Brazell auf Bali

10.1.2020 – Sanur quiet time

Today is the day of the full moon – Hari Raya Purnama. Today and tomorrow countless religious ceremonies (upacara) will take place in the temples all over Bali, as the phases of the moon are cornerstones of the Hindu-Balinese religious calendar.

Instead of heading to one of those ceremonies in Batuan alongside some foreign-students friends at the invitation of one of our teachers though, I went to South Sanur beach for some quiet time. 

South of Sanur beach proper begins a stretch of coast that is visited much more by locals than by tourists (the further you go south, the fewer tourists, generally). I spent a lovely evening watching the light change in the course of the sunset, right next to a group of Indonesian teenagers singing cheesy songs and playing guitar. I was touched by the happiness of a Muslim family relaxing and taking pictures together on the shore. I watched dozens of crabs of all sizes emerge from under the rocks and walk up and down the stones all around me. A solitary elderly fisherman sat down nearby who seemed to seek solitude and silence just as much as I did and gazed thoughtfully out to the sea, listening to the waves. I walked back along the beach after nightfall admiring the bright full moon, bigger and brighter than usual and only occasionally hidden behind rugged clouds.

While driving back home my eyes locked with the workers on the back of a truck, with a child half asleep on the back of a motorbike, with an old woman packing up her stall by the side of the road. I listened to the sounds on a nearby construction site, barely visible in the dark, and saw that work went on there long after dark.

I realised that driving is much like living your life: The faster you go, the less you seem to notice of the world around you. The more at peace you are, the more you become aware of different paths and possibilities opening up to you.

How many crabs do you see?

Tonight was the night I began to feel the need to reconnect to my own country, to reconnect to Europe. I’m beginning to feel I need to find time, make time to let people I care for know what is happening in my life here on Bali. Had it not been for today, the blogs you have read so far might not actually have been written… Full moon or no, it’s been a very contemplative evening xD

Brazell auf Bali

3) Beginning of the semester: Mejaya-Jaya ritual

Before the beginning of the academic year, our international office mentor, Agus Adi Kamajaya, organised this ceremony for all international students in his native village of Bakbakan, approximately 15km northeast of Denpasar. Mejaya-Jaya involves a purification rite (melukat) and is meant to cleanse the participants so as to enhance the capacity to learn and study afterwards. Apparently ISI usually carries out this ceremony with all (or all new) students on campus at the beginning of the semester, but since foreign students are not invited to this, our mentor held a small equivalent of the ceremony for us at his house – conveniently, his father’s a priest. His mother and wife did the offerings, traditionally the women’s task.

Some people might feel that participating in such ceremonies as a non-Hindu doesn’t make sense – but experiencing some of these rituals from ‚within‘ actually gives you a feel for the effect they have on Balinese people and encourages you to ask questions to better understand them. (Whether you’ll get meaningful answers to those questions is quite another matter!)))

Pak Agus‘ house is a beautiful traditional Balinese family compound in the rice fields, where he lives with his parents, wife and children. Just being there and wandering around in the ricefields accompanied by his sons was really enjoyable, despite persistent rainfall…

Ricefields that are not being worked are just plain brown. The farmers give each field a rest in a kind of rotating system; but this also depends on the season I think. The Balinese irrigation system (Subak) dates back to the 9th century and has become quite famous lately; it was enlisted as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2012. The water is controlled by a system of canals and tunnels, and water temples mark either the source of water or its passage (through the temple) downhill towards subak land. Farmers are organised in water collectives to manage the water from a common source under the authority of the priests. As with most aspects of Balinese culture and society, subak is closely tied in with religious and philosophical beliefs: Following the Tri Hita Karana philosophy, water temple rituals promote the balance between people and their environment and stress the human dependence on the forces of nature. Bakbakan doesn’t have the huge, multi-terraced ricefields of regions like Tegalalang or Jatiluwih, but the farmers take just as much pride in their fields. – Change of subject: What do you think this ugly little bush is? Zoom in and find the fruit it bears…

Yes – a banana plant! And this palm tree one on the left? Very dark, I know –

The famous coconut! By far my favourite drink here (kelapa muda = young coconut) :)) Eventually, that day in Bakbakan the sun came out on the ricefields and everything looked green and lush and beautiful: Bali as it appears on the postcards. I can only say that you don’t get to see this side of Bali much if you live in Denpasar city…

The actual ceremony itself was like most other ceremonies I’ve participated in since: Long, tiring, hot, a lot of waiting for things you only partially understand the significance of – but touching as well and creating moments of peace and timelessness that I’ve found in Christian ceremonies only during singing. Incense sticks are meant to purify (you wave the smoke towards yourself to clean face and hands) and carry the essence of the offerings to the gods. Each time the priest rings his bell, you pray, raising your hands with palms laid together to the top of your forehead. The first prayer is to empty your mind and connect with the spirit within. In the following prayers, flowers of certain colours are used to address different gods, or aspects of God (the piece of flower is stuck in between your hands while you pray). The last prayer, again with empty hands, is for peace. The priest performs the blessing by sprinkling water on you, giving you some of the water to drink (three times) and clean your face and head, then offering you uncooked rice to mark the forehead, the base of your neck and your temples (the rest can be eaten). All this is a fixed ritual, as are the verses and answers in Christian church services; but this one doesn’t rely on language and fixed phrases. I think it touches me more because it allows you to phrase your prayers in your own way. You’re asked to empty your mind to connect with the gods – meditation being a part of Balinese Hinduism. Maybe that’s why Bali became such a Yoga hotspot.

For all temple ceremonies, Balinese traditional temple dress (pakaian adat) must be worn: For women, that’s a kebaya, kamen (sarong) with selendang (scarf), and the hair should be tied. Outside the ceremonies, when you enter a temple or do the offerings, you should at least wear a selendang (to show you are ’serious‘ about religious worship); usually a kamen too. Men wear an udeng (headpiece), a shirt (usually white), kamen, saputan (cloth on top of kamen that reaches to the thighs) and umpal (waistband). As most kebayas are semi-transparent, you’re expected to wear somethings beneath that – traditionally some kind of corset, but I’m resisting that so far… xD In order to tie your kamen without making a knot (and having this lump beneath your kebaya), women usually fasten a tight, broad belt around the waist on top of the kamen. Now imagine wearing all this clothing for several hours in temeperatures ranging between 30 and 40°C – and I think you’ll understand why I said these ceremonies can be tiring! However, I absolutely love my growing collection of colourful kebayas and sarong (often Batik) :))) Apparently the need to wear a kebaya is rather a recent thing. Traditionally, Balinese women used to leave their upper body uncovered; for formal and ceremonial occasions, they’d wind a sash tightly around it covering the breasts but leaving shoulders and arms exposed. Some sources say the Dutch, when they at last started occupying Bali too (from 1849 onwards), enforced the wearing of the kebaya in an attempt to make the island more „civilised“. However, the Balinese I talked to usually say that wearing the kebaya became necessary when Bali became part of the united, primarily Muslim Republic of Indonesia.

Some of the offerings prepared for the ceremony.

Incense and holy water sprinkled by way of preparing for the ritual.

As in most ceremonies, there was plenty of food! And believe me, after hours of waiting and sitting around in the hot sunshine, you’re gonna need it xD

Finally, below you see most, if not all of the foreign students enrolled at ISI Denpasar this year (twenty-something students). All except me and another girl are in the Darmasiswa programme with which the Indonesian government aims to foster interest in Indonesian culture(s). Only eight of us are in the so-called Performing Arts department (= music and dance, a made-up term for the foreign students; local students choose either music OR dance). The other Darmasiswa study visual arts and crafts: traditional drawing, mask-making, Batik etc.

CONGRATULATIONS for taking in all of this information! I’ll be back:)

Brazell auf Bali

2) September: The first ceremonies

Balinese Hinduism (Agama Hindu Dharma) is a distinct form of Hinduism and practiced by the majority of the population on Bali. It includes the belief that places, objects and all creatures possess a spiritual essence and are thus ‚alive‘ or ‚animated‘ (animism). It also involves worship of the ancestors and acknowledgement of Buddhist saints. In a way it seems to be a mixture of Indian Hinduist beliefs and indigenous customs that were practiced on Bali before the arrival of Islam and the Dutch. In order to be recognised by the Indonesian government as an official religion however, Balinese Hindus needed to describe their belief in way that made it look monotheistic. Only citizens who belong to an officially recognised religion (and one of the requirements for that is monotheism) are granted the rights of citizenship – such as for example the right to vote!

It’s one thing to read about Balinese Hinduism – quite another to experience it in daily life. There are religious ceremonies all the time! So many aspects of daily life are influenced by religion, whether it be what day you make a voyage or where you dump your rubbish. A large proportion of Balinese Hindus‘ lives is dedicated to preparing offerings, preparing food, preparing one’s selves and preparing houses and temples for all sorts of ceremonies that take place all throughout the year. Balinese Hindus follow their own 210-day calendar (as well as a lunar calendar) which deviates considerably from the Gregorian calendar. This special calendar prescribes all the different days for specific ceremonies as well as suitable days for all sorts of social events, like weddings, name giving, tooth filing etc. It’s incredibly complex! Usually for important events the Balinese themselves need to seek advice from their priests to find suitable dates according to the religious calendar, which few people understand in all its complexity.

With time I will hopefully be able to understand some aspects of Balinese religious practice, not least because I now have more Balinese friends who I can question about them. But during my first few weeks here, I really just stumbled into this bewildering world of ceremonious events. The first ceremony I ran into during my first week on Bali was an offerings procession called Pengaskaran. It’s some sort of purification ritual that takes place after cremation ceremonies (Ngaben). Hundreds of offerings (banten) of fruit, flowers and food in the traditional light bamboo boxes are carried by women through the streets accompanied by priests and procession music (Baleganjur). I can’t elaborate any more on this type of ceremony, simply because I did’t find any intelligible information or explanations at the time. Here’s a little glimpse of the procession in Sanur. It was a huge gathering!

The second ceremony in September I was invited to by one of the teachers at Narwastu (see ‚Gamelan Narwastu‘) who I had but just met for the first time. It was the blessing of the gamelan in the instrument museum of the Institut Seni, a ceremony called Tumpek Krulut performed every six (Balinese) months or 210 days. ‚Tumpek‘ are special days on the Balinese calendar, there are six altogether in the course of one Balinese 210-day cycle (called Pawukon) honouring in turn the creation of iron objects, plants, the ancestors, animals, the wayang shadow puppets. ‚Krulut‘ derives from Javanese and means ‚pleasant‘. Tumpek Krulut is the fourth in the row of the Tumpek days and is held to express gratitude for the creation of sacred sounds in the form of the bronze gamelan. It is dedicated to all musical instruments and also masks and other tools used for art performances in religious ceremonies. There are quite a few sets of gamelan from all over Bali in the ISI museum collection, but the ceremony was held in the room of the largest of these sets possessing the largest gong, the Gamelan Gong Gede. The university student gamelan played in another room of the museum while priests performed the sacred ritual and women carried around offerings to bless all the other sets of instruments in the museum by sprinkling holy water on their gongs and leaving small offerings on each set.

Maybe you will notice (as I did) that there is only one girl playing in the university gamelan. That’s already one more than you’ll find, on average, during ISI temple performances. Maybe one out of 20-30 is enough to do justice to what in German we call the „Frauenquote“?
Small offerings on the Gong Kebyar from North Bali …
… on the Javanese gamelan …
… and on the Gamelan Degung from Sunda (West Java).

At the end everybody gathered to pray in the room of the Gong Gede. As in all ceremonies I have visited since, I (then the only foreigner) was invited to join in the praying, which felt very weird indeed, as I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing and just tried to imitate without attracting attention. (For a detailed description of the praying procedure, see the next post:))

This is Pak Kadek Astawa, the younger of the two Narwastu teachers, who invited me to this ceremony. He works at the museum of ISI Denpasar, besides being a musician and teacher with his own sanggar.