The Island of the Gods
very morning, Alit leans over the side of his boat and drops a small floating offering into the sea. Made from the plaited leaves of banana trees, it contains rice, incense, flowers or sweet treats. Eyes closed, he performs several hypnotic movements with his hands while talking to the air. “I’m doing this for myself, but for you as well. I think we’ll see a lot of fish today,” he tells us, while watching his offering being carried away by the waves. “I’m going to take you somewhere you’ll never forget.” Alit is our captain today. He shows us his favourite underwater hideaways on the coast of Nusa Penida, a small island, 35 minutes from Bali and famous among scuba divers. They say that going there is like travelling back in time and seeing what Bali was like decades ago, before tourism made it a dream destination for honeymooners and those seeking spiritual retreat.
All Balinese people carefully elaborate daily offerings, to honour their deities.
Like Alit, all Balinese people carefully make offerings, to honour their deities, and they leave them anywhere. This daily gesture has become an almost artistic ritual, which embodies the essence of the Balinese spirit. “It’s as simple as giving and receiving,” the young fishermen tells us. The reason why joy is so ubiquitous on Bali resides in the Hindu doctrine Tri Hita Karana, which literally means three ways of achieving physical and spiritual wellbeing. This philosophy, adopted by most Balinese people, seeks prosperity through triple harmony: with other people, nature and the gods. It is probably this harmony that explains the constant smiles surrounding us.
Unlike other Indonesians, the majority of whom are Muslim, 90% of Balinese people practise Hinduism. For many centuries, this religion has been taking on Buddhist, animistic and ancestral beliefs and the spiritual fusion, combined with their sustainable, community-based respect of nature, means the Balinese always have something to celebrate. Bali is estimated to have about 20,000 temples, for 4 million inhabitants. The chaos of its towns and road networks acquires a certain order inside the temples. Maintaining harmony between good and bad is the priority at the ceremonies that take place inside them. The mother temple Besakih and the iconic Tanah Lot, built on the seashore, are the most revered.
An underwater Buddhist temple
Bali is located in the Coral Triangle of the Pacific, home to the greatest biodiversity of marine species in the world, with seven times more species than in the Caribbean. The best-known places for Scuba diving are the islands of Nusa Penida and Nusa Lembongan, to the east, and Menjangan, to the west. “Once you have been down among the corals and discovered fish in a thousand colours and shapes, or held your breath to go down to the underwater Buddhist temple, built in the 1950s, you won’t want to do anything else,” explains Andrew, marine biologist and diving guide.
The Balinese have an everyday relationship with culture and the arts, but this connection also has a touch of the divine. “When we dance for an audience, we’re really doing it for the gods. It’s an expression of respect and creativity,” says dancer Cok Ratih. According to Ratih, traditional Balinese culture is still alive because it has the ability to carefully incorporate new stories and techniques from other places into its roots. The dances portray stories from the Hindu Mahabharata, there are theatrical performances inspired by Chinese shadows, and the masks are reminiscent of Japanese aesthetics. In the 1930s, Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias foresaw the disappearance of Balinese culture, and he spent time on the island to immortalise it through photographs and drawings. But, the traditions survive. This is true to such an extent that many young people prefer joining a gamelan orchestra to a football team.
On the Island of the Gods, even the natural environment has an almost divine dimension. Nature is also celebrated and given offerings. Enormous ancient trees loom large over temples; volcanoes are home to spirits and gods, which protect the island; water, in rivers and the sea, is a source of vitality and purification. The water at the seven Sekumpul waterfalls, which can be as much as 80m high, falls onto swimmers with a supernatural force. You can find them in one of the wilder, lusher areas, to the north of the island, in Singaraja valley. This region is very different to the ordered landscapes of central Bali, where the 19,500ha dedicated to rice farming are sketched into paddies. UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage Site, owing to a unique irrigation system called subak, which distributes water equally throughout the island.
Many young people prefer joining a gamelan orchestra to a football team.
In Bali, everything has a sense of community: the cremation ceremony, characterised by enormous funeral towers, is a perfect example of this. While the adorned figure of a bull, containing the body, goes up in flames, the deceased’s grandson tells us that families and friends attend these rituals with a festive spirit. “This chases away the bad spirits and helps the soul find its way.” Life here is understood as a cycle that takes place in the present.
Playing with the sea gods
Surfing is one most popular activities among foreign tourists. Dominating the waves can be understood as a battle or game with the sea gods, for whom the Balinese have great respect. “There are a lot of people here today; the waves aren’t aggressive. But further south, in Uluwatu, it’s another story,” we are told by a surfing tutor on Canggu beach. He is referring to the place where, in the 1970s, surfer Gerry Lopez discovered one of the most legendary waves on the planet world, making this region a favourite among Australians.
“I didn’t realise that everyone smiled here until I spent time abroad,” confesses Ketut Siandana, architect and manager of NusaBay Menjangan hotel. “That’s why I like it that everyone goes away with the memory that in Bali, there is a sense of union and harmony that is transmitted in many directions.”