On the edge of a vivid green rice field awash with the first rays of sunlight, a farmer offers a slice of his breakfast to God. He smiles as he arranges banana slices, bright yellow marigold petals, frangipani, a few grains of rice and a burning incense stick on a small tray made of palm fronds. As the fragrant smoke drifts along the slope, he prays for a rich harvest.
Followed by a rhythmic sweeping of brooms to clean dwellings, the day is set into motion with gratefulness to God for driving away demonic spirits and a smile as bright as the day.
Welcome to Bali, a province where respect runs high, friendships are made easy and God is one.
Of 17400+ islands in Indonesia, Bali is the only Hindu island standing strong in a nation dominated by Muslims. So, every time you meet a local, s/he would ask you three questions (if you are an Indian):
1. What’s your name?
2. Are you from India?
3. Are you Hindu?
Religion plays a major role in so much of what makes Bali appealing to visitors: the art, architecture, temples, offerings, music, culture and more. This distinctive culture is worn like a badge of honour by its people.
There are temples in every house, village and office, on beaches and mountains, in rice fields, caves, cemeteries, lakes, rivers and even the sea. These temples are made of jet black stones which, Kadek (our guide) explained, is solidified magma collected from the foot of the volcanoes.
At Bali’s soul, dwells its belief in one Supreme God – Sang Hyang Widhi. Sang Hyang Widhi is the Trimurti manifestation of – Brahma (the creator), Wishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer).
There are various other Gods that Balinese people worship too – Ganesh, Ghatotkach, Saraswati, Durga etc.
Kadek had a very beautiful explanation for this. He addressed Tathagata and said, “TG, you have a lot of definitions – a tourist, a husband, a son etc. Just like that, Sang Hyang Widhi is Brahma, Wishnu and Shiva. The destination is the same – one God. And you will reach there no matter where you go from – left, right, down, up. Now which way to take to God is up to you.”
Kadek added, “If you look at God as different entities, then you will have to follow different rules to worship each. This difference creates conflict. Now if we fight amongst ourselves, other religions will find it easy to attack and break us. Why will we let that happen?”
What struck me most is how religion has played a vital role in the open-minded nature of Balinese people. They are highly flexible in their offerings to God and would even offer a cigarette if that is what they are thankful to God for. “God will accept anything if you are serious.”
Their open-minded beliefs have made them highly tolerant and hospitable towards other cultures. But they rarely travel themselves – such is the importance of their village and family ties (not to mention the cost).
The people in Bali are unfailingly friendly and love a chat. Add that to Tathagata’s extremely social nature and you get a brewing pot of friendships in an island 5000 miles away from home.
Leonardo, a Balinese surfer on the Kuta beach, who rents out beach recliners by the hour, calls Tathagata “My man TG”.
Kadek has added Tathagata on Facebook and I’ve heard they chat on and off. We also befriended our driver, Aagus. Kadek refers to him as “Aagus, my handsome man” with a laugh. Apparently, ‘aagus’ means ‘handsome’ in Balinese language.
Apart from Aagus and Sang Hyang Widhi, Kadek also introduced us to Bali’s popular penjor.
Come Galungan Day and Bali decks up in penjor, a symbol of the bounty of the earth and an expression of thankfulness for all that is good in Nature. It is a tall, curved bamboo pole decorated with coconut leaves and colourful cloth. At the base, sits a small bamboo shrine where the offerings are placed. Asked about the curve at the tip, Kadek said, “The length symbolizes our desire to aim high, but the bend signifies that we are humble to the Earth that provides us food and shelter.”
It’s beautiful how nature is worshipped as the ultimate power in Bali. The omnipresence of this belief is tremendous. And the grateful nature of people is what makes them so amiable and the island heavenly.
On Day 1 of our Bali trip, we were lucky enough to get into a Bluebird taxi being driven by Hari. His name surprised us and we later learned that much of Bali’s dialect is derived from Sanskrit, giving a lot of their words a resemblance to ours. Hence, ‘Hari’ is a common name in Bali.
As it turned out, we couldn’t have met a better guide and friend than him. The places he took us to are hidden gems that I’ve stored for another day.
Hari deserves a special mention here because of the gentleman that he is. He was always 5 minutes early at the hotel, waiting patiently in his car for us to finish our breakfast and hop on. He took us through a culture immersion of Bali with an equal interest in learning about ours as we were in his. And he never failed to pronounce ‘Diwali’ as ‘Dilwali’! God bless that man.
We also befriended 4 smiling faces at Warung Mina, a restaurant near our hotel. I couldn’t pronounce their names but they were happy to see us every day and were sad to see us go.
Check out the bartender’s liquor bottle juggling skills. He was happy to perform for us with a twinkle in his eyes.
After meeting the people in Bali, I realized that they have a willingness to share and explain different aspects of their religion to outsiders, inviting us to see for ourselves what Bali stands for. And you would be amazed at how every detail they share enhances the beauty of the landscapes around you.
As the sun tips back towards the mountains, you would be able to feel the peace and balance that the Gods have blessed this island with. A deep sense of gratitude would engulf you as you watch the calmness of the hills descend around you with the dying sun. Close your eyes and feel it. You would come to realize that the paradise that people say Bali is, resides within you. Welcome!
More on Bali here: Bali: Hidden Gems