Arriving in Bali airport on a Saturday morning I was engulfed by the fragrance of frangipanis and incense as I headed off to meet my hostess buddy, Julie, at her art shop in Seminyak. I was so excited that I was finally about to partake in some Hindu ceremonies. After we had chatted for quite some time, I asked Julie where she had parked her car. “No car”, she said, “we do motorbike, Island style”. Julie chuckled at the amazement on my face. This was about to be a noteworthy ride with all my baggage.
I met Julie on one of my Bali trips five years ago. I had become fascinated by the little shrines on each corner, as well as those in their homes. The many ornate temples and statues around Bali, and the dedication of the Balinese women putting out their offerings and incense at shop entrances, motivated me to find out more regarding the Hindu faith. Having grown up in a Christian family and being familiar with our traditional churches, I found the Hindu faith extremely foreign and complex. This is a colourful faith, with a bold dress and much celebration of their many gods through a host of blessings, offerings, and ceremonies, as well as ornate temples and shrines. There were statues of Balinese female dancers, elephants, lions, and dragons that looked like demons. Frogs, monkeys, and pigs. A mixture of all kinds of statues. I was interested to find out what they all meant and wondered, as a Christian, would I succeed in partaking in a Hindu ceremony myself?
While Julie and I sat chatting about her photography in her shop, she offered to take me on a scenic drive. While admiring all the gorgeous temples, Julie mentioned that she was Hindu. “Tell me about your Hindu faith, Julie,” I asked. Julie patiently explained to me the Agama Hindu Dharma faith. I asked her if I could partake in the ceremonies with her. “Yes, in fact, please come and stay with me once my home is finished being built,” she said with excitement. After my visit, I flew back to Australia, then onto South Africa. Julie and I continued to keep in touch. A couple of years later, I took Julie up on her offer to join in some of the ceremonies with her. I had told her that I would like to write a story about the various ceremonies and felt having a personal experience would enable me to have a deeper understanding of the Hindu faith. What better way to do it than to stay with an Indonesian Hindu family, I thought? So, I flew back to Bali to start my Hindu adventure.
Agama Hindu Dharma is the style of Hinduism practised by the bulk of the population on the island. It includes Trimurti, the Indian trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Having a personal exposure to living with a Hindu family and partaking in their ceremonies was an exceptional privilege for me. It enabled me to search out a lot more information regarding Agama Hindu Dharma firsthand. Balinese Hindus are known for sharing the different aspects of their religion to outsiders, allowing you to visualize for yourself how Bali attained its nickname, Island of the Gods.
Ganesha, the elephant god, appeared to me as chubby, happy, and playful in a childlike appearance. He is referred to as the lord of good fortune who provides prosperity, fortune, and success, as well as protection against diversity.
Narasimha who is part lion, part man destroys evil. Strong and powerful in appearance he is seen to end religious prosecution and calamity on earth, thereby destroying dharma. He is the great protector who specifically protects and defends his devotees from evil and is celebrated in many regional Hindu temples, texts, performance arts, and festivals such as Holika prior to the Hindu spring festival of colours called Holi.
While fun-loving Hanuma the monkey god is greatly admired and adored in the Hindu religion. He is said to be spirited, restless, energetic, inquisitive and mischievous. This we certainly do know about monkeys. He symbolises physical strength, perseverance, and devotion, and so the list goes on of many other gods and supernatural beings on the Island of Bali.
Then we have Manduka, the frog god who is always alert and ready to respond to nature’s timings, even with a smile across his face. He is also referred to as the bringer of rain, nourishment, and cleansing. In monsoon cultures, the croaking of frogs is compared to a rain charm. Frogs symbolise rebirth and adaptability, due to their visible life stages as a tadpole becoming a frog, a symbol of reincarnation.
That evening at Julie’s house, dinner consisted of rice accompanied by spicy vegetables and chicken. Rice is usually consumed at each meal, typically with duck, fish, or pork. Being poor, this family might only afford a bit of chicken or fish, a few vegetables and fruit, that they obtain from local vendors on the roadsides. After dinner we brushed our teeth outside of the shower using a tap, spitting on the floor then washing the toothpaste down the drain.
I woke to the crowing of a rooster the following morning and consumed coffee and deep-fried bananas for breakfast. It was delicious. Through the morning, I noticed the neighbour washing his roosters in soapy water. Amazingly, they didn’t appear to mind. Then he put the roosters back into their woven bamboo cages. “Does he place them on show, sell them or use them for cockfighting?” I asked Julie. “No”, she said, “he simply keeps them as pets, treats them as his children.”
“Now it’s time for you to learn how to make an offering,” Julie said. In a small woven basket, Julie placed a banana leaf at the bottom, then a banana, another fruit, sweets, and flowers on top. “Just follow what I do. Typically, I place in rice, depending on what I actually have at the time. In our culture food is a present from Brahman and there are several rituals from day to day.” Explained Julie. “Now you’ll be able to take these offerings and place them within the temple,” she said. I walked up to a brief flight of stairs to a rooftop where her little temple was and placed the offerings on the altar and a few around the base.
Canang sari is a daily offering by Balinese Hindus, conveying praise and prayer to the Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, the three major gods known as the Trimurti as well as the supreme god of Balinese Hinduism formally known as Agama Hindu Dharma. You can see Canang sari within Balinese temples on little shrines, in homes, and also on the ground or part of a more significant offering. The flowers on the offering are symbolic of essential devas: white flowers facing east for Iswara, red flowers facing south for Brahma, yellow flowers facing west for Mahadeva, and blue or green flowers facing north for Vishnu. These offerings are given daily to Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa as a thanksgiving for the peace given to the world. The philosophy behind the Canang sari is selflessness since they take time and energy to arrange.
Dharma in Hinduism means ‘duty,’ ‘virtue,’ ‘morality,’ even ‘religion,’ and it refers to the power that upholds the universe and society. Hinduism is a spiritual, philosophical, and cultural tradition that developed in India together with their sacred writings. The Hindus believe in a supreme being who appears in many forms and natures, but only in one eternal truth, their desire for liberation from earthly evils, and their belief in reincarnation.
Balinese adopted both Hindu and Buddhist concepts, which is why you see statues of Buddha in Bali. Therefore, the part of Indonesia, where these ceremonials and traditions are still being done, is in Bali. Every day, the folks of the island make offerings of food and create various things for the gods.
“Our God is the creator and upholder of all life,” said Julie. “The seeds we sow, cultivate, and eventually harvest is thanks to god’s blessings and beauty. Therefore, out of feeling and devotion, we offer especially good food to god. This can then be shared and distributed as prasadam or blessed food. Once consumed with love, the prasadam purifies the mind and senses.”
I associated Bali with seemingly endless ceremonies and celebrations, with sounds of water buffalo horns beating metal, high pitched melodies from bamboo flutes, gongs, cymbals, and hand drums. I felt myself being transported to an extraordinary world, a region to escape from a way of life immersed in technology. Balinese robes are ornately embellished in a rainbow of extremely bright colours: fuchsia, violet, turmeric yellow and fiery red. The colours red, white, and black mean, respectively: Brahma the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. From the last day of May till the first week in June, there’s a lot of prayers, feasting, visiting friends, and salutation. Balinese prefer to tell stories and build drama through their dance and music. June tenth is Kuningan – the ending of ceremonies and the time for the gods to come. The remote villages of Karangasem within the hills around the holy mountain of Lempuyang celebrate in their own inimitable fashion.
Once again, after waking to the crowing of a rooster and also to the excited chattering of youngsters, Julie, Amy, and their cousins went down to the beach for a swim, arriving back at nine for a bowl of rice and green bean stir fry breakfast. “We are going to the purification ceremony now, just beyond Ubud at the waterfalls,” Julie said. “We must wear brightly coloured sarongs, and anyone can participate in the ceremony, making offerings in bamboo woven bowls with flowers, incense, and a small amount of money inside. “
A large crowd gathered at the waterfalls in their brightly coloured apparel. Religious leaders reciting mantras, families walking, and talking, placing their offerings and incense on the alters. The people then walked all the way down to the waterfalls, still in their brightly coloured apparel. Standing beneath the waterfalls, they raised their arms higher than their heads shouting. I questioned whether or not this was through sheer praiseful joy toward their immortal deity or the magnitude of water falling on their heads; whichever, everybody was happy, enjoying the experience. The energy from the waterfalls is said to come from the Hindu deity Shakti. Her spiritual power flows, cascading down from the mountains of affection and meditation, creating strong healing properties in the flowing water.
Families then made their way up another flight of stairs to a pool where they stood underneath waterspouts from the mouths of carved Dragons within the rock. Exiting the pool, in their dripping garments, they stood in front of the priests to receive a blessing. As I sat on a low stone wall under a tree with Amy waiting for Julie to complete the ceremony, I watched the families make their way up to some food stalls, then sit underneath the trees to have their picnic lunch.
After the waterfall ceremony, we drove up to Kintamani, slightly below the volcano, through the misty rain, where temperatures drop below seven degrees. Arriving at her parent’s house, we sat down on the ground in their living room to eat rice and fish out of paper wrappings. Julie explained that the Balinese additionally participate in a purification ceremony at Bali’s sacred pool, the Holy Springs of Pura Tirta Empul, situated inside the village of Manukaya. We arrived back at Julie’s house at eight-thirty that evening. Exhausted, we fell asleep.
Tuesday morning, Julie and I left for Seminyak. While she worked at her photo gallery I went exploring. That evening, on our way home, we met a friend of hers for a meal of rice and deep-fried duck at a local eatery. It was surprisingly delicious.
The following day we spent the morning relaxing at home, helping Amy with her English schoolwork. Wearing a sarong and long sleeve laced jacket in bright orange and an oversized scarf tied around my waist, Amy, Julie, and I headed up into the hills in the early evening to a different temple encircled by trees. A row of food stalls was set up outside the temple, with twinkling fairy lights strung between them. Starting the ceremony outside the main temple we placed our offerings on an altar with sticks of sweet-scented incense. Sitting on the ground with the people facing the priest, we prayed. Then the priest blessed us with water by sprinkling some on our heads for purification, and within the palms of our hands. We sipped the water from our palms, meaning purification of speech, then passed our hands over our head after the fourth time.
In Bali, Hindus still don’t read a written book when they perform Puja (worship). They learned from a lontar, a manuscript that has traditionally been written by hand on palm leaves. Before they recite the Ramayana Kakavin, the lontar is adored. (Rama meaning God, Aayana meaning way, Sutasoma Kakavin meaning Indonesian Hindu scripture). Then there is a special ritual of lifting the sacred book and carrying it throughout a procession. Delivering it to a particular place on the ground doing the bhumi puja (mantra), worshipping, and consecrating the ground where they place the book down. The priest will then sit and recite the Ramayana.
Moving into the inner part of the temple, we repeated the recitation of the Ramayana ending by receiving a Tridatu, a blessing bracelet from the priest. It consisted of three colours of thread, red, white, and black. “Julie, what does this bracelet represent,” I asked. “These colours are for Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, the Gods we pray to, additionally they also mean birth, life and death,” she said. As we walked out of the temple on a path lined with trees, food stalls, and twinkling fairy lights, I found the atmosphere relaxed and calming.
One day rolled into the next, but all too soon I was leaving behind the easy-going atmosphere of the island, gamelan music, scented frangipanis, and sweet-smelling incense. I flew out of Bali the subsequent morning. My personal Agama Hindu Dharma experience had given me a deeper understanding of what the Hindu faith was all about. Having partaken in the different ceremonies, I had learned about the different offerings and ceremonies and what they meant. I felt this would give my story more soul and meaning and that I had achieved what I had set out to do: have a personal experience with the Hindu faith. It was now a little less complex and foreign to me. The sheer dedication of these folks, their kindness, and amazing hospitality, happy and content with their simplistic lifestyle will always be an experience I certainly will never forget.