This article was published in Air Vistara’s in-flight magazine called Vistara, in their October ’19 issue.

Bali – A celebration of spirituality

Far from the party-loving tourist crowds of Bali, is a world of Balinese locals, where cultural and religious beliefs dominate day-to-day life.

Traveling is all about new learning, discoveries and experiences. Memories we create are the stories we would keep reciting all our life with equal enthusiasm and a bit of exaggeration. The discoveries & experiences don’t limit to the sights only. We get to understand cultures, sample foreign food, hear the cacophony that defines the cities, get a whiff of underlying smells in each nook, do things out of our comfort zone, commute by means which we only saw on postcards, meet people and hear their extraordinary stories…there is so much that our five senses go through. Bali is one of those unique destinations that can leave a transcendental imprint on your life.

Bali is a place that doesn’t worry about its Reputation Economy. Because it’s not just selling you beautiful hotels, high-end luxury resorts, picture-perfect vistas, decadent nightlife, organic food tours, cultural trips or wellness packages. It’s offering experiences that are a way of life for them, which isn’t in dire need of validations from a travel guidebook or travelers on review websites.

No matter how much you read up on Bali, once you reach there, a string of surprises await you, especially when it comes to cultural activities. It’s a regular sight to see Balinese people praying at temples, offering a garland of flowers along with incense sticks outside their homes and stores, and seen parading through the markets whenever a new shop opens, so to appease the lords to bring good luck.

So deeply embedded is their religious ethos and cultural beliefs that even their houses look like temples because of intricate design and similar floor plan. Each house has a large courtyard at the north and centre with a temple structure, lined by rooms on three sides. Balinese never move out from a house, even though the joint family keeps getting bigger. The format will always remain the same. Interestingly, the courtyard is a place of worship, even though there wouldn’t be any statue in the podium or temple structure. It’s an open plan where family members pray or remember their forefathers, and introspect on their spiritual life. Lord Vishnu’s statue is kept at home (in rooms, or at terrace), while the Village temple, usually on the outer periphery of the village, will house the statue of Lord Shiva.

The Exhilarating Kecak Dance 

Pronounced as Kechak dance, it’s the recital of a segment of Ramayana in Balinese traditional performing art style. Also known as Ramayana Monkey Chant, it’s a trance like dance underlined by chants wherein about 30-40 performers chant in unison – chak chak chak. The rhythmic variance of chants keeps the momentum alive, while getting goose bumps is quite normal watching this performance.

The dance itself is an enactment of ‘Sita-haran’, a chapter of Ramayana in which Ravana, the demon king, kidnaps Goddess Sita, wife of Lord Rama the king. The most unlikely hero of the story is the head of Vanara Sena (Monkey Army), Lord Hanumana, who helps Lord Rama save her from Ravana by lighting up Lanka on fire. This particular scene is most dramatic as the actor actually fires up the stage, kicks the burning woods, throws around the embers and prances around them…all in close proximity to where scores of people are seated. This fire dance is a powerful spectacle as the artists chant in unison and thump their feet adorned with ghungroos (bells), in hypnotic rhythm while the embers fly around their swaying body.

Location: Uluwatu Temple. It’s in a forest area open for public. The Kecak Dance is performed everyday before sunset. It can get really busy so reach the open-air auditorium at least 1 hour in advance. Perched on a cliff, it’s got sweeping views of the ocean. Since it’s sunset time, the drama unfolds with rising crescendo while the sky changes colors setting the most dramatic backdrop. Also, book your return journey in advance, preferably with the same driver you go there, else there wouldn’t be any cab, leaving you in a dark forest while ‘actual’ monkeys wreaking havoc!

Dragon Parade – The Traditional Parade

This is a luck encounter if you ever experience a Dragon Parade, as it’s an event that takes place in the countryside, without any specific dates, strictly for locals only. How to spot it is easy though, there would be a large procession with hundreds of people walking on the road wearing white clothes punctuated with yellow borders. Though it is worth mentioning that they don’t like visitors taking pictures in the middle of congregation.

The Dragon Parade is basically a purification ritual done every six months. The villagers walk across the village to all nearby villages with Barong, a mythological creature considered as the king of good spirit. It’s a dragon personified, carried by men who wear a huge piece of dragon themed cloth & mask, as if it were a life-size dragon walking, protecting them from evil eyes and blessing every individual. Sheltered by colorful umbrellas, it is accompanied with flags, brooms and other holy elements. The villagers draped in traditional clothes play musical instruments like flutes, gongs & drums all the while praying along. The elders sing hymns and priest chant in sync, in order to bring good luck to the people and bless the land.

It’s a strange confluence of different faiths & regions, as per the locals. The concept of Dragon is Chinese (though it is still an ancient Balinese icon for them, in fact it is also considered a Lion), the purification process is Hindu, the use of musical instruments for praying is traditionally Balinese, while there were some Islamic segments too since Indonesia is a Muslim nation. This whole process goes on for few days. More than anything, it is the experience of witnessing an everyday life of the Balinese world. One that is a far cry from the postcard images of Bali. Steeped in traditions and drenched in mystery. These are those innocent moments we look forward to when traveling, to open our windows to a new world. Bali is one of those countries which cannot be summed up for the wealth of experiences it offers. Because magical moments like these cannot be promised, and if you experience them, consider yourself blessed.

Tirta Empul – Embrace the Mystique

There are some religious places where you wouldn’t mind taking a leap of faith. Absorb yourself in the moment of purity & spirituality. It doesn’t matter which religion or faith that place belongs to, it’s a moment of becoming one with the soul. Because soul doesn’t require a validation from your religion to appreciate another faith. Or belief in that faith. One such experience is Tirta Empul, the holy waters of Bali. As for Hindus, it is still relate-able a faith and custom, because one can draw parallels with Ganges of India and its spiritual significance to Hindus.

Tirta Empul is a water temple, more of a complex though. Holy Spring water sprouts here, which is considered to have curative/medicinal properties. In a nutshell, it is a pond that is fed by fresh spring water, which locals believe is holy enough to purify their soul. It is also considered to be a pilgrimage by them.

There is an entrance fee to the Temple, while sarongs are mandatory to be worn, available at the table next to the ticket counter. As you walk through a maze of lovely gardens, large sculptures and rivulets, a large courtyard welcomes, called Jaba Pura. An open room-like structure with carved statues of local Gods accentuates this courtyard. A change room is on the corner, which also has a locker room facility. Nothing is allowed inside the pool except the camera (which is also discouraged though). The pond is guarded by walls with multiple gates to enter.

The inner courtyard, called Jaba Tengah, features two large pools with water flowing from some 30 iron downward facing fountains as people bath under each of them. One is supposed to press their hand together under the water to pray (the Namaskaaram gesture), take a dip under the water outlet, go to the next, do the same. It’s called melukat. It may sound easy, but it is actually treacherous. First, the water is cold, as it’s spring water. Second, the place to stand under the fountain is a mound, hence becomes difficult to balance self in there with the light current of water. Third, to walk across, the floor is uneven with pebbles. And lastly, there are big fishes! Yes. They are just swimming across, not worried about your presence. The logic is that these particular fishes keep the pool clean (also a regular sight at Gurudwaras). Local also bring along garland of flowers along with incense sticks and burning flames (Jyot).

After taking a dip in this holy spring, one can feel the soul purified. It’s a feeling, not a religious exercise. After the dip in that crowded pool, you can still feel at peace. That’s the feeling! Not just the locals but many tourists of diverse backgrounds visit the pond. It is heart-warming to see everyone embracing this experience and feeling their soul purified. Though it starts with excitement to get into the pool, anxiety of getting under each fountain, fear of fishes plying by or slipping on those pebbles, those shrieks and laughter all turn into a calm thereafter. A calm that cannot be sufficed in words.

The complex features another pond, a cluster of temples & shrines and another water body with bubbling spring water. These areas are significantly calmer, and ideal for sitting and reflecting after the heavenly bath. If you’ve wished for something here, somehow the heart says it would materialize. That’s faith!

Outside the complex on the way out, there is a market with small stores selling curios and artifacts. With a unique collection, the prices are economical than the too-commercial Kuta or Seminyak. Moreover, the store owners (mostly elderly women) are artists from the villages, selling these products directly to you without inflating the costs too high. Chat up with them and you’d be charmed by their innocence and sincerity, something you would miss at Kuta/Seminyak where the shop owners (mostly men) are just harrowing you to buy the products, dupe you with heavy bargaining and indifferent to these products which are work of art (handcrafted).

Music for the soul

Bali is a music loving island, with rhythm in everything it does. Ancient Balinese customs put a lot of emphasis on music as something which is sacred. Legend goes that the island of Tenganan once had a series of massive storms. When the lightening and thunder faded, the residents found that the storm had left behind many musical instruments (all made of iron, with unique musical attributes). A sacred musical space, the village is the only place where travellers can attend Gamelan Selunding (an ensemble concert using these rare and sacred iron instruments). Due to the legend, these instruments are not allowed to leave the village borders, making this a very unique experience – almost like a musical pilgrimage.

Local Insights

Muck Diving at Padang Bai

Bali, with its long coastline offers many options for deep sea scuba diving. However, the thing to really try here is ‘Muck Diving’ – a slow and patient underwater exploration in shallow, volcanic black sandy waters. Almost like a treasure hunt, this experience involves sifting through the sand for shells and other diverse underwater discoveries. You may even find yourself touching the seabed, to see a herd of pygmy seahorses emerge from the sand in choreographed swirls.

Munduk’s Hidden Wonders

One of Bali’s hidden gems is the rural town of Munduk. This place lets you experience the untouched and picturesque beauty of nature while soaking in Bali’s countryside. The ‘Twin Lakes’ provide a stunning view to enjoy while sipping Munduk’s special coffee. You can also explore various hidden waterfall here like Munduk and Banyumala. Two of Bali’s iconic sites – Pura Ulun Danu Beratan Temple and the Golf Gates – are also a part of the Munduk experience.

Steeped in tradition and drenched in mystery, Bali is one of those countries that offers a wealth of experiences which enrich the soul.