The Natural Beauty of Bali – Part II
In Part I of the series, we highlighted the island’s natural splendours from the ancient volcanoes that stand over thick tropical jungles and deep river gorges to fertile rice terraces, abundant exotic tropical plants and an impressive array of amazing wildlife.
In this article, we continue to explore the natural beauty of Bali with a focus on the charming people and a unique colourful culture that captured our hearts and made us reflect on our lives – what we take for granted, our differences and at the same time how we are alike: yearning for creative expression, appreciating the beauty of nature, filled with hopes and dreams, aspiring to spiritual ideals and looking for meaning, happiness and connections.
At the core of Balinese society is the village (called Banjar), which consists of a number of families who reside in compounds. A traditional compound is a family home for many generations and is structured through a complex interweaving of elements that reflect the Balinese religious belief, financial wealth, kinship ties, social requirements and other practical needs.
Bali is historically a rural society until the recent tourism development started from South Bali during the 1980s. However, even today, facilities that we take for granted, such as electricity, running water and electrical appliances: refrigerators, microwaves, washing machines and electric kettles, standard in tourist establishments are luxuries not afforded by average Balinese families. As you take a walk through the villages or rice fields, locals can often be seen washing their clothes or taking a bath in the water channels that is part of the rice field irrigation system.
Despite the modest living conditions, the traditional villages are filled with an energy that is joyful, rich and alive. It can be experienced not only through sights but also the ceaseless sounds of the trickling streams from the nearby rice paddies, frequent calls of roosters, cackling of ducks, chirping of birds, giggling of playing children, the conversations and the comings and goings of locals, as well as frogs’ choruses at night.
The Balinese is a native ethnic group who differ from the rest of Indonesia’s population in a number of ways, including language, dress, cuisine, calendar and most significantly religious belief. The majority of the Indonesians are Muslims but over 90% of Balinese are Hindus. Different from the Hinduism practised in India, the Balinese-Hinduism combines elements of Buddhism, animism, ancestor worship, and places great importance on elaborate rituals. These rituals expressed through prayers, offerings and various ceremonies as well as through art, drama and music have been intricately woven into the Balinese daily lives and create strong ties in the communities.
Without an appreciation of the Balinese religion, the wonderful volcanic mountains and temples; dramatic ceremonies and processions; spectacular and colourful dances, paintings, wood carvings and masks are devoid of meaning. One fundamental aspect of the Balinese spirituality to appreciate is that the Balinese perceives no division between the religious and the secular world. At the heart of the Balinese philosophy is the concept of sekala niskala (“visible-invisible”), reflecting that the physical world is penetrated by a spirit world. God is everywhere in all things.
The Bali Hindu Dharma teaches that the world lies between two opposing and antagonistic poles, the objective is to seek balance and harmony of these forces. The essence of a person, the soul, as the universal principle of life and consciousness (atma), and God are one. The fruition of one’s deeds (karma) determines whether one will be rewarded. There is a strong belief in reincarnation (samsara) – the process of death and rebirth. When the spirit is freed from all desires, one reaches enlightenment (moksa), the merging of the individual soul (atma) with the all-loving universal soul of the Creator.
One of the most striking features about Bali, a window through which we as outsiders get a glimpse of the Balinese religion and their everyday life, is the daily profusion of offerings, made with a selection of flowers and a little food (usually a few grains of rice) in a banana or palm leaf container. Every Balinese household and business makes offerings as gifts to the gods and spirits twice daily in the mornings and afternoons.
These are time consuming routines usually carried out by women. They entail making the offerings, praying and placing the offerings at several locations.
The men prepare offerings made of flesh (sacrificial animals), cook roast pigs, chickens and ducks for ceremonies and construct temporary shrines and ritual bamboo accessories.
The purpose of ceremonies, prayers and offerings is to achieve equilibrium where the two forces of good and evil are in balance for the individual, the village, the island and the world. However as everything is in a constant state of flux, any equilibrium achieved is temporary so the rituals are to be regularly repeated.
Balinese art and craft are an integral part of the Balinese religion, culture and life. It’s remarkable how such a small island has so many creative and talented artists who work with both traditional and contemporary themes producing paintings, sculptures, silver jewelry, wood and stone carvings, masks, textiles and more.
During the powerful, sacred performances of Balinese dance and drama, stories are told about the relationship between the good and the evil, order and chaos, male and female, noble and ignoble and so on. They are frequently based on epic poems of religious significance and often contain elements of trance, requiring performers to enter deep meditation – an altered state of consciousness in thrall to benevolent or demonic forces.
An example is the captivating Kecak Dance taken from the epic Hindu story of Ramayana. It is featured prominently in the award winning documentary Baraka which takes viewers on an awe-inspiring spiritual journey and an unparalleled sensory experience.
Craftsmanship can be seen throughout temples, palaces, ordinary houses and in the streets. Even the ornate offerings are works of art.
No wonder the beautiful island of Bali has attracted and inspired artists from all over the world.
Balinese food is simple, fresh, inexpensive and unpretentious, while at the same time tasty and an absolute joy to eat.
Amongst the first things visitors to Bali will notice are the countless food stalls along the streets and their patrons having a casual meal standing or squatting alone in a corner. The short-term visitors to Bali often has very little contact with everyday Balinese food. Most restaurants frequented by tourists serve food cooked with the palate and eating habits of foreign tourists in mind.
The Balinese traditionally eat without cutlery, using the right hand. A typical meal consists of freshly cooked rice (accounting for over 70% of a meal) and small amounts of two or three other dishes often prepared with a variety of fresh spices. The average Balinese family consumes very little meat or fish in daily meals as compared to western families.
As most families do not have a refrigerator at home, food is always purchased and prepared fresh daily. This means that almost all produce sold at markets are incredibly fresh. Fruit and vegetables are usually harvested the day before and distributed by trucks overnight to the countless markets around the island where they are sold in the early morning hours. Traditional Balinese markets are colourful, vivid and exude a wonderful atmosphere of vibrance and freshness.
Rice Agriculture and Tourism
The picturesque rice terraces are a main attraction of the beautiful and unique Bali rural landscape to tourists. To the Balinese, rice agriculture is a rich tradition integral to the island’s natural, social, cultural and religious environment. Rice fields are the wetland habitat for a vast amount of Balinese wildlife and their cultivation has been for thousands of years intimately woven into the Balinese life.
The process of rice cultivation in Bali is vastly different from modern agriculture in developed countries. Much of it is done by hand.
In Part I of the series, we briefly touched on the extraordinary collaboration of humans and nature reflected through the stunning rice paddy landscape. The irrigation system is actively managed by the cooperative social religious organisations called subak. Since 2012, the Balinese rice field irrigation (subak) system has been enlisted by UNESCO (United Nations Organisation for Education, Science, Culture and Communications) as a World Heritage Cultural Landscape.
~ Cultural Landscape of Bali (UNESCO)
One charming aspect of rice farming in Bali is the employment of ducks. Large flocks of mature ducks or ducklings are herded by farmers from one rice field to another after the harvest to do their share of the work – clearing up the leftover pieces of grain; eating pests that would otherwise destroy the next crop if left alone and fertilising the land. Seeing them happily chatting with each other as they scurry around the rice fields, feeding, playing and grooming never fails to bring on smiles.
Sadly, despite the rapid tourism growth and the fact that rice terraces have become a key attraction, Balinese farmers have not prospered. Working in rice fields in the scorching sun is a hard life both due to it being physically incredibly demanding and the low income that barely allows the farmers to make a living. Many farmers have to supplement their income through other types of work in the tourism industry, such as selling art and craft. Understandably, farmers especially the younger generations are seeking off-farm employment which is associated to higher social status, better and more secure income and comfortable working environment.
The tourism boom has been both a blessing and a curse to the Balinese. It is a blessing as the income generated from tourists underpins the Balinese economy and has improved the general living standards of many, lifting people from severe poverty. However, at the same time, the cost is evident. Thousands of kilometers of rice fields are cleared each year making room for tourist development projects, threatening to diminish the natural beauty of Bali.
Lessening the impact of rice field conversion, especially in the most fertile parts of the island, can be achieved through well-thought-out plans, regulations and a long term vision. Bali has environmental management regulations. However, it has been a great challenge to implement the controls required to balance environmental, cultural and social needs with the growth of tourism and urbanisation.
As tourists, supporting the Balinese rice agriculture, traditions and the natural environment means respecting the island’s culture, religious belief and traditional lifestyle. Every purchase choice we make is a vote cast for what we care about and value. Simple actions such as taking an interest in learning the traditions, frequenting businesses that directly support the locals and their culture, and paying fair prices would make a positive difference in preserving the natural beauty of Bali for the locals and tourists who love the island.