My recent Bali trip had me island-hopping between Denpasar, Nusa Lembongan, and Nusa Penida islets. Which is when I learnt that winter simply isn't a concept here! The weather shuffles between scorching heat and pouring rain. Despite visiting beaches, rice paddies, and iconic temples, a part of me was still dead set on unearthing the real Bali. So I began to toss offbeat questions at my guide, Suta, a man with a stout stature who presented himself in a Kain Sarong, a shirt and Udeng, the Balinese headband at all times. Intrigued by his attire, I inquired about the typical Balinese costume.
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He explained that the Balinese Udeng is not just a headdress but an ornament rooted in traditional philosophy. The right side of this head decoration is slightly taller than the left, representing the belief of kneeling as per the Dharma Yakti. Meaning the Dharma, the eternal nature of reality on the right side, always stands victorious against the Adharma or the disharmony on the left. The whole idea of making a headband with such coherent reasoning left me amused. After that, I couldn't stop myself from spading the Balinese history.
Bali, the God Island, derived its official name in 914 AD after a Sanskrit denomination of reincarnation. However, prior to that, it was popular as Minor Jawa for salient reasons.
In the late 1500s, Bali was alienated from Borneo by the Java Sea, later to be inhabited by Southeast Asians and nearby islanders that conversed in the Austronesian languages. Today, this multifarious migration is what represents the interwoven cultural values of Bali. Including the nine philosophical beliefs arising from those who worshipped Brahma, Bhairawa, Bodha, Ganapatya, Pasupata, Resi, Siwa Shidanta, Sora and Vaishnava. Later, the independent Bali adopted the worship of Sivaism and Buddhism.
Interestingly, Bali dwells on two distinguishing calendars. The numerical conjecture is hard to comprehend if you are not a Balinese. Based on the Indian Saka Era, the first series of the days, weeks, and months, resonates with the Saka calendar. This calendar runs 78 years behind the Gregorian calendar, and Saka New Year, Nyepi, is marked by a "Day of Silence," on March 7th each year. On this day, the commemoration of Isakawarsa is observed, by keeping lights out all across the island. Even the airport is shut down; only emergency services operate.
The other prevalent and distinctive calendar is the Pawukon, conventionally painted on a piece of cloth. As per the Pawukon calendar, Bali follows a cycle of 210 days totalling up to 6 months and 35 days. Unlike a traditional 12-month calendar, this time chart follows the rice-growing transmission of customs, meaning it has ten-week cycles, each operating at the same time. Where it gets tricky is that even though the weeks are set from 1 to 10 days with unique names, the sequence of the weekdays and weekends isn’t preset. On certain occasions, the same day could have different names. Well, whatever the time mystification, in the end, it's the Pawukon calendar that determines most-celebrated Balinese festivals like Galungan, Kuningan, Pagerwesi, and Saraswati.
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Throughout the time of my travel, I learnt that the enchanting island of Bali is a melange of ancient traditions. Whether it is the mystery of time, the intricate designs woven in metalwork or wax writing on a summer-friendly fabric, Bali has been embarking on ancient art since the Bronze Age. Let's take silverwork, for instance, the creative expression that dates back to the 5th BC. Even though countless metals such as carnelian, gold, glass, shells and suwasa were a part of the prehistoric Balinese culture, it's silver that eventually made its way to modern Bali. With sprawling colonisation of the island, a vast influx of Javanese aristocracy turned Bali into a hub of precious metal craft. The craftsmanship saw a boom thereafter, as various gold and silversmiths moved in. To get acquainted with the most authentic and ancient form of Balinese metalwork, one must travel to Celuk. A village where the tradition of metalwork traces the roots of its origins.
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It's a known fact that the metal-smiths of this area designed jewellery for the royals. Even today, their passionate successors, continue to contrive designs that express the sacred and temporal power of the bygone era. To buy some of the purest silver jewellery cast in impressive patterns, one must head to Gianyar and Ubud villages. The lavish display of exquisitely fashioned ornaments is bound to leave you spellbound. Besides, as per Hindu cosmology, the centre of the world is made of precious metals. Wherefore, wearing these trinkets is just one way to please the Gods.
Another way to do that would be to join the batik guild by wearing the forbidden designs of Java, dotted in a wax crafted fabric. As complex as that may sound, batik is that vintage art form that makes any fabric appealing. And what better place to pick up some fabric than the home to the world's finest batik. This Javanese art form acquired its name from a word that means, 'to dot'. Once reserved for royals, brides and bridegrooms, it is now available to anyone who would like to get their hands on it.
A brief trip to Batik Sari Amerta gave me an insight into the entire process of batik art fabrication. Firstly, carefully chosen areas of the fabric were brushed by pouring hot wax over them, followed by partial dyeing. The wax-covered parts of the cloth retain the original colour, and the dyed parts are further worked upon to create elaborate designs. In the end, the wax is removed from the fabric to reveal the gorgeous fabric.
The traditional handmade batik work in Bali is often decorated with designs to bring luck. The good luck patterns are commonly seen on shirts, sarongs and child slings. Interestingly, handcrafted batik is designed on different types of fabrics, including cotton, silk and wool. However, some designs are reserved for the royals, commoners are prohibited from wearing them. These specific designs determine the rank of an aristocrat.
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Batik was not the only explicit pleasure that the affluent people enjoyed. They also cherished a cup of civet poop coffee, also known as the Kopi Luwak. If you wonder why a certain type of coffee must be priced at US$700 per kg in the retail market, making it the most expensive coffee in the world, then here's the insider scoop. The coffee production of Kopi Luwak goes back to the 18th-century Cultuurstelselera. During this time, the Dutch forbade the native Indonesia farmers from plucking coffee fruits for their personal use. Shortly after, the farmers learned about the Indonesian civet, Luwak, a nocturnal animal that consumes the best of coffee cherries, yet leaves the seeds undigested in their droppings.
To be able to taste the finest of coffee, the farmers began to collect the coffee bean droppings. They then cleaned the beans, roasted and ground them to prepare the smooth beverage. Because of the rarity of the process, this aromatic coffee soon became a favourite of the Dutch plantation owners and rich people across the world. The unusual procurement not only made it extremely expensive but also more desirable. In recent times, the process has been improved by firstly feeding the best of the best cherries to the civets and then monitoring their digestive tract which facilitates fermentation and alters the composition of the coffee cherries, removing the acidity of the beans.
The festivities of Bali strangely extend to even the typical Balinese cremation ceremony. Pitra Yadyna, Ngaben or Pelebon, is a sacred funeral ritual where the soul of a dead person is released in the upper realm to help him either reincarnate or liberate oneself from the rebirth cycles. A well-executed cremation ensures that the spirits of the lower realm do not hold back the soul of the ancestor of kin. The ceremony is an expensive affair. However, if a Balinese family cannot afford the ceremony on their own, they save money and wait for mass cremation. In the meanwhile, they temporarily bury the body.
As for the actual ceremony, people dress up in traditional clothing and carry ornate offerings on their heads. With them walk a group of instrumentalists playing ceremonial music and tin drums and a few others, selling chess sets. This procession begins on the streets and hundreds of people join in. The ceremony is led by men wearing sarongs carrying bamboo poles and a large statue of a white cow. There's an atmosphere of festivity filled with exhilaration. For the final ritual, the body along with the statue of the cow is burned, until the body falls underneath the cow. The skeleton is engulfed in flames, while the instrumentalists continue to play the music. While in most Asian countries, death evokes complicated grief, Bali shows you that both life and afterlife are worth celebrating.