Bali

Introduction

With the reputation of being one of the most beautiful and diverse tourist spots in Asia, Bali annually attracts almost 1,000,000 visitors from around the world.

Bali is the western most island in the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia. The island is located west of Java and east of Lombok. With a population of over 3 million with the vast majority of the island's population, 93.18%, being Hindu makes this place very different from the rest of Indonesia. Bali is one of the largest tourist destinations in Asia and the largest tourist spot in Indonesia.

History

The island was first settled around 2000 BC by people from Taiwan. The culture took a major shift when Hinduism was introduced from India in the 1st century AD. When the Hindu empire on Java fell in the 15th century most of the intellectuals, priests, musicians and royalty relocated to Bali. The Dutch discovered the island in 1597, although Dutch control was not solidified untill the 1890s. Even then Dutch control was loose at best. After Indonesian independence the island was hit hard during the communist crackdowns of the 1950s and 1960s with 10% of the islands population being executed. In 2002 and 2005 bombs were set off in major tourist areas, which greatly affect the tourist industry.

Geography

Bali is situated between the islands of Java and Lombok. Bali is small, stretching approximately 140 km from east to west, and 80 km from north to south. The tallest of a string of volcanic Mountain that run from the east to the west is Gunung Agung, which last erupted in 1963. Located just 8o south of the Equator, Bali boasts a tropical climate with just two seasons (wet and dry) a year with an average temperature of around 28oC. The wide and gently sloping southern regions play host to Bali’s famed Rice Terrace in Bali, which are among some of the most spectacular in the world. In the hilly, northern coastal regions, the main produce is coffee, copra, spices, vegetables, cattle and rice.

The Balinese have strong spiritual roots and despite the large influx of tourists over the years, their culture is still very much alive. The main religion is Agama Hindu Dharma, which, although originally from India, comprises of a unique blend of Hindu, Buddhist, Javanese and ancient indigenous beliefs; It is very different from the Hinduism practiced in India today.

Naturally creative, the Balinese have traditionally used their talents for religious purposes and most of the beautiful work to be seen here has been inspired by stories from the Ramayana and other Hindu epics. The majority of Bali’s 3,000,000 people live, for the most part, in tight village communities with large extended families. The largest towns are Denpasar (the capital) and Singaraja in the north. The main tourist area stretches from Kuta to Seminyak. Kuta became a major attraction during the tourist boom of the 70’s because of its famed white-sand beaches, the surf, and stunning sunsets.

Today, the Kuta to Seminyak stretch is a major tourist destination, with hundreds of hotels, bars, restaurants and shops. Those in search of a little peace and quiet tend to head for the more sedate resorts of Sanur and Candi Dasa on the east coast, or Lovina in the north. Nusa Dua, on the southern-most peninsula of the island, houses many five-star hotels. The central village of Ubud, in the hilly region of Gianyar, has also blossomed as a tourist attraction and is now considered to be the artistic and cultural centre of Bali.

The People

Life in Bali is very communal with the organisation of villages, farming and even the creative arts being decided by the community. The local government is responsible for schools, clinics, hospitals and roads, but all other aspects of life are placed in the hands of two traditional committees, whose roots in Balinese culture stretch back centuries. The first, Subak, concerns the production of rice and organises the complex irrigation system. Everyone who owns a sawah, or padi field, must join their local Subak, which ensures that every member gets his fair share of irrigation water. The other community organisation is the Banjar, responsible for arranging all village festivals, marriage ceremonies and cremations. Most villages have at least one Banjar and all men have to join when they marry. Banjars, on average, give membership to 50 up to 100 families and all Banjars have their own meeting place called the Bale Banjar. As well as being used for regular meetings, the Bale (pavilion) is where the local gamelan orchestras and drama groups practice.

Religion

The Balinese are Hindu yet their religion is very different from that of the Indian variety. The Balinese worship the Hindu trinity Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, who are seen as manifestations of the Supreme God Sanghyang Widhi. Other Indian gods like Ganesha (the elephant-headed god) also appear, but more commonly, one will see shrines to the many gods and spirits that are uniquely Balinese. Balinese believe strongly in magic and the power of spirits, and much of their religion is based upon this. They believe that good spirits dwell in the mountains and that the seas are home to demons and ogres. Most villages have at least three main temples, namely: (1) the Pura Puseh, or ‘temple of origin’, facing the mountains; (2) the Pura Desa, or village temple normally found in the centre; and (3) the Pura Dalem, aligned with the sea and dedicated to the spirits of the dead. Aside from these ‘village temples’, almost every house has its own shrine. Some temples, for example, Pura Besakih on the slopes of Mount Agung, are considered especially important and people from all over Bali travel there to worship.

Offerings play a significant role in Balinese life as they appease the spirits and thus bring prosperity and good health to the family. Every day small offering trays (canang sari) containing symbolic food, flowers, cigarettes and money, are placed on shrines, in temples, outside houses and shops, and even at dangerous crossroads.

Festivals are another great occasion for appeasing the gods. The women carry huge, beautifully arranged, pyramids of food, fruit and flowers on their heads while the men might conduct a blood sacrifice through a cockfight. There are traditional dances and music and the gods are invited to come down to join in the festivities. This kind of event is extremely exciting, memorable and well worth attending.