Make your own free website on
Welcome Join Avi's Trip Maps & Facts Students Teachers E-Mail Avi

Beautiful Patterns, Common Threads



It's important to know, as I write about Bali, that it is only one small part of the whole country of Indonesia. Think of Indonesia as being like the United States (a country); then Bali is kind of like Hawaii (a state). (Bali, though, is even smaller than Hawaii -- yet it has more people!) You wouldn't describe the United States to somebody by only talking about Hawaii, right? In the same way, you don't know about all of Indonesia just by learning about Bali. But it's a start.

I chose to come to Bali first because it's the time of a special holiday called Galungan. You can see that it's Galungan everywhere you look, because the streets are gaily decorated with penjor (the hanging things in this photo) and the temple shrines are wrapped in brightly-colored cloths. [See banners in Cambodia that reminded me of penjor.]


Every so often, but at least once or twice a day during the ten days of the holiday this year, you'll see a procession of musicians and women carrying offerings to accompany the barongs that come out to visit different temples that are special to them. Some come from many miles away to visit!


You can see a barong in this photo. Can you recognize where the influence for the barong might have come from? If you think it looks a lot like a Chinese dragon you might see in a Lion Dance during the Lunar New Year, you're right. China is one place that has had a big effect on Southeast Asian cultures, since it's right next door to the region (though pretty far from Indonesia itself).



One of the most interesting things about Southeast Asia to me is how its really rich cultures, with beautiful music, dance, art, architecture, clothing and other forms of expression, are a result of the mixing of many different influences. I think they're especially meaningful for students in California to study, not only because there are many people of Southeast Asian ancestry in California but also because California today is a place where many cultures come into contact with one another. There's a lot of possibility for us to learn from each other and create new ideas for living and expressing ourselves, as Southeast Asians have for thousands of years. This "cultural diffusion" is one topic I'll be studying and sharing with you throughout my trip.



My first night here, I went to visit Ibu Warung Santai. (Her real name is Wayan Loka, but that's what we call her.) When I first came to Bali with the gamelan (Balinese orchestra) I play with, we stayed at a homestay in Banjar Kalah (I'll tell you more about what that means later) in the town of Peliatan, where Ibu's (Mom's) warung (food stall) is.


Ibu serves some of the meanest nasi campur around (pronounced "chom-poor" ("c" is "ch" in Bahasa Indonesia); literally "mixed rice" and meaning rice with mixed vegetables, tofu, tempe (fermented soybean cake), sambal(crushed chili peppers) and meats). At a great price, too -- still only about 2500 Rupiah, which is about 35 cents -- for a whole meal!


Ibu invited me into her home. The Balinese have a well-deserved reputation for hospitality, as do Indonesians in general. This is the candi (pronounced chon-dee) at the entrance to Ibu's house.


The sign tells you how many people live there: four laki-laki (men), seven perempuan (women), and eleven jumlah (total). Actually, though, Ibu lives with: her brother; her three sons, their wives and their eight children; and two of her five daughters, one of whom is married and lives there with her husband and two children. (Her other daughters have moved away to live with their husbands' families, according to Balinese tradition.) The actual total is TWENTY-ONE people! This is an average to large size extended family.


I love dogs. REALLY. But Balinese dogs are messengers from hell. They're a strange-looking breed with short front legs and big, muscular hind legs. The Balinese don't really keep them as pets, but more as guard dogs. When you walk around at night, they bark and snarl menacingly, but stay a good distance away from you -- they're mostly afraid of humans! I was taught a trick early on: if one gets too close, just kneel down and act like you're going to pick up a stone and throw it at them. They'll just take off. It works!


A lot of people's energy goes into the holiday, making the banten (offerings) like in this photo and spending a lot of time visiting each other and the local puras (temples) for prayers. Much of Balinese daily life, and definitely celebrations like Galungan, are connected to their religious beliefs. The Balinese are Hindu -- actually, Bali has the only Hindu culture in Indonesia!


Their Hinduism is mixed with animistic beliefs (that spirits live in everything, from people to animals to plants and rocks and the air). Those beliefs were here even before Hinduism arrived from Java (which received Hinduism from India, its place of origin). Here's another case of different cultures coming into contact and creating something new! You can see it in religious ceremonies, and especially in music and dance -- and in offerings like this one.


I woke up my first morning here happy that it was the second day of Galungan, called Umanis Galungan (or, sometimes, "Sweet Galungan"). It is a joyous day of people visiting each other. Getting out of bed from under my mosquito net (the worst part of tropical life to me is the mosquitoes!)...


I headed out to the bale (a covered, open-air platform) for a lazy breakfast of banana fritters, fruit (bananas, papaya, watermelon and pineapple) and kopi Bali (Balinese coffee) and to plan my day. First stop: my friends Dewa and Emiko's!


Dewa Beratha is a master musician, good enough to be sent to the U.S. to teach the gamelan I play with in El Cerrito, CA called Gamelan Sekar Jaya. He is also a great set designer, painter and dancer, and I'm sure does many other things I'm not even aware of. Emiko Susilo is also a good friend of mine from the group, for which she was a brilliant dancer and teacher. She is a Javanese-Japanese-American now living in Bali (wow!). Emiko also studied Southeast Asian cultures at the University of Hawaii, and has taught me a lot of what I know about Balinese culture. This photo of Dewa and Emiko is from their wedding reception in Los Angeles, which I attended just before going to Hawaii. (I like it because the pumpkins have Balinese-style carving.) They got married this past summer in Bali. Ask me about the ceremony -- it's fascinating!

Luckily, Dewa and Emiko returned to Bali in time for Galungan -- and my visit, of course. Balinese hospitality again: it's OK to just drop by without calling first, and that's what I did. Their home is a beautiful one, as you can see. These shrines are part of every Balinese home, and are built to honor the family's ancestors as well as the gods.


While I was there, I got to see two interesting activities: Dewa's Ibu (a WONDERFUL woman!) and sister making banten for Galungan, and teaching the art of banten-making to one of the younger generation...


...and a dance lesson led by Nyoman Cerita (on the left) and Emiko. (I think it's great that the men here learn women's dances; not only the teacher was a man, but a couple of the students, too!) It's easy to lose track of time here: I think I spent four hours just talking, relaxing and watching what was going on!


These girls were waiting for the next dance lesson to begin. They start teaching them young in Bali, don't you think?



Heading back near Ibu Loka's, I passed the balebanjar (meeting place) of Banjar Kalah. A banjar is a common group that all Balinese are a part of, and often consists of a group of related families. Banjar Kalah's history goes back hundreds of years; its name means "banjar of the losers", and refers to a battle they lost to a neighboring banjar long ago. The banjar takes care of weddings, cremations, and other religious ceremonies for their part of the desa (village). People work together on such affairs in a spirit of "gotong-royong", or mutual cooperation: they build buildings and schools together, harvest crops together, offer sacrifices together, clean roads and drains together, and in general are always helping each other out.


Ubud Cyber CafeUbud (the biggest village around the area where I was staying) is changing fast. When I first visited about ten years ago, many people were still getting used to having electricity, and there was only one telephone in town! (I remember having to wait three hours once for an "appointment" to make a call to the U.S.) By 1998 and this visit, things are so different I can count on using one of many internet cafes to send my photos and writings back. What a difference a decade makes!

One of the discussions I often have with friends, and hear others having around Bali, is whether this change is good. Even the Balinese talk about it a lot. For example, now that many families have TV's and phones in their own homes, they don't "visit" as much as they used to. Many people feel this is having a negative effect on Balinese culture. But the Balinese have had to deal with changes for a long time, especially as a major tourist destination, and it's really impressive how they hold on strongly to the unique and beautiful core parts of their culture. Now people often visit one another and watch TV together!


A couple of days later, I headed out from Ubud to visit some friends I have in the capital city of Denpasar. It's not really that far, but the road is very busy and it takes a good hour to get there. On the way, though, there are many interesting sites often showing off the Balinese people's incredible arts and crafts abilities. This huge statue of Kalarau, Garuda and Vishnu portrays characters who are central in their Hindu religious mythology.


Balinese wood carvingsLiterally hundreds of shops line the side of the road displaying crafts made from wood, silver, stone and other resources found around the island. Each village specializes in different crafts: Ubud for painting and wood-carving; Batubulan (which means "moon stone") for stone carving; Celuk for silver, and so on. I saw these carvings in a shop that was stuck in the middle of twelve shops I counted along one stretch, all of which had similar strange, humorous and often beautiful objects of art hand-carved by Balinese craftspeople!

Coming into the capital city of Denpasar, you encounter everything a city represents. There's a lot more action than you see out in the countryside around Ubud: movie theaters, shopping centers and malls, big hotels. But there are also lots more problems: traffic and pollution (riding a motorbike, you CONSTANTLY breathe in the thick black smoke belched out by trucks, cars and other motorbikes); the intrusion of development on tradition (you just see little bits of the ricefields peeking through every once in a while); unemployed people hanging out or walking the streets looking for small jobs. And I've heard that Java, Indonesia's most populous island, has FAR more of these kinds of problems than Bali does. We'll see when I get there next!


My first visit was with the family of Nyoman Windha, one of my old teachers in the gamelan and a professor at STSI, the major music school in Denpasar. I couldn't believe how the kids had grown in only three years! Wahyu and Gus are both not even ten, but they already are good enough musicians that they perform with groups regularly. This is like it is in the countryside: Balinese youth are encouraged to become excellent at an art or craft at a VERY early age, and they rise to the challenge. (Some girls are too old to perform certain dances once they reach the ripe old age of ten.) Unlike the countryside, you can see that the Windhas' urban (city) family is small, with only the nuclear group of five living together. (Contrast this with Ibu Loka's extended family of 21!) These are the kinds of changes that urbanization brings about.

My next visit was to the home of a famous dance teacher, Ibu Arini, where I stayed for the night. Ibu was one of the first people I met in Bali ten years ago; I remember her telling me almost immediately about how someone in her neighborhood who had recently died was returning to visit in the form of a dog. The Balinese belief in animism -- of spirits that live in everything, from animals to the wind, the sun, rocks and water -- is very strong. This wall at the entrance to Ibu's house was built to confuse evil spirits so that they won't enter the gate.


Towards the back of Ibu's plot of land I found her son, Gung-De, who's a fun and crazy kind o' guy. Gung-De and a couple of his friends had just set up this bar both to have friends over from the university nearby and to make a little money in the deal, too. He still misses the countryside, and was doing his best to "bring a little bit of the country" into the city" by growing some crops and planting banana trees around his bar. He even raises pigs just a few yards away from where they hang out and play cikki (a great card game)! It's definitely a different feel to be awakened in a city by the sounds of roosters crowing and pigs snorting.


In the morning, Gung-De's sister Gung-Tu-Nik took me into the area called Kampung Arab to do some shopping. "Kampung" in the name basically means "neighborhood"; "Arab" doesn't mean there are many Arabs, but rather that there are many traders who set up shops there who come from the west of Bali in the direction of the Arab world. This includes primarily people from India, like this couple, most of whom have shops with fabrics both from Bali and imported from other parts of Asia. It is trading families like these who have historically brought new ideas (like Hinduism, and later Islam) into countries like Indonesia and still lend it a cultural diversity that is one of its great strengths. (Indeed, Indonesia's national slogan is "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika", which means "Unity in Diversity".)

Later in the week, I decided to take a long motorbike around the island. (It's small enough that you can do a circle around half of the island in a single day.) There were some famous temples I'd never visited, and since this was still Galungan week I decided they'd be good places to go. The first stop was at Gunung Kawi, a beautiful temple built over seven hundred years ago. You can see from this photo that water is a major part of the temples; that is because ritual purification with water is an important part of Hindu religious rituals.


Close to Gunung Kawi is another special site named Tirta Empul, where the waters are said to be especially holy. There is something very mystical and beautiful about a place like this, that is obviously so old and yet is still being used as an important place by people who live all around the island.


This pemangku (priest) is giving blessings for the offerings being made at the temple by these women from a nearby village. The pemangku is a highly respected member of the Balinese community, and is called on to preside over many events in the community ranging from life-passage rituals (such as birthdays for infants) to dedications of public buildings.


After leaving Tirta Empul, I rode for three hours through the pouring rain (ANYTHING for my students!), over hill and dale, to the holiest temple in Bali, Besakih. Pura Besakih (Besakih Temple) rests on the side of Gunung Agung (Mount Agung), an active volcano and the holiest mountain in Bali. (All temples, whether for a single house or a whole village, are oriented towards Gunung Agung and Besakih.) I missed the major activity for the day, which happened in the morning, but even with the temple virtually empty it's a beautiful and inspiring place.


An incredible story about Besakih Temple begins in 1910, when priests were making preparations for a very special ceremony that only happens every fifty years or so. These preparations are meant to satisfy the gods, and if they are not done, the Balinese believe, bad things will happen. In the middle of the preparations, the Dutch army invaded the island. (The Dutch had held control over Indonesia for almost 300 years, but did not try to control Bali itself until this time.) In a famous event called the Puputan, Balinese priests ritually killed themselves in front of the Dutch invaders rather than be captured or murdered.

When the time for the next special ceremony came around, in 1963, the people were very worried because they knew that the proper preparations had not been done to appease the gods during that prior celebration in 1910. Bad omens began to appear -- the clouds passed overhead in certain patterns, and particular types of birds flew in, for example -- and people feared the worst. Then, on the day before the major ceremony, Gunung Agung exploded. The lava and ash it generated covered a full third of the whole island. But amazingly, even though Pura Besakih sat right on the side of the mountain, it was left untouched by the devastation. In fact, it's said that a huge lava flow heading straight for the temple split in half right before it arrived there, with separate paths going around opposite sides of the holy site!! You can imagine why the Balinese think of Besakih as being such an important and powerful place.


I got back to Ubud after dark, but in time to see a show of Balinese music and dance by the world-famous group Tirta Sari. (This evening the performance portrayed a story from the Hindu epic "The Ramayana", another reflection of India's influence on Balinese culture.) Ubud is the island's center for dance and music, and quite a few groups from the area have traveled outside the country to perform (including my friend Dewa's old group, Semara Ratih). I prefer Semara Ratih to Tirta Sari because SR does more traditional pieces with some interesting twists, while Tirta Sari seems more flashy and targeted at tourists. But you can't say Tirta Sari isn't COLORFUL! This is one of my favorite photos, because it not only shows you how beautiful the dancers are, but it also gives you an idea of how much motion is involved in the dance and how much the dancers have to work at moving together as a single unit.

Almost looks like a watercolor painting, doesn't it?

A couple of days later, Galungan drew to its close -- which comes with a bang, not a whimper. The last day of Galungan is called Kuningan, and it's the biggest day of all. "Kuning" means yellow, and on this day EVERYTHING is dressed in yellow (though you see a lot of white, too), from temples to people. Everyone wears their very nicest pakaian adat, which essentially means their "special clothing."


Well, ALMOST everyone does...


My friends and I arrived late, or so I thought; but the celebrations last all day (and sometimes even into the next day) and, besides, the Balinese hold to a policy of "jam karet" or "rubber time", which basically means you get there when you get there. (If you know me, you know how much I like THAT policy!) People come from all around to make their offerings at the bigger temples, like this one in a village named Mas (which means "gold", appropriately). They line up with hundreds and hundreds of other people...


...with gamelan orchestras playing music special for the occasion (check out the way these instruments look; you'll want to compare them to orchestras from other parts of Southeast Asia)... enter through beautiful candis like this one into the inner courtyard of the temple. There...


...they stop to pray, raising their hands in acceptance as the pemangkus (priests, remember?) guide them in their prayers and sprinkle them with the tirta (holy water). The smell of incense wafts through the air, and the wailing sound of the priests' prayers creates a somber and mystical feeling (though lots of people are talking to each other, too). Some of the people...


...leave beautiful offerings in the temple for the gods, which will be eaten by the pemangkus and others after the festivities are over. These offerings are piled high, on special stands and on tables around the inner temple. Among the foods I've seen used in them are apples, bananas, cakes, mangoes, salaks (a kind of fruit with a lizard-like skin) and even chickens, and they also often have incense sticks stuck into them along with beautiful creations made of banana leaves that take time to create but are just left on the ground once everything is eaten.


Other people take their offerings back home with them, to be shared at huge selamatans (celebratory feasts) with family and friends. (Selamatans remind me a lot of the luau I participated in when I was in Hawaii -- lots of noise, and laughing, and dancing and music and FUN!) Some of these offerings are four feet tall, and I've seen women balancing them on their heads without even using their hands to help!


It's all very beautiful, but maybe what I like best is the scene OUTSIDE the temple area. Here, a market is in full swing, and vendors are selling everything from clothing to toys. Nearby, a group of men are holding a cockfight (no women allowed, unfortunately -- though some are now bold enough to check it out!), and gambling is going on all around. This stand sells es campur, a favorite snack of the Balinese on hot days in particular. Literally, "es campur" means "mixed ice", and what it is is a mixture of candied fruits in a kind of sauce with plenty of ice. It's delicious!

With Galungan and Kuningan now officially over, the area around Ubud returned to its usual flow. For one thing, that meant school started up again, and that sounded cool to me! This is a classroom at the SMA (high school) in Tebesaya, a small district of Ubud. One thing I'm trying to do is to set up connections with schools everywhere I visit, so that students can communicate with each other across the ocean; but, it was hard to do here because they don't have any computers in the school yet and very few people speak English. I'll keep working on getting a better contact school around Ubud so that you who are interested can talk to young people your age there. In the meantime, I was able to talk to them a little bit because I can speak Indonesian -- so, if you're interested in more detailed observations, you can read this box below.

SMA, Tebesaya: Rickety desks rife with graffiti; benches built for two people usually hold three, even as some are empty. Friends sit together, obviously. Boys sit next to boys, and girls sit with girls; most of the girls are in the front while the boys sit in the back. All wear uniforms; they're clean and neat. School starts at 1 PM and runs until 6. Some students leave the class to go to work in between. In fact, it appears students can leave the class at will. About 40 students in the class. Walls are whitewashed, with several posters showing the organizational structure of the school -- no others.

It's a math class. The teacher puts a problem up on the board. Students copy it onto their paper and proceed to work, mostly quietly with but a little murmuring in the back. After a while, the guru (teacher) begins a whole-class discussion. A student in the back volunteers to answer; he actually gives the wrong answer, but the teacher can't hear what he says (because of very loud and continuous noise from the next year) and writes the correct answer on the board anyway, as if the student had come up with that answer. Several students in the back giggle loudly at this turn of events. Note that it is far too hot in the room to close the doors to block the sound, which clearly wouldn't work anyway.

I can't say whether or not this school is representative of most schools around Ubud or in Bali in general, but I've visited three or four and they're a lot like this. Certainly, there are problems of not having adequate resources. But it still gives me the impression that the Balinese put more emphasis on teaching their youth through experiences OUTSIDE school than inside -- though, as in most places, the really motivated ones still seem to find a way to learn SOMETHING!


After Galungan, I decided to move places and stay with some friends of mine, Ketut Madra and Wayan. When I arrived, Ketut was busy at work in his studio. He is a renowned painter in Bali, with some of his works on permanent exhibit at the Arts Center in Denpasar. As I mentioned before, painting is an art Ubud is famous for, and Ketut is one of the best!


Here is one of Ketut's finished paintings. Like many traditional Balinese artists, he uses myths and stories from the past as the subjects for his work. This painting is drawn from the Ramayana, the Hindu epic that was also the subject of Tirta Sari's dance performance I showed earlier. If you know the story, you may be able to identify in the center Ravana and Sita, two of the main characters of the story, as well as Rama and his brother Lakshmana (riding garudas, mythical birds), several of Ravana's demons, and two warriors from the army of Hanoman, the monkey king.


Later in the day, I found Ketut working with a friend weaving palm leaves into a decorative wall to be used in a special birthday ceremony for his new grand-nephew. (The ceremony, called the tigang sasih, celebrates the baby's three-month birthday and the first time her/his feet are allowed to touch the ground!) Weaving is an important craft in Bali, whether with palm leaves...


...or with thread. Using cotton from China or India, Balinese weavers make beautiful fabrics usually of either ikat or batik design. To do ikat, the weavers first gather the threads into bunches, tie bands around parts of the bunches, then dip them into dye. The bands keep certain areas un-colored; after sun-drying, the areas already colored are then banded and the previously colorless areas are dyed in a second color, or even a third and a fourth. As you see here, the threads are then re-gathered on spools...


...and woven into beautifully-patterned textiles on looms. The work is hard, but the results are remarkable!


BatikIn another technique using wax and a special drawing tool called a canting, a different type of pattern is achieved called batik. This is an example of a variation on a traditional batik pattern. Pretty, isn't it? You may think such fabrics would be saved for special occasions, but actually there's plenty of it around for people to be able to wear it for daily use.

A couple of days after arriving at Ketut's, I went back to visit Dewa. Luckily, because I always wondered how rice sawahs (fields) work, he was going to meet with Pak Lokeng, the head of his local subak. Balinese farmers work together in subaks that coordinate how water is split up for irrigation of the fields. Pak Lokeng was the head of this subak (and the two temples that go with it) for fifty years!


Pak took me through the fields of his subak, which includes sawahs owned by several villages. This time of the year was the planting season in this area; the farmers know when to plant by studying the stars and by using a special calendar that has ten months of 35 days each. Here, the rice seedlings are being protected from rodents and insects by covering them with straw.


Irrigation channels run throughout the sawahs. Here, there is a special bale (covered platform) where the heads of the subak meet to discuss how to distribute water to different areas under their control. (Maybe you can see that the bale is set up in a great place, right where different irrigation channels separate out from the main one!) Decisions by the heads are made through complete discussion of an issue to reach unanimous agreement, or consensus. (This is true of Indonesian society in general: discussion is called musyawakah, and consensus is mufakat.) It is a truly democratic process, where everyone has a say.


In the center of the sawahs is this temple, which is over 300 years old. Prayers are made here asking the gods' forgiveness for borrowing the land in order to grow rice. Stories of the temple's origins and its dedication are kept here on lontar (palm leaf) rolls that are still read at temple ceremonies. Pak Lokeng explained to me the importance in growing rice of a balance between the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, who represent birth, life and death (the same cycle the rice plants go through, as do all living things). He also told me of the importance of one particular temple at the top of Mount Batur on the center of the island, which is considered to be Vishnu's home -- which makes a lot of sense to me, since Batur is the source of the water that keeps the rice alive (Vishnu's job)!


Later in the day, during a ride in the countryside, I passed by another area where the rice cycle was in the harvesting phase. Here, a group of women (women seem to do most of the work in most places I've visited!) are "winnowing" the rice they've harvested, meaning they're separating the useless outer part of the husk from the inner grain that's saved for eating. Scenes like this are an everyday part of life in Bali.


Towards the end of my trip to Bali, I had a fascinating discussion with my friends Wayan Dibia (head of STSI, the arts college) and Made Wiratini (a great dance teacher at STSI) and their friend Tony from the U.S. about the lives of Chinese immigrants in Bali. This was an especially important discussion given recent events in other parts of Indonesia, where you may have heard Chinese citizens have suffered intense persecution. Wayan, Made and Tony all made strong cases that in Bali, Chinese people are not only accepted but are an integral part of the society. They feel that this is due to the Balinese culture's nature of adding in influences that they find valuable, with Chinese contributions being central. It's certainly an interesting question why Chinese people have found relative safety in Bali. I wish that I'd been able to frame the question to some Chinese people living in Bali, but was unable to do so. If you'd like to know more about this discussion, or have specific questions related to these issues or any insights of your own you'd like to share, please write me and I'll be glad to respond.


On leaving Bali, I found myself having missed seeing several things I really wanted to see and share with you. I never went to a market, of all things; I didn't get to see a cremation, one of the more incredible "events" you can see there; I never went to a performance of wayang kulit, or shadow puppet theater. But then, there were lots of other things I could have seen I didn't mention -- and, more importantly, lots of great things I DID get to see! I hope you enjoyed them; maybe I'll get to see the things I missed on a next trip(?). For now, come along on my (short) trip to (one place on) Indonesia's most populated island, Java.

And: it's an ISLAND -- and I never went to the water. That means you get a less than total picture of life in Bali from looking at this site alone. I'll add in some photos from my prior collections when I return to the U.S.; but if you have some of your own, or have references to good web sites we can link up to that tell about water-front life in Bali, tell us!

Join Avi's Trip Maps & Facts Students Teachers E-Mail Avi

Copyright 1999 by Avi Black
This page is maintained by Todd Greenspan for Avi Black
Comments and suggestions welcome.
Last updated