Balinese religion guide

Batukaru pilgrims in Bali

The Balinese way of life is unique for Indonesia, the largest Islamic nation in the world. In fact it is the only Hindu society in Southeast Asia, yet is far removed from the more orthodox Hinduism practised in the Indian subcontinent. Before the great Hindu empires of East Java colonised Bali in the Middle Ages, the island’s disparate royal kingdoms followed ancestor worship and even today modern Balinese Hinduism includes may ancient animist rituals.

There is in theory a hereditary caste system in Balinese society, but is not as restrictive as that in India. Religious activities take place at the village temple which number over 20,000 in total in Bali. In addition the island has a number of ‘directional’ temples which are located spectacularly on cliff tops and sandy beaches protecting the island from evil spirits which are said to lurk in the sea.

Bali also has some sacred temples situated on volcano slopes and by the shores of its largest lakes and are highly revered by all practising Hindus. Temples such as the huge Besakih complex perched on the slopes of Mount Agung and Pura Danu Bratan in Bedugul receive pilgrims throughout the year and are the scene of some of Bali’s most alluring religious festivities.

Bali’s intoxicating music, dance and art all have their origins in Hindu mythology and were originally used purely for temple decoration and celebrating religious festivals. While performances nowadays are put on for the benefit of paying tourists, it is still an essential part of village life. Virtually every village has its own dance troupe and gamelan orchestra and performers are afforded great respect within the community.

Each household and business must prepare and place offerings twice daily to appease the spirits. You will find these placed outside every shop and restaurant and invariably contain small vials of holy water, incense, flower petals and rice. Balinese Hinduism is essentially about keeping a harmonious balance between good and evil spirits.

There are a few isolated villages in Bali which still adhere to ancient customs and religious practises which even predate early Balinese Hinduism. These people are known as ‘Bali Aga’ or original Balinese. The most famous of these are the villages of Tenganan and Trunyan, which are popular stops on the tour bus circuit. Both still follow time honoured animist rituals and the latter in particular is infamous for its eccentric funeral rites.

The most alluring aspect of Balinese Hinduism is the spectacle of its major religious festivals which are often a potent mix of traditional charm and a little bit of chaos. Nyepi is the most important festival of all which takes place each March and is unsurprisingly a very unique event. For several days before, all villages painstakingly produce huge effigies of gods and demons which are paraded in massive processions before being thrown into the sea amid firecrackers and deafening noise.

On the actual day of Nyepi itself, the contrast could not be greater. The entire island grinds to a standstill with no traffic, deserted streets and even electricity is forbidden except for essential services such as hospitals. This lasts for 24 hours and although somewhat of an inconvenience for tourists, is a unique and rather eerie experience. Other important island wide festivities include Galungan and Kuningan.

Even the building of a new home or the opening of a business involves a certain amount of religious pomp and ceremony. Offerings are made and ministrations conducted by a priest before any construction takes place. Once completed, a lavish opening ceremony takes place attended by the whole community.