Thursday, October 1, 2009

Culture of Bali

Every stage of Balinese life, from conception to cremation, is marked by a series of ceremonies and rituals. The first ceremony takes place when women reach the third month of pregnancy, with offerings to ensure the wellbeing of the baby. Shortly after birth, the placenta is buried with appropriate offerings. Twelve days later women are “purified” through another ceremony. After 42 days, offerings are made for the baby’s future.

On our first day in Bali we used 3 taxis for various trips. All 3 men had the first given name of Wayan. This struck us as odd, but we figured it was just a very common name here. Then I did a bit of reading and learned the real reason for this coincidence. Choosing a name for your baby is easy in Bali. Given names are the same for both sexes, and the names are determined by birth order. This represents the Balinese Hindu belief of the cyclic nature of things. The first child is called Wayan, Putu or Gede. Those are your only 3 choices for naming your firstborn son or daughter. The second child is named Made, Kadek or Nengah; the third is Nyoman or Komang; and the fourth is Ketut. The options of names gets smaller as you have more children. The fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth children re-use the same set of names (Wayan, Made, Nyoman, Ketut). None of that creative naming that has become popular over the past few decades with the African-Americans at home.

A child goes through 13 celebrations or manusa yadnya. Here are a few of them: At 105 days, the baby is welcomed to the family and its feet are allowed to touch the ground for the first time. Ground or earth is impure so babies are held until then. At 210 days (considered to be the first Balinese year) the baby is spiritually blessed in the ancestral temple and there is a huge feast for the family and community. Another important ceremony is the tooth-filing ceremony, when a priest symbolically files a teenager’s upper front teeth to produce a pleasing line. This is normally done around age 16 to 18 years. Crooked teeth are one of the chief distinguishing marks of evil spirits; so it is important for Balinese to have straight teeth with uniform biting edges.

Additional important ceremonies during one’s life are performed at marriage, death and cremation Balinese marry at a young age. Usually marriages are not arranged, although there are strict rules that apply between the castes. The respectable way to marry involves the family of the man visiting the family of the woman and politely proposing. However, the Balinese like their fun and often prefer eloping. The young man spirits away his bride-to-be. The couple goes into hiding and somehow the girl’s parents, no matter how hard they search, can never manage to find her. Eventually the couple re-emerges and the marriage is officially recognized and everybody has enjoyed a lot of fun and games.

The last ceremony is the cremation or pitra yadna. The cremation ceremony is supposed to be an amazing, spectacular, colorful, noisy event. It can take years to organize so the body will have been temporarily buried. An auspicious day is chosen and many people join in, sending their dead on their way at the same time. However, high priests called Brahmanas must be cremated immediately.

During a cremation ceremony, the body is carried in a high, artistic multi-tiered tower made of bamboo, paper, tinsel, silk, cloth, mirrors, flowers and anything else colorful that is fancied. The tower is carried on the shoulders of a group of men. The size of the tower depends on the importance of the deceased. The funeral of a rajah or high priest may require hundreds of men to carry the tower. Along the way to the cremation, the group confuses the deceased’s spirit so it cannot find its way back home. They shake the tower, run it around in circles, throw water at it and generally make the trip anything but a stately crawling procession. Meanwhile, the priest is halfway up the tower and hanging on, doing his best to soak the participants with holy water. A gamelan (orchestra) walks behind, providing musical accompaniment to this circus atmosphere. At the cremation ground, the body is transferred to a funeral sarcophagus which corresponds to their caste – a black bull for a Bramana, white bull for priests, winged lion for a Kstriyasa, and elephant-fish for a Sudra. Finally, it all goes up in flames – funeral tower, sarcophagus and body -- sending the soul to a heaven that is just like Bali itself.

Most Balinese belong to the common sudra caste. The rest belong to the triwangsa (three people) caste which is divided into Brahmana or high priests, Ksatriyasa or merchants, and Wesia or nobility. Caste differences in language is overcome by the use of polite forms of Balinese or the national Indonesian language of Bahasa. Caste is becoming less important and status now comes more from education, economic success and community influence. If a traditional village, however, caste is still a central part of life and absolutely essential to all religious practices.

Literacy on Bali is higher than the Indonesian average. Education begins with 6 years of primary school, and almost all children on Bali complete primary school. Then comes 3 years of junior high and 3 years of senior high school, which leads to university. There are universities in 3 locations on the island of Bali.

Life is concentrated in the villages. In the center of a village is an open meeting space. Each village will also have a town market, temples, a kulkul tower (a hollow tree-trunk drum used to sound a warning or to call meetings), and very likely a special large old banyan tree. The banjar is the local division of a village consisting of all the married adult males. The banjar continues the strong community spirit or organizing village festivals, marriage ceremonies, cremations and the local gamelan (traditional Balinese orchestra). Their headquarters or communal meeting place is an open-sided structure called the bale banjar. In the bale banjar you might see a gamelan practice, a meeting of the villagers, food being prepared for a feast, or men preening their roosters for the next round of cockfights. Cockfighting is a big deal on Bali. Cockfights are a regular feature of temple ceremonies. They consider it a combination of sacrifice, sport and gambling. Wonder why PETA isn’t over here raising Cain over that?

Drug use is growing among the youth, especially meth brought over from Java. Local attitudes about sexuality differ from Western conceptions. In rural areas people still bathe naked by the side of the road. It is not a show of exhibitionism, but a tradition. While bathing, they consider themselves invisible. There are strict family, village and social taboos against premarital sex by the Balinese. Unmarried sexual relations are rare for Balinese women – only 2% to 3%. Tourists can find willing companions and sex workers of both sexes in the common tourist areas, but those people usually are from another island, usually Java.

Like many of the other places we have visited, there are special clothing taboos. It gets hard to keep these straight as we travel around the globe as the traditions and idiosyncrasies change with locality. In Bali is it considered improper to expose knees or shoulders and armpits. So no tank tops and shorts. Skirts are not required; pants are okay for women; and it is okay to wear sandals. It is considered extremely rude to beckon someone toward you using the Western gestures. Instead, you are supposed to hold your hand extended and use a downward waving motion when you wish to motion for someone to come closer to you. Talking to someone while holding your hands on your hips is considered to be a sign of contempt or anger or aggression. You should pass or hand something to another person with your right hand, never your left. Or, to show respect, it is best to pass something with both hands. And an important taboo is that you should never touch someone on the head. The head is regarded as the dwelling of the soul is therefore sacred. That shouldn’t be a problem. We don’t normally go around tapping people on their heads.

Every building we have visited or seen has had a small basket filled with flower petals and other things sitting on the floor just outside the door or on the steps. This small basket is called a sampian. A fresh sampian is placed outside daily at the very minimum. Most people place several sampians each day to show respect and gratitude to gods, ancestors and spirits; or as bribes to evil spirits or demons. The basic sampian is arranged on a palm leaf. It holds betel and flowers and is crowned with a palm leaf decoration. Sometimes a tiny offering of rice crackers might be placed on top. Once a sampian is presented to the gods, it cannot be used again, so new offerings are made again and again each day. When visiting a temple a family always brings a large and colorful offering in a procession. The betel on top of every offering symbolizes the Hindu Trinity. Three basic color are used in the offering – red for Brahma, black or green for Wisnu, and white for Siwa. Conical shapes placed in the temple offerings are models of mountains and rice cookies represent plants, animals, people or buildings.

Looking forward to touring some of the temples.

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