The island paradise of Bali is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Southeast Asia. Bali is famous for its natural beauty, exotic culture, and most importantly for its wonderful people. It has beautiful beaches, luscious greenery, volcanic mountains, and lakes.
Bali’s unique heritage and culture were influenced by Hinduism from India. Bali’s landscape is dotted all over the island with Hindu temples called puras. The architecture and styles of these temples are unique to Bali.
Bali is part of the Indonesian archipelago and its eastern tip is located a couple of miles west of Java, another famous island in Indonesia.
When Hinduism came to Bali more than 2000 years ago, the Balinese created their own brand of Hinduism by blending it with the practices and rites of their animist past. They continue to practice their brand of Hinduism until the Majapahit Empire from the neighboring island of Java defeated the King of Bali. The Balinese people then gradually started to adopt the culture of the Javanese Hindus.
When the neighboring island of Java was overwhelmed by the religion of Islam in the 14 century, the defeated Majapahit Empire took the last stand in Bali. The nobility from the Majapahit Empire sought refuge in Bali bringing with them a rich culture of arts, dances and their form of Hinduism.
Bali remained independent with several kingdoms until the Dutch started colonizing them in 1840. Just like the British in India, Dutch employed the Divide and Rule tactics to pit one kingdom against another and eventually took control of most of Bali. The fiercely independent Balinese people fought against the Dutch to gain independence.
During World War II, Imperial Japan occupied Bali in 1942. The Balinese people then started fighting against the Japanese. Gusti Ngurah Rai was the leader of the rebellion. After the Japanese surrender, the Dutch returned to Bali. With Gusti Ngurah Rai as their leader, Balinese once again rebelled against them using the arms left by the Japanese army. Once Indonesia gained independence, Bali became a province of Indonesia in 1949. The international airport in Bali is named after Gusti Ngurah Rai.
Religion and Culture
A vast majority of Balinese people practice Hinduism. They follow Aagama Hindu Dharma (Aagama means traditional in Sanskrit), which came to Bali from the neighboring island of Java, and is a blend of Shaivaism, Buddhism and indigenous beliefs. They believe in one supreme God (Brahman), the immortal individual soul (Atma), and the pillars of the Hindu faith Dharma, Karma, Samsara and Moksha. The Balinese society follows an occupation-based social class system similar to Hindu varnashrama with the following four varnas: Brahmanas (priests), Satrias (kings and warriors), Wesias (nobility and traders) and Sundras (farmers).
There are many differences between the Hinduism practiced in India and Bali. Unlike in most Indian temples, temples in Bali have women poojaris (priestesses). Even though the Balinese follow a stringent form of Hinduism, they are not vegetarian and do not consider cow is sacred. In fact, they eat beef. Balinese women wear bindis (dots on the forehead) made of rice.
Even though Bali belongs to the Muslim majority country Indonesia, they practice their religion freely. There is no persecution of Balinese Hindus. In fact, there are few Muslims in Bali. This is true for Christianity as well. Despite Bali being a Dutch colony, there are not many Christians there either.
Balinese dances provide a glimpse of the cultural traditions of Bali. The inspiration for Balinese dances comes from nature, religion, and lifestyle of the Balinese people. The dance form is ritualistic and very expressive, and the dancers use hand gestures similar to the mudras performed in dances in India. The dance dramas are typically based on stories from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Some of the Balinese dance traditions predate Hindu influence. The current Balinese dance form is a fusion between indigenous Bali and Indian dances. The mythological characters Barong (lion-like creature) and Rangda (demon queen) were inherited from the culture existed in Bali before Hinduism. They are inter-mingled in Ramayana and Mahabharata stories to represent the good and evil forces.
The pictures below show a dance drama performed by the Raja Peni Troupe in Ubud.
Balinese New Year
The Balinese new year celebration is spread over six days. The actual new year starts on the third day of this celebration and is called Nyepi, which is an important date in Bali and to some extent in Indonesia.
Nyepi is celebrated on the same day as Yugadi (beginning of a new era) in India. Because the date of this festival is calculated based on a lunar calendar, it is different each year. Unlike Yugadi, Nyepi, which means silence in the Balinese language, is celebrated as a day of silence. On that day, the Balinese do not engage in any physical activity, including speech, and practice abstinence. The entire population of Bali stays indoors, and so do tourists. Unlike the other new year celebrations all over the world, tourists are confined to their hotels during this period. Airports and other transportation services are closed for 24 hours.
During the Balinese new year celebrations, people cleanse themselves spiritually and ask forgiveness from each other. Nyepi is another great example of how the Balinese adapted their indigenous traditions to blend with the Hindu traditions.
Besakih Temple (Pura Besakih)
Known as the Mother Temple, Besakih is the holiest place in Bali for the Balinese Hindus. It is a complex of several Hindu shrines dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, the Hindu Trinity. Located 30 miles northeast of Ubud, the Besakih Temple complex was built on the slopes of Mount Agung, which is an active volcano.
The name Besakih is derived from the Sanskrit word Vasuki, who in the Hindi mythology is a nagaraja (king of serpents). Vasuki is the serpent used in Samudra Manthana, a story of about churning of the Ocean of Milk. According to a legend in Bali, Mount Agung became Vasuki ‘s home after Samudra Manthana.
Besakih was declared a World Heritage Site in 1995 because of its importance to the Balinese people and to the world. Although Besakih was built more than 1000 years ago, the temples are actively used by the Balinese Hindus, who come here from all over the island to participate in various festivals and private temple ceremonies. Some temples inside this complex are closed to outsiders.
To enter the Besakih complex, you need to wear a Sarong, which is a piece of clothing wrapped around your waist, to cover your legs. Sarong must be worn regardless of your gender. Sarongs come in a variety of colors and with beautiful designs, and you can buy or rent them outside the temple complex.
Besaki looks like a stepped pyramid because the temple structures are built on the terraces of the mountain slope. As you enter, the steps built on the left side of the temple lead you to the courtyards of the temples. Not all the temples are open to the public. As you climb these steps, you can view and enjoy the stunning scenery around you.
The Uluwatu Temple is located on the south-western tip of Bali. It is a small temple dedicated to Rudra and was built on a huge limestone cliff. At the entrance of this temple, there are two pathways – one to the left and other to the right of the temple – built on top of the bluff that follows the shoreline. Visitors walk on these pathways to view the spectacular scenery.
Tanah Lot Temple
The Tanah Lot Temple is an iconic landmark of Bali. It is built on a rock formation on the western Bali seashore. The scenery surrounding the temple is spectacular as waves after waves keep pounding the rock formations. There are a few other rock formations nearby and the area behind the temple is lush green.
This temple was built in the 15th century by a Hindu priest who came to Bali from the Majapahit Kingdom of Eastern Java to spread Hinduism. The temple is dedicated to Dewa Baruna (Varuna of Hindu mythology?).
Taman Ayun Temple (Pura Taman Ayun)
Dedicated to avatars of Vishnu, Taman Ayun is a beautiful temple complex located 11 miles northwest of Denpasar and 5 miles southeast of Ubud in the village of Mengwi. Because it is located in Mengwi, Taman Ayun is also known as Mengwi Temple. It was built in 1634 by the Raja of Mengwi, Tjokerda Sakti Blambangan, and was restored in 1937.
The architecture is a blend of Cambodian and Bali styles. Unlike the other temples of Bali, this temple has a wide prakara (compound surrounding the temple) and a moat. It has four concentric enclosures with inner ones at a higher level than the outer ones. With beautifully decorated gopuras and shrines, the similarities with the Banteay Srei Temple in Cambodia is striking.
Taman Ayun Temple
Rice terraces are part of the scenery in Bali. The mountainous terrain of Bali makes it difficult to cultivate rice which is typically grown on a flatter landscape. To overcome this problem, the Balinese people developed an ingenious irrigation system known as Subak, which is a cooperative water management system that connects canals, tunnels, and weirs and is shared and controlled by the community. Subak is hailed as one of the most efficient and ecologically sustainable irrigation systems in the world.
Kintamani is a scenic area in the north-eastern Bali where Mount Batur and Lake Batur are located. This area is still part of an active volcano and is full of black lava rocks.
Mt. Batur that we see today was formed during the volcanic eruption in 1917. It erupted three more times after that. The last one occurred in 1994 creating many sub-craters.
Located 19 miles northeast of Ubud, Lake Batur is a freshwater lake formed by the volcanic crater. The images show the lake surrounded by the slopes on the crater rim. The spectacular landscape and greenery attract a lot of tourists to this region, which is also home to many hot water springs.
With a surface area of 4000 acres, this crescent-shaped lake is the biggest lake in Bali. The maximum length, breadth, and depth are 1.7 mil, 4.7 mil, and 290 ft. It is located about 3300 ft above sea level. The inflow is mainly the rainwater.
The indigenous people of Bali known as Bali Aga live in the villages that lie along the shores of Lake Batur. They practice ancient traditions and rites that existed before the Javanese Hindu culture arrived in Bali. They earn their lively hood by growing tomatoes and garlic.
Bali in rural areas is known for its natural beauty and tranquility. There is greenery everywhere with paddy fields, palm trees and a variety of fruit-bearing trees. Most Balinese people live in villages away from the tourist areas and lead a traditional life by engaging in farming.
Prambanan, Borobudur, Indonesia
Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Cambodia
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