Bali High on Appeal -- Island Blends Art, Serenity, Tourism with Hindu Tradition

Article excerpt

God has no exclusive franchise.

Kerala, India, claims to be God's own country. Ecuador considers God to be Ecuadorian, and Bali is marketed as the Island of the Gods!

Sun, sand, surf, scuba diving, serenity, spirituality these words succinctly describe Bali, the gods' handiwork.

There aren't many places in the world where ordinary people in remote villages retain cultural memory that has changed little for hundreds of years. Culture is often more resilient than politics.

Among Indonesia's archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, Bali is the only island with predominantly Hinduism impact and practices, though with a few variations. Hinduism is very flexible; it evolves according to desh, kala and patra -- region, time and space.

Om Swasti Astu is the Balinese all-purpose greeting, like namaste or shalom. It means, May God shower grace and peace upon you.

Balinese calendar

Unlike more familiar lunar and solar calendars, the Balinese use the Wuku calendar, which is based on weeks. There are 30 weeks in one cycle, or oton, and two otons in one year.

The Balinese calendar has 420 days; it is used mainly for religious purposes such as finding auspicious days for farming or raising animals, temple ceremonies, birthdays, funerals and the like.

Experiencing the real Bali

In many countries, one has to visit ethnological museums or staged cultural and folklore shows to get the flavor of the country.

In Bali, one needs to be out in the villages and far away from urban areas of Denpasar, Kuta, Nusa Dua and Sanur. Then your senses are overwhelmed by the parade of marvelous Balinese ritualistic culture, multiple daily ceremonial processions, gamelan music, sylvan landscapes and simple people who readily make eye contact and flash contagious smiles.

Balinese Hindu Temples

Bali's Hinduism, which came here in 500 CE, is about Yagna (sacrifice), sushila (ethics) and philosophy. Balinese Hinduism seems to reflect a deeper philosophical understanding and fuller incorporation in daily life than that found in India.

The major difference between Hindu temples in Bali and other countries is the absence of murtis (images), or icons of gods, in Balinese temples. The Balinese identify their deities by putting different-colored skirts on pillars for each: red for Brahma, white for Shiva and black for Vishnu.

The temples have no roofs, doors or walls, except a waist-high wall with openings for entrance, and the priest faces the pillars along with the congregation. Here, the openness to the sky overwhelms one's senses and connects with the divine as the Vedic mantras are chanted and flower offerings are made.

There are ubiquitous white, black and gray checkered fabric skirts on many home and street temples, signifying the dualities in universe (day/night, good/evil, hot/cold, etc.), with gray representing balance.

During temple ceremonies, both men and women have to wear traditional dress and deeply meditate while saying the prayers and making offerings. They pray directly to the Formless. The Gayatri mantra is considered holy in Bali, and to my surprise even children knew it by heart, something I cannot say about even adults in India.

Besakih, the Mother Temple, is the holiest of all in Bali. It is located on slopes of Bali's highest mountain, Agung, an active volcano. It is in fact a complex of 22 temples. Its numerous courtyards and brick gateways are connected by stepped terraces and flights of stairs.

Ulundanu Beratan temple in Bedugul is my favorite for its location in a cool mountain town surrounded by three lakes. The botanic garden here is another attraction, besides fresh fruits, vegetables and exotic flowers.

Tanah Lot temple is most famous of the sea temples and a great site for sunset.

Uluwatu temple is perched on a dramatic location on the edge of high cliff that has been battered continuously by the ocean's waves for eons. …