended custom which is part of the Balinese Hindu rituals. It finds its roots in nature worship. The Canang Sari consists of a palm leaf plate containing betel leaves, areca nuts and lime symbolising the Hindu Trimurti: Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. It also has differently coloured flowers laid in particular patterns. The offering plates are used as thanksgiving and can be found everywhere, in the temples, in the shrines in houses and on the roadside altars. You can also find them in the middle of a street, on the beaches and in front of shops.

Bali is full of exquisitely carved statues, which sometimes blend figures from the Mahabharata with local myths. For instance, a statue I mistook for Kalinga Mardhana was actually Bhima fighting sea snakes! The sea snake aspect is part of a Balinese legend, and Bhima, of course, is from the Mahabharata.

(Left) Bhima and the serpents, (Right) Ghatothkach and Karna

(Left) Bhima and the serpents, (Right) Ghatothkach and Karna

Just outside the airport at Denpasar in Bali is a gigantic statue of a chariot in motion, complete with horses and warriors in action. This is an image from the Mahabharata, our guide said, not Krishna advising Arjuna, but Ghatothkach fighting Karna. Ghatothkach (the son of Bhima through the rakshasi Hidambi) stood on the rearing horses which pulled Karna’s chariot. He bared his chest defiantly to Karna, who was ready to shoot his arrows. The horses, chariot and warriors were all larger than life.

This was the image I carried with me as I left: the image of that amazingly powerful statue, so vibrant and unique and connected to its land.


Updated Date: May 10, 2018 16:05 PM

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