In 2015 I had the most amazing opportunity to spend time in Bali, one of the Indonesian islands.
One way in which Bali is set apart from the rest of Indonesia, which is composed of mostly Muslim countries, is that the dominant religion of Bali is Hinduism.
Balinese Hinduism is unique, and includes the influence of Buddhism, Shivaism, animism and ancestor worship. Families usually live in compounds with a central family shrine, and offerings to the gods are made several times daily.
A family compound in Ubud.
Everywhere in Bali are reminders of the spiritual realm, from the statues of deities nestled in the forest to the offerings of rice on hand-crafted palm or bamboo plates set out on every crosswalk. Even the taxi drivers put rice offerings on their dashboards – it is a constant reminder that there is a force greater than us in the universe, there to be accessed if we can only listen. Bali is the only country in the world that I know of that observes a national day of silence, called Nyepi, for the New Year. What a beautiful thought.
Offerings to the gods are everywhere in Bali.
We spent our first week up in the mountains near Ubud, the area of Bali made famous in the USA by the book Eat, Pray, Love. Miles and miles of rice paddies surround this ancient city of stone and wood. Carved deities peek out at you from every corner, and even the local Starbucks (yes, they have it there too) has that pervasive feeling of being lost in history. Every morning as we sipped our coffee on the little patio behind our hotel bungalow we saw people working in the rice fields, just as they must have done for hundreds of years. And in the evenings we would watch the sun set slowly over this same field. It was serene, to say the least, and I don’t think that this New Yorker has ever experienced such a sense of calm as I did while there.
We were fortunate to be in Ubud during the Purmnama Sasih Karo, or the Full Moon Ceremony. Full moon ceremonies in Bali are celebrated in temples where Balinese Hindus come together to pray, be blessed, and offer fruits, flowers, and food to the gods.
Musgi, the young English-speaking rock-and-roll loving man who worked at our hotel, kindly invited my husband Neil and I to join him at his family temple outside of Ubud, so that we could witness the ceremony, and I could draw it.
That evening, we put on the sarongs we had purchased earlier in the day, and joined Musgi in following the procession to his temple. (You are not permitted to wear anything but a sarong in the temple for the festival, fyi.)
The temple is mostly open air, with pagoda like structures to give shelter in the rain. Lined up along the entrance to the temple are these kinds of tall curved bamboo poles with coconut leaves, flowers, coins and fruits hanging down from them, called penjor. They are all over the streets of Ubud during the religious holiday, and make the place feel very festive.
It was late evening as we approached, and the sun was setting. Bats were beginning to circle in the air above us. As we entered the temple, Neil felt something wet hit the back of his neck – as a native New Yorker, his first thought was how the pigeons in NYC will often ‘bless’ us as they fly over head and he yelled out, “I just got peed on by a bat!” We both had to laugh at ourselves once we realized that it was only a Hindu priest, kindly sprinkling us with holy water as we entered the sacred grounds.
Inside the temple area it was a bustle of activity. People from the villages all around had been assembling – usually, men arriving on mopeds with women on the back (and sometimes children pile on too.) Everyone is wearing beautifully decorated sarongs, and the women have these stacks of goodies to offer to the gods piled high in a golden tower on their heads: fruits, cakes, rice, incense, flowers – so beautiful!
The families stack up their offerings on different covered platforms of the temple, around a large open common area. Then everyone gets on their knees to pray. There are a lot of rituals involving holding flowers up in between folded hands, interspersed with blessings from the priests, with incense and holy water. During new moon festivals, the essence of the sweet stacked golden offerings is to be enjoyed by the gods, while the people purify themselves in preparation for the new cycle that is beginning. Neil participated in the prayers while I drew from the sidelines.
And of course there was chanting by the temple patriarchs, who all sat together on a dais, and music. It was quite a celebration of the ever-changing cycles of life, represented by the miracle of the new moon.
Musgi told us that over the next few days, the families enjoyed eating all of the cakes and fruits that had been blessed, continuing the celebration. We felt so welcomed, and honored to have been a part of it.
After a week in Ubud, we ventured down from the mountains to spend time on the coast of Bali, in the beach village of Sanur. Although the Fairmont hotel we stayed in had more of a western luxury vibe to it, there was still plenty of traditional Balinese culture surrounding us, from the musicians playing in the hotel lobby to the small shrines and offerings of gratitude scattered around the hotel grounds.
As a westerner, I’m not used to seeing shrines and places to leave offerings to the gods in the gardens around a hotel pool, but the suite we stayed in and the pool at the Fairmont were so nice that I definitely felt the gratitude!
The boardwalk along the beach in Sanur was full of bustling activity and plenty of thick vegetation to find shade under. People were sweeping the sand from the boardwalk continuously, and in the drawing above, you can also see them up in the trees doing some pruning. A lot of the activity, though, was spurred by the upkeep of the traditionally colorful boats called jukung. They looked so pretty, lined up along the shore. The jukung are essentially fishing boats, and the men who steer them wait along the shoreline for tourists who want to hire them for a day out on the ocean. They must require a lot of maintenance; as it seemed like the boats were constantly being worked on between trips.
As well as taking the jukung out, many men fish close to the shoreline, in special gear. The large hats they wear not only protect them from the sun, but they also have little bait boxes on them for quick access. Although this may be a traditional way of fishing, I learned that most of the men we saw out every morning were tourists from the city, finding ways to decompress. Just as we were; although traveling there from New York City took quite a bit longer.
I loved drawing the fishermen, and did many studies of them during our stay in Sanur. I wondered if women fish this way too, but I didn’t see any during our time there.
The culture and history of Bali is so rich, I could have stayed there for another year and still discovered something new every day. I haven’t even discussed the richness of the Balinese visual arts, dense and packed with narrative – an illustrator’s dream. While we were visiting Ubud I took the opportunity to have a lesson in the traditional art of Batik. It’s a way of decorating fabric by drawing a line of resist with hot wax, and filling the spaces in between with different colored dyes. I’ll end this post with my batik efforts, and the hope that I will be able to some day return to
BALI, THAT PLACE OF GRATITUDE.
To see more Armchair Travels from the reportage artists of Studio 1482, please click HERE.