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xEurasia Odyssey

Ubud, Bali

INDONESIA | Tuesday, 29 April 2014 | Views [2029]


Ubud, Bali

 Ubud is an amazing city. On the way from the airport to the hotel we stopped at a Luwak Coffee Plantation. This is quite a unique form of coffee as the coffee bean is eaten by a civet, a local member of the wild cat family not too unlike a mongoose but not quite as nasty, and then excreted.  The refuse is then cleaned so that the bean is released from the manure, then the shell of the bean is manually cracked open to extract the seed.  This is then cleaned two more times before the coffee processing procedures take place.  The result is a very strong somewhat bitter coffee that is unique to this region.  Given its taste, this coffee is not going to give Starbucks or Seattle’s Best any competition.

The setting for the plantation, however, would rival anywhere.  It is set amid lush palm trees and a neatly orchestrated botanical garden with hand selected specimens of the island’s vegetation to give tourists a sample of the island’s beauty.  Amidst the greenery and flowers are strategically placed statues of gods, goddesses, and guardians.  The short pathway through this mini-jungle is highlighted by cages with various animals and birds, which is the one down side of this site.  The animals look suitably unhappy and the squirrel was doing everything it could to try to escape.  The various civets, always in pairs, but of different kinds, e.g., Malay and Striped, were trying to sleep as they are nocturnal animals, but the parade of tourists poking and gawking at them kept them from their normal routine. The civets’ species is determined by its color and according to the local guide the white male civet smells sweet and good.

 The Puri Bunga Resort was a delight.  It is set away from the main road and overlooks a gully with a whitewater rafting river below.  The restaurant overlooks a spot in the river where the rafts get caught on the boulders and the people’s laughter and screams float upwards to the resort.  The resort only has 10 rooms, but has two swimming pools on differing levels of the terraced setting.  The area is surrounded by blooming white flowers, many I had never seen before and looked like hand-sized fairy legs sprouting from a five-petaled brilliant white core, and very tall palm and banyan trees, many with flowering vines covering them. Above the far side of the gully the tops of the three larges volcanoes on the island rose above the greenery. It was simply beautiful.

There are many different kinds of temples and shrines on Bali. Each village has at least three temples and the homes and shops at least one shrine. The three most important types of village temples, are the pura pusch, the pura desa and the pura dalem. The Pura Pusch represents the foundation and founding elders of the village and is situated at the end of the community closest to the mountains.  In the middle of the village is the pura desa, which is dedicated to the village’s protective spirits and deities.  At the opposite end from the pura pusch is the pura dalem, which is where the graveyard is. This temple often has images of Durga in a Kaliesque mode. “ Shiva and Durga’s destructive aspects are honored in the pura dalem” (LPp351)

According to LP (p.351) Sanggah or Merajan is the family temple, which is always located at the kaja-kangin (sunrise in the direction of the mountains) corner of the courtyard.  There will be shrines to the Trimurti and to taksu, the divine intermediary. There will aslo be a sshrine to a god of evil spirists , a Tugu, but this will be a the far kaja-kuah (sunset in the directions of the mountais) corner. The purpose of this temple is to employ the evil spirit in the protection of the house so that the others will avoid him/it.  A Pengijeng is a small shrine in an open space within the family compound and is dedicated to the spirit who is the guardian of the property. There will also be Apit Lawang or Pelinggah, gate shrines which are daily – and often more often – decorated with flower and fruit offerings to the dravapala’s ability to repel evil spirits. (LP 351) 

The state also has a state/kingdom temple like Pura Besakih near Agung Gunung.

“Every house in Bali has its house temple, which is at the kaja-kangin corner of the courtyard and has at least five shrines.

 The  village, temple, family compound, individual structure – and even single parts of the structure – must all conform to the Balinese concept of cosmic order.  This consists of three parts that represent the three worlds of the cosmos – swah (the world of the gods), bhwah (world of humans) and bhur (world of demons).  The concept also represents a three-part division of a person: utama (the head, madia (the body) and ista (the legs).  The units of measurement used in traditional buildings are directly based on the anantomical dimensions of the head of the household, ensuring harmony between the dwelling and those who lie in it.

The design is traditionally done by an undagi ( a combination architect –priest); it must maintain harmony between god, man and nature under the concept of Tri Hita Karana.  If its not quite right, the universe may fall off balance and no end of misfortune and ill health will visit the community involved.

 While Ubud has innumerable temples, so does the rest of the island. Puri Gua Gaja is about an hour outside of town and is known as the Elephant Cave probably because the Elephant River used to flow below the temple prior to the 1917 earthquake that changed the geography of the region. The cave is thought to have been initiated as a temple in the 11th C.  The outside is protected by two Dravapalas, and the walls are decorated with reliefs of monkeys, boars, lizards, turtles, a dragon, a lion, and a gecko. Boma, the Balinese god of the Jungle looks down from the center of the entrance. Inside the cave forms a T with three chambers for images.  There is a red, black and white banner by the center linga, which I was told represents the Trimurti, as red is fire, which is Brahma; black is water, which is Vishnu; and white is wind, which is Shiva (spelled Civa here). The Trimurti as a whole is the earth.  Shiva and Vishnu as black and white are considered to be like yin/yang but without the gender association.  The sarong that most of the men wear and the one that adorns the guardians and deities in the temples and shrines has a black, white, grey checked pattern and they wear it with a red belt/sash, which again depicts the Trimurti.

The goddess is prominent in this temple setting as there are holy water pools near the entrance with images of the seven sacred rivers of India spouting water from jars held at navel level signifying the milk of the goddess purifying the faithful who come to bathe in her waters. The architecture of the temple itself is also Southern Indian. Prajnaparamita has her own site in the back temple set in a special garden.

 The caves and the jungle surrounding them were used as meditation sites and the corridors of the T have ledges cut into the sides about the size of a single bed for meditation. It is supposedly the same if one meditates in the cave or in the jungle as the cave represents the jungle with its wall decorations.  People still worship and meditate here, but mostly just overnight as with the tourist traffic it is impossible to conduct longer mediations.

 The area was Buddhist from about the 9th C, but became Hindu with the major exodus from Java in the 11th.  After the 1917 earthquake destroyed so much of it, the Dutch government sought to repair it starting in 1923 or 1927 (both dates were given), so that it could be used for ceremonies associated with the Balinese calendar, which is very different from the Gregorian.  The Balinese calendar has a year at 420 days (?), six months at 210 days, a month at 35 days.  On March 31, 2014 the island celebrates the new year, 1936 according to their calendar, and preparations for the celebration were evident everywhere, with huge Styrofoam gods, goddesses, demons and folklore figures, called ogoh-ogoh, being carved and spray-painted in every village.  Women were making palm leaf and flower offerings to be distributed to the villagers and the temple deities were dressed and cleaned. The day is called Nyepi, which means “Day of Silence” and is observed from 6am on the 31st to 6am on the 1st of April.  It is reserved for self-reflection, which is why almost everything else is forbidden.  There are no taxis available, no restaurants open, all the shops and beaches and even the airport are closed etc.; the only activities are those in the temples, in the silent meditative houses and in the hotels themselves. The festivities will celebrate Ratabharat and Cili, the Goddess of fertility and of many children.

Ubud is Sedonaesque with crystal healers, Tibetan shops, Balinese art and kitch, Hawkers are everywhere including those for trying to get people to take taxis. Motorcycles are also all over (but not like in HCMC!), cheap Magnum ice cream bars are available to offset the expensive Basking Robbins type stores.  When the temperature is in the 90s with about the same amount of humidity, the calories in ice cream becomes much less off-putting. Downtown Ubud is easily walkable with hundreds of fascinating temples. Every home also has multiple shrines, which makes for a very rich sacred art laboratory.

 Some of the shrines are in an area called the “Monkey Forest” which is filled with grey monkeys.  While we were there some of the younger ones were dive-bombing each other in a pool at the center pathway intersection.  People were feeding others bananas and trying to have their picture taken with them, which didn’t seem too wise to me as if they bite, one could easily become very ill. 

The Monkey Forest is filled with very large trees, including Bodhi trees with big, long vines in a Tarzanesque jungle setting which is surrounded by rice paddies.  Many of the paddies are irrigated through hollow bamboo pole that fills with water hitting a bottom horizontal pole to release the water, which sounds like the beat of a gamelon.

Music is very important in this culture. Each village has their own dance/theater performance troupe and gamelon orchestra. No word for ‘art’ in Balinese culture, but it is everywhere. Artistic creation is a form of worship.

 Ubud is not just the core town but includes numerous surrounding villages. Most of the tourists do not leave the downtown area, which is unfortunate as they are missing a lot. We attended a Barong performance outside of the center where there were only six people in the audience, while there were at least fifteen performers on stage and twelve in the orchestra, and it was a very good performance despite the lack of people in the audience.

 While in Bali, I wanted to visit a traditional healer to ask about his methods.  I was fortunate to meet briefly with Jili Korarak. When I arrived he was working on a large Western woman and giving her advice.  He gave her a massage both on her back and extended stomach as her male driver looked on and waited.  She was clearly upset and seemed on the verge of tears. The Mr. Korarak  told her to relieve some of “the large water” in her body by taking some herbs that he went to get. 

In a corner was another Western fellow dressed in more local style attire sitting cross-legged taking notes of the proceedings in a journal. It turns out he is a Dutch psychiatrist who has been studying for the last 4 years with the master, but of whom the master says he knows nothing as he doesn’t practice, but just writes.

The healer learned through sacred Balinese palmleaf books dedicated to both Shiva and Buddha.  Rather than the 10,000 Nadis from India, in Bali there are only 21 that the healer uses, based in three levels, seven for the upper body, seven for the middle regions and seven for the genitals and below, which are the ones that cause the most problems.  These three also correspond to the three characteristics to be nurtured: Growing, which springs from the lower levels and lets one develop; Respect, for yourself and others, which is near the middle  and heart region; and loving which is the upper regions and associated not with romantic love but rather altruistic love and compassion for all. This is only possible if the person considers himself first as one needs to be complete and whole before having the ability to give of oneself.

His power and skill comes from nature and he acts more as a medium than as a conscious disseminator of knowledge.  He doesn’t meditate. 

He was upset with my taking notes and after thinking about it this could be for a couple of reasons, 1) he felt that I was going to misuse what he was saying, 2) he was talking to me but really to the Dutch psychiatrist in the background, 3) he didn’t like my laugh when I commented on something and he perhaps misunderstood my intent, which was simply to be happy to be there and to learn something from him.  Whatever the reason, he was insistent that taking notes and writing/reading was not the way to understand how healing works.  One has to practice healing and only then can one begin to understand it.  He diagnoses through placing his hands on a person’s head (he said that there are 10 basic different shapes which helps him determine some general information about the person before going into their specific symptoms). He said that not experiencing healing is the same as when one looks at the images of the idols without having felt the power of the deity; there may be an intellectual/academic recognition, but this is in no way an understanding of the deity or the power they convey.  He was also very clear that his techniques are based in tantra and as such are secret and not to be revealed.  It was an interesting short session but also one that was frustrating as I had the feeling he was putting me in a box and dismissed before I could even ask my questions.

 According to Eisemen: “Most Balinese are aware of at least three types of balian. These are balian kapaica, balian ketakson, and balian usada.  Both male and female of different ages and social statuses can perform each type of balian practice. In all balian practices, spiritualism plays an important role (1989, 135). Balian kapaica (from paica, which means “ a divine gift”) is a traditional healer or shaman who has received a gift from gods.  This type of balian will always request guidance and blessing from the gods and deities before giving any medication to patients…. The second is balian ketakson (from taksu which means receiving divine power).  Many also refer to a balian ketakson as a trance healer mainly because in his or her daily practices that involves trance during which the healer is driven by the power of a god, a deity, or other ancestral spirit.  When this happens, the divine power uses the balian’s body while in trance to speak to those who come to seek consultation.  This process can also be described as the healer giving over control of his or her body to one of the “gods” or spirits that lives inside him or her ad form a part of her being.  In Bali, as Lansing observes, the inner world of the self is not seen as a single unit, but as a whole universe (1995, 59).

Balian ketakson may be consulted for various reasons. Among the most common are to solve problems related to sickness and the desire to communicate with a god or ancestral spirit which can guide the balian to find out the cause of the sickness as well as to suggest a cure(Eisemen, 1989, 141)….

The third is balian usada (usada means medication). Such a balian learned his or her healing skill from the sacred writing on palm leaves known as Lontar Usada. Whenever he or she has a client, the balian will look up information in the lontar manuscript and gather all-important findings to cure a problem. Traditionally the role of balian usada is passed down through a family line.  This is due to the ownership of the lontar manuscript, which normally becomes a family legacy.  Most active balian usada in Bali today gained their healing skill and knowledge of traditional medication by using herbs through lontar manuscripts owned by their father or mother, grandparents, or even great grandparents. (Taksu 67-68)

 “The first and third parts of the tripartite world view are niskala, (Swaha & Bhur), the unseen worlds, and the second part Bhawa, is sekala, the seen/real world. Unlike most cultures in the world, the Balinese regard gods and demons, or good and evil, as always existing side by side, and interactively influencing both the “little world” or bhuwana alit (human body) and the “Great world” or bhuwana agung (the universe).  Therefore, maintaining a harmonious spiritual relationship with these two opposite powers becomes essential to human life and good health.

In line with this, the Balinese apply the principle of tri angga or three sections when dealing with their own body as well as other architectural structures.  The tri angga principle includes the top (utama angga), the middle (madya angga), and the bottom (nisha angga).  A Balinese theologian, I Gusti Ketut Kaler, explained that the upper part (shwah loka) is the utama angga, the place for the gods and deities; the middle part (bhwuah loka is the madya angga, the place for human beings and other living creatures; and the lower part (bhur loka) is the nistha angga inhabited by demons and other lesser spirits.  Raised with such a unique tripartite cultural concept, the Balinese tend to look at their head as the holiest part, the torso (from chest to waist) as the second holiest part, and the legs as the least holy part of the body.  The three parts represent the utama angga, the madya angga, the nistha angga, respectively. 

According to the Hindu Bali religion, the gods (bathara or dewa) reside in the upper world known as khayangan.  They descend to the earth, the mercapada, when they were invoked by their worshippers at festival times, as well as other religious ceremonies.  The Balinese Hindus provide small godly representations (pelawatan) and other sacred objects (tapakan) for the gods to reside in inside the temple. It is believed that when the gods descend, heavenly nymphs as well as demonic spirits (bhuta-kala) accompany them. (Taksu 8-9)

 There are five religious ceremonies in the Hindu Bali collectively called ‘panca yadnya’.  The panca yadnya include: dewa yadnya, resi yadny, pitra yadnya, maysa yadnya, bhuta yadnya.  The first ceremony is dedicated to the upper world, the next three are for the middle world, and the last for the lower world.

Dewa yadnya is a ritual dedicated to the gods. Odalan is one of the most important ceremonies that belong to dewa yadnya.  Although its main focus is to worship gods, odalan is a multi dimensional festival. It is at once a religious ceremony, a village social occasion, and an elaborate artistic presentation.  During the odalan ceremony, the Balinese invite their gods to reside inside the temple.  For the duration of the ceremony, normally between one to four days, the gods will receive prayers from the temple congregation who will entertain the divine spirits with elaborate offerings while different forms of masic, dance, drama, and shadow puppet plays, may be performed both inside and outside the temple.  This turns an odalan ceremony into a lavish theatrical event.

Resi yadnya is a ceremony dedicated to the Hindu priests, including for ordination, which is seen as a rebirthing process. Pitra yadnya is a ceremony for the spirits of the ancestors.  This begins with cremation as the body’s return to the five elements.  Manusa yadnya is a religious ceremony with a series of rituals carried out for human beings. Among the most important rituals belonging to this ceremony are those relating to the birth of a child (otonan), adulthood (menek kelih), tooth filing (metatah or mapandes), and wedding ceremony (masakapan or pewiwahan).  Socially, manusa yadya is essentially a family ceremony; a ceremony initiated and fully funded by a family and normally conducted within the family compound.

Bhuta yadnya is essentially a sacrifice for the unseen power, the bhuta-kala , in the lower world.  The general term for this sacrifice is mecaru (from caru meaning sacrifice). The main purpose of the ceremony is to appeal to the spirits of the lower world by offering their favorite food (raw meat and blood) so that they will not disturb human activities in the middle world.

(Taksu 10-12)

 Taksu is an integral part of the belief system and there are many ways to obtain taksu.  In the field of performing arts the most common way to acquire this divine power incorporates three things: first, the mastery of the physical and technical aspects of the art; secondly, the learning of its mental and moral aspects; ad fially, the understanding of the spiritual and magical aspects of the arts.  The three steps for obtaining taksu, called by some the pillars of taksu, are in line with the bayu-sabda-idep principle of the Hindu Bali tradition.

The bayu-sabda-idep principle is constituted by three related aspects.  Broadly speaking, using performing arts as an example, the bayu or energy is related to the physical and technical activities which involve energy, to learn the technical aspects essential to the art form. The sabda or voice refers to a strong understanding of the rules and guidances essential to develop the good mental and moral character of the artist.  The idep or thought refers to many kinds of spiritual contemplations and practices that build the artist’s sensitivity to the secret or the magical aspects of the art. (Taksu 73)  …. Additionally, “there are three potential capitals for otaiing taksu. These are honesty, sincerity, and integrity.  Everyone must hold firm to these capitals in pursuing one’s field or profession…. Priest Singarsa reminds those who seek taksu, artists and other professionals alike, to always keep their thoughts, words, and actions, in line with the principle of tri kaya parisudha (‘purity in thought, word and deed.’ (Taksu, 86-87).

 When we witnessed the Fire Dance where the performer is in a trance and walks through burning logs and scatters them around, he was experiencing Taksu. “Taksu possession is a state of consciousness, or a state of deep spiritual engagement, which happens beyond conscious knowing.  For the duration of such possession one may gain or posses special abilities or powers that allow him or her to perform works or services in an outstanding manner.”  (Taksu 16)

In her dissertation entitled “Topeng in Bali: Change and Continuity in a Traditional Drama Genre,” Elisabeth Young defines taksu as “a kind of power or inspiration, which is derived from the divine presence, and it raidiates from within.” 1980:91


Through their scholarly work, the writers mentioned above share three key ideas about taksu: divinity and spirituality, power or energy, and inspiration. ….

This suggests that taksu is an ephemeral divine power or energy that is conferred by the gods and deities. In order to obtain this special power, after mastering the technical or the physical aspect to one type of work or profession, one must take an arduous spiritual journey, sometimes through meditation with elaborate offerings and prayers.  This is to say that in most cases only exceptional people, disciplined and devoted artists or professionals will attain this spiritual power. (Taksu, 30-31)

 The word taksu is derived from an Old Javanese or Kawi word “caksu” that means “eyes” or “faculty of sight.” The other Old Javanese word, kecaksu means “to be seen”.  This strongly suggests that the power of taksu, in both artistic and other socio-cultural activities, can be first perceived mostly through the eyes.”

Taksu is not permanent, it is only for a specific event/task otherwise the person is perfectly normal.  Taksu is a cultural concept unique to Bali. (Taksu, 35)

Taksu is comparable to the Indian rasa. … Although Balinese taksu may not embodythe same concept of the nine Indian rasa, as described in the book of Natyasastra, taksu has the quality of flavorful essence, enchanting and magnetic potential.  …Without taksu, works of art will be like food with not tase, due to the absence of rasa, so that they will give not satisfaction to any consumer….(Taksu. 36)

 As the divine is everywhere, the movement of the stars and planets are part of the cosmic order which forms the Balinese calendar. This calendar is neither simple nor understood in a singular manner. There are a number of different interpretations of the Balinese calendar.  The guide we had at Pura Gua Gaja said that the year had 420 days, but Lonely Planet suggests that what he considered the six month period was in fact their year.  The locally written small “Bali Traditional Horoscope” pamphlet I bought offers yet another interpretation. It says:

“Wanga, the Balinese calendar system ( it means something like “Eye to the soul”), is a very complicated system of many different calendars.  Therea re 10 concurent calendars called Wewaran from 1 day up to 10 days long.  Each combination represents a different influence and meaning.  This sustemis  so involved that it could take lifetimes to study as a whole.  …. There are three commonly used Wewaran: Saptawara, Pancawara, and Sadwara respectively of 7,5, and 6 days.  In addition there is Wuku, which gives a name and matching Sang Hyang to the 30, 7 day cycles of Saptawara.

Otonan mean birthday or anniversary and one Oton is one Balinese year of 210 days, or six Bali months of 35 days (Saptawara-Pancawara cycle). A person’s Otanan usually reads as four words, on e from each Wewaran and one from Wuku.  …. In addition to the above calendar system, there is a Hindu year called Saka, divided into 12 Sasili (months), which starts on Nyepi, the day of no fire and abstinence.  Nyepi comes around March or April and 2014 is Saka 1936.”

As all major festivities and events are decided upon based on the calendar, it’s interpretation is fairly important.

 Bali has a fascinating history.  Starting in about the 7th C AD Indian traders brought Hinduism to the island. 9th C Sanskrit texts relate a series of military victories by local chieftains. In 1019 Airlangga was born in Java and lived there until he managed to gain political power and became king of both islands uniting them for the first time.  In the 12th C a series of 10.7m high Hindu and Buddhist statues were carved from stone cliffs at Gunung Kawi north of Ubud.  In 1292 Bali gained independence from Java and there continued to be a power struggle between the two islands for a number of years. In 1343 the Mahapahit prime minister, Gajah Mada, brought Bali back under Javanese control. In 1520 when Java converted to Islam, Bali refused to and remained a Hindu island. Javanese Hindis, including priests and artists all migrated to Bali enriching the artistic tradition of the island. In 1546 the Hindu priest Nirartha arrived in Bali and transformed the religion by building dozens of temples, including Tanah Lot and Ulu Watu and revising the ritual practices. In 1579 Sir Francis Drake is thought to have been the first European to visit the island.  In 1580 the Portuguese arrived but their ships were caught on the cliffs near Ulu Watu. In 1597 a Dutch expedition arrived off Kuta and took over possession of much of the island. The European wars between 1795-1815 meant that control of Indonesia shifted from the Dutch to the French to the British and back to the Dutch, all of which seemed to have little impact ion the Balinese people, except for the slave trade, which only ended in 1830.  The slaves were often the most beautiful people on the island who the squabbling Balinese royal houses sold to help finance their wars.

Even though the Balinese royalty was divided, some of their members did unite with the local populace to try to overthrow the Dutch government. In 1908 some of Balinese royalty committed suicide as a sign of protest. Wearing their best dress and armed with ‘show’ daggers they marched into Dutch gunfire in a suicidal puputan (warrior’s fight to the death) in Klungkung. It wasn’t until 1946, however, that Indonesia gained their independence from the Dutch.

 Bali is beautiful, but it is also part of the ring of fire with a number of active volcanoes. One of the most devastating disasters occurred when Gunung Agung erupted in 1963 killing a thousand of more and leaving 100,000 homeless. (LP 308-315)  One hopes that the mountains stay silent so that one can hear the songs of the birds and the beat of the gamelons for many years to come.



Bali & Lombok. London: Lonely Planet, 2012

 Yves Tulsi Boutin and Ni Luh Edyawati. Bali Traditional Horoscope. Ubud: Suwecan Widhi, 2001.

 Yves Tulsi Boutin and Ni Luch Edyawati. Bali Culture and Legends. Ubud: Suwecan Widhi, 1999.

 I Nyoman Tantrayana. Bali Storylines: The Guide to Balinese Arts and Culture through the Stories that Inspire Them.  Ubud: Suwecan Widhi, 1997.

 I Wayan Dibia, Taksu: In and Beyond the Arts. Denpasar: Wayan Gerla Foundation, 2012



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