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Balinese culture and why it matters to all of us

by Silke Elzner

What is it about the Balinese culture that we are so strangely attracted to it?

This is my very thought as we are rumbling down the busy streets of Kuta in our minibus up into the highlands of Bali. Our road leads us through a never-ending string of villages, lined up along the narrow country road like pearls on a necklace. From my window I can see an endless array of handicraft shops and wholesalers, furniture stores, and souvenir shops. It is a familiar sight for anyone who has ever visited Bali.

Our destination for the day: Penglipuran Village in the shadow of Mount Agung, around 2 hours’ drive from Kuta Beach. A traditional village that is a great place to explore the Balinese culture in its purest form.

Balinese God carved in stone

It is here that I hope to gain some more insights into the Balinese culture, to find some roots of origin or some answers to my many questions. How does it come that Bali is so different from the rest of Indonesia? What does it mean to be Balinese? And what do all the little temples, statues, and offerings that you will find all around the island mean?

Penglipuran Village is unique in the sense that time seemingly has stood still here. This village is as picturesque as it can be. A single paved road which is only used by pedestrians points towards the mountain, following a northeasterly direction. More than a dozen family compounds are lined up to the left and to the right of that road, each one of them following the same architectural composition which clearly defines the way the Balinese traditionally would construct their houses.

As I wander down the main street I notice that the tall outer walls of the compounds look impenetrable. The only way in is a tall decorated stone arch. For added aesthetics between the road and the walls the villagers maintain meticulous gardens with colourful tropical flowers and fruit – playful yet orderly in their strict conformity.

Stone arch leading to family compound

Small offering baskets are discreetly placed close to the houses on the stone steps leading up to the entrances. They are very common sight in Bali. You can see them even in the most touristy spots like Kuta and Seminyak, placed in hotel lobbies, restaurants, markets. Women in Bali craft these little vessels daily from palm leaf and fill them with little offerings to the Gods. Mostly flowers but also food are offered this way. The hope is that the Gods will be appeased and will look on house and business with favourable eyes. I can see also little craftwork dangling from roofs and gables, no doubt with similar purposes.

It is these little pieces of artwork, this attention to detail, the appreciation of everything that is beautiful that makes the Balinese culture so attractive. In contrast to the Muslim majority in Indonesia that is prevalent on the other islands of the archipelago, artwork that is depicting animals, humans and Gods are omnipresent in Bali. It is integral part of the Balinese belief-system. It leans heavily on Indian Hinduism but has over time cleverly incorporated native animist, ancestral, and other religious and spiritual influences, even magic. Craftwork and the arts are ways of expressing these complex beliefs in a variety of ways, and they are as much part of the daily life of the Balinese as brushing your teeth or sharing a meal.

Daily offerings to the Gods

I step inside a couple of these compounds following the invitation of the friendly village women. They don’t speak a lot of English but it is enough to give me a short tour of the house. After walking through the elaborate stone gate I come past the family shrine site first, the most sacred part of this family compound. In the compound that I am invited to visit it is street facing as it follows ancient orientation rules. Yet because of the tall stone walls along the side of the road all you can see from the street are the top parts of the shrines and their roofs. Even though you cannot see a lot from the street you can still make out glimpses that reveal that the shrines are decorated in lavish detail, with gold leaf, and beautiful depictions of Gods.

Behind the family shrine site there are two very traditional Balinese structures that are part of each compound in Penglipuran Village. For one, the Bale Saka Enem, a bamboo platform which is resting on six stilts, the ceremonial place of the family. Then, facing it is the traditional kitchen where coals are heating a hearth and produce so much heat that I can’t help but wonder how the elderly men lying on the cot next to it can survive. I almost fail to notice him because he is lying so still and quietly in the dim light of the almost windowless house.

Traditional Balinese kitchen, the hearth

Further on there is the family house, a more modern looking structure where the family would sleep at night, and behind that the usual mix of garden and livestock as you would expect from a rural house: chickens, pigs, a vegetable patch.

The women of Penglipuran Village are very business savvy. Their invitation is not purely meant as a friendly gesture to a stranger. Their intention is of course mainly to sell their goods – from sarongs to tacky souvenirs to beautiful craft there are many ways how you could spent your money here. Haggling is of course expected, so I do make sure the sarongs I buy are changing hands at a relatively fair price.

Even though we are in the highlands at around 700 metres above sea level, the heat is building up in the centre of the village. We discover that we can find respite in the surrounding bamboo forests that are decisively cooler than the village. A walk among the tall bamboo stalks is just magical, their green-ness cleansing. The forest is so dense that you can easily lose yourself in the thicket, the cooler temperatures refreshing and invigorating. For the villagers, the bamboo forest is an integral part of village life: it shelters the village from the erosive forces of rain and wind, and it provides building supplies for the traditional structures of the compounds.

Bamboo Forest

Just before we are leaving loudspeakers around the main temple suddenly go off to release a tinny musical sound. It is traditional Gamelan music that has been part of Bali’s culture for more than a thousand years. The chime of the drums and the sweet tune of the little flutes suddenly paint the scenery in a magical light, adding some aura to the old stone structures that before was missing. It is time for me to go. But one last time I stand in front of the closed gates of the main temple of Penglipuran, my ears ringing with the pompous music of the Balinese people.

The strong outer walls of the temple are like an artists’ canvas with mythological beasts staring at me through stoney eyes, their faces distorted in a mask-like expression, the upper jaw with exposed teeth clearly visible. Figures next to the entrance are frozen in stone in dancing pose, holding strange instruments in their hands, a perfect capture of the movement. Lotus flowers set in stone add beauty to the imposing stone gates, with birds feasting on them, their long beaks trying to reach for the nectar. There is a delicate inscription right above the doors – even the scripture looks like artwork, but of course I cannot read it.

At the end of the day I feel I am none the wiser. Balinese Hinduism is a lot more complex than I initially thought. We know that it came from India, we know that it incorporates many other belief systems, thus removing it completely from the Indian roots and giving it its own distinct flavour. We know that religion is integral part of the people’s everyday lives, and that the expression of spirituality and belief is tightly connected with art and craft.

Face of a god carved in stone at Penglipuran Village

I think this is what makes Bali such an interesting and intriguing destination. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what the details of these beliefs are, what the names of the Gods are and how they are worshipped in many thousand different rituals big and small.

But it is true that the expression of these beliefs in their art is universal, just like aesthetics are universal. No matter whether you believe in a Christian God, a Muslim God or in no God at all, it is the beauty that connects us all as human beings. We find beauty appealing, it touches us to the core and it gives our lives meaning.

I think this is how we can connect with Bali, and this is how Bali can offer us something special and unique that no other place on earth can offer to us.

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Detail of a family shrine

Some info before visiting Penglipuran Village in Bali:

Needless to point out that respect and cultural awareness is key when visiting a village like Penglipuran. You need to keep in mind that there are normal people just like you and me living in these houses and they don’t appreciate if you invade their privacy. Wait to be invited before you step over the threshold, and ask for permission before you take photos inside the houses. You wouldn’t want anyone to do that in your house without asking first either.

A visit to the village can be conveniently combined with that of nearby Mount Batur and Kintamani village. The entrance fees are nominal at just around $2 per adult.