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Features

2005
ISSUE
2
Blessings for Bali
By Charlotte Anderson & Gorazd Vilhar

In the days since the recent tragic bombings, the Balinese people seek to return their beloved island to a state of grace through the faithful enactment of age-old Hindu rituals and ceremonies.

On the island of Bali, life is seen as an eternal conflict of good and evil. Daily religious practices, both personal and communal, are all about bringing these opposing forces into balance. Everything, the Balinese believe, comes from the gods. It is only fitting and proper that a measure of that abundance be returned to them in gratitude. The gods give blessings, but evil spirits too can be coaxed and placated. Each day, in good times and bad, Bali’s gods and spirits are remembered with countless tangible and intangible offerings.

Our driver greets us with a flower tucked behind his ear. It is a blossom from his morning prayers and offerings at his own family temple, which he wears like a blessing. There on his dashboard is a small palm leaf traylet filled with offerings, made by his wife daily to keep him safe. At the exchange office we notice a bundle of offerings set on top of the computer and, as we stop to gas up the car, there at the end of the bank of pumps is a small table where the cashier sits with his change, transaction record book and an offering to the gods. As we pull into traffic again, a motorbike races by, an offering tied to its tail.

Before feeding breakfast to her family, the woman of the house first offers food to the ancestral spirits enshrined in the family temple, within the walls of their household compound. Many hours of her day may be devoted to the making and distribution of offerings to please all manner of spirits, both pure and evil, at home and in the near surroundings, in the community, in the fields, on vehicles and implements, in offices and shops. So elemental is this task in their daily lives that women of the house are not described as housewives, but as “makers of offerings.”

Where there are temples, there are offerings, and more than 20,000 temples exist on this small island. Every home has its temple, and every village has at least three: a temple of origin of the ancestral clan, temple of Brahma and temple of death. Schools have temples dedicated to Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, where students and teachers go to place offerings and pray. And every single business has its own temple or at least its own small shrine which is faithfully attended to on a daily basis.

On this still predominantly agrarian island, farmers also have their offering requirements to be fulfilled at specific times in the agricultural cycle. Offerings can accompany appeals for every sort of need and wish. They are made to stop the rain, to calm a mean or noisy dog, to quiet a crying child. They are given with every plea for a passing grade on an exam or for a desired job, as well as with thanks for such answered prayers.

This is such a land of ceremonies that, day after day, one can happen upon them anywhere, purely by chance. Suddenly, there in the street, along any roadside, a procession of women wearing their finest blouses and sarongs appears, moving slowly in the tropical heat. Regally erect, with hips gently swaying, they gracefully balance offerings on their heads. These offerings can be quite spectacular in appearance, as well as in size and weight, yet the women contend they don’t feel tired, for they rejoice in the privilege of giving these gifts to the dewa, the countless deities of Hindu which represent the many aspects of God.

Before the advent of tourism, the traditional arts were solely for the pleasure of the gods. Even today, the dancers and musicians seen performing for tourists are the very same dancers who perform at all the religious festivals and ceremonies which continue to be faithfully celebrated in their villages throughout the year. The dancers’ beauty and grace, their youth, the perfection of their movements, their gorgeous garments, jewelry and headdresses of fragrant frangipani blossoms—are, in fact, offerings to please the deities.

Just as the gods and good spirits are remembered, evil spirits must never be neglected. In the rivalry of good and evil, humankind is charged to maintain the balance. While offerings to the gods are set on high, those to the demons are cast upon the ground. Every day, everywhere, small offerings can be seen on sidewalks, near doorways and gates, on the streets and at crossroads. They are soon crushed underfoot or by passing vehicles, but their essence has already been consumed by the ambient spirits. At a place of accident or disaster, rituals of purification are always performed, and accompanied by the appropriate offerings.

People of the world have been moved by recent front page news photographs of ceremonies and prayers at the site of tragedy. What many of them don’t realize is that this religious observance is a natural part of a constant cycle of giving which touches every facet of life in this gentle and gracious land.

TUKANG BANTEN

Ida Ayu Mayun is hard at work directing ceremony preparations for a local family’s temple anniversary celebration. Coinciding with the ever-auspicious full moon day, it will be an event for the gods to behold.

As the young daughter of a Hindu priest of the Brahmin caste, she studied the sacred lontar texts which had been passed down from her ancestors, eventually becoming a qualified tukang banten, a professional offering maker. It is in that capacity that this septuagenarian still labors today, bringing her lifetime of knowledge, skill and good will, to serve her fellowmen and the deities in the most important act of Balinese Hindu worship—the giving of offerings.

She serves seven villages, helping individual families and whole communities fulfill their extensive offering requirements. Her expertise includes offerings as well as ceremonies, from the smallest to the largest: for all of life’s many important rituals, as well as for death. Highly regarded and in great demand, she is never able to spend more than five or six days of any month at home. Yet, even then, when she could rest, she busies herself with making more offerings—the simplest, common ones which every girl and woman knows how to make, but which nevertheless are always needed daily, in her family too.

Today the ceremony will take place, but she and dozens of neighborhood women she is supervising have been creating a huge variety of offerings already for a week. They start this special day with breakfast, but that of the tukang banten differs from the rest, for her food is ritually prescribed. After eating, she places a special offering for the god who guides her work, and then sets herself to the demanding tasks at hand.

She has prepared offerings for ceremonies such as this hundreds—even thousands—of times, and her memory serves her well. Sometimes, if for a moment she can’t remember some detail of an offering, she just begins while making a prayer for divine help, she says, and it immediately comes back to her. A mistake in an offering can have dire consequences, so everything must be exactly correct, and it is she who is ultimately responsible.

As the ceremony finally begins, it is her role to report about the offerings to the priest, and the priest reports to the gods, in fervent hope they will be most pleased. Her work now done here, tomorrow Ida Ayu Mayun will tirelessly help at a ceremony in another nearby village. “In spite of my age,” she declares, “it seems the gods wish me to continue my work, for they continue to give me all the strength I need.”

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines has three flights daily from Narita to Singapore, one of which has a same-day connection to Denpasar, and the others of which have next-day connections. Garuda Airlines has a daily direct flight from Narita to Denpasar, with return via Jakarta.

WHERE TO STAY

Tandjung Sari means “Cape of Flowers” and, true to its name, its setting is a magnificent garden with huge trees, lush foliage and tropical blossoms. The 26 bungalows of varying sizes are built in traditional Balinese architectural style, using bamboo, thatch and polished stone. Within attached private walled gardens are open-air showers. This tranquil and warmly hospitable retreat is situated on a white sand beach at Sanur. www.tandjungsari.com