Bali has a wealth of unusual sights and events that you will encounter on your first or even next visit to this culturally-rich island. It is this vibrant culture that is mainly responsible for the island’s uniqueness and isdeeply rooted in the main religion, aptly known as ‘Balinese Hinduism’.
Besides rituals and ceremonies that take place almost daily - from the smallest household compounds to the many majestic temples around - one can witness the many different aspects of the culturethrough static objects and items, some so ubiquitous that they’re around you everywhere you look. These will surely draw your curiosity, so here we try to explain and provide you with some answers to the 10 most unusual things you’ll likely see in Bali.
Offerings – anywhere, anytime!
This is most common oddity first-time visitors will come across, especially during leisurely walks down Bali’s public streets. The Balinese Hindus make offerings daily, as a gesture of gratitude and blessing. In the mornings, members of the household place small pinches of rice and the morning’s cooking on square-cut banana leaves – even if it’s just a tiny bit of salad and meat, together with a sprinkle of salt – in each temple shrine for the higher deities and down on the ground in the yard, in front of house and at crossroads for lower spirits.
Most of the time, these small offerings of food are accompanied by colourful canang or canangsari flower offerings – square stitch-woven young coconut leaf trays filled with flowers of colours corresponding to four cardinal points that are governed by a certain Hindu god, such as yellow marigolds for Mahadeva in the west and red jewelweed petals for Brahma in the south. Each is sprinkled with holy water and an incense stick usually burns to one side. You’ll also come across these canang and incense placed by seaside café owners on their beachfront, watch your step!
The most festive island-wide scenes occur around the holy days of Galungan and Kuningan, when almost all streets in Bali are lined with bamboo poles decorated with young coconut leaf ornaments. Naturally curved at the top, these towering bamboo poles feature significant harvest items of agrarian Bali, such as rice stalks, fruits, coconuts and coconut leaves – much like the traditional Christmas tree. With every household voluntarily erecting a penjor in front of their houses and by the roadsides, the result is a long dreamlike archway… easily an only-in-Bali sight to behold.
Besides being a gesture of gratitude towards nature for the ‘fruits of the earth’, a penjor at the time of Galungan also symbolises the triumph of good (dharma) over evil (adharma). Near eye-level at the base of the pole is a small woven bamboo shrine called an ‘ardha chandra’, where offerings are placed for deities who descend from the heavens for the celebration. Apart from Galungan, penjor serve as a highly-ornamental device during rites of passage and ceremonies, be it a wedding, an art performance, or at any other occasion that requires a festive touch. Read More...
Black and white cloths drape around the trunks of large roadside trees, statues, rocks, and even as attire worn by art performers and temple officials. It’s one of the most ubiquitous colour schemes you’ll come across while on the island. Referred to locally as saput poleng, the pattern and colour combination symbolises the harmonious balance between two of the most omnipresentand eternal opposites – much like the ever interconnecting Yin and Yang.
Harmony and balance are highly regarded in Balinese Hinduism, and good is just as naturally occurring as bad. When you see a statue, stone or large tree draped in this cloth, they are most likely deemed to have a ‘spirit’, life force or deity, as Balinese Hinduism, like the traditions of Southeast Asia, has traces of animism. Locals would show respect, in some way, when they pass these sites, such as honking their horns at the crossroads where a tree in poleng stands.
Towering Coffins and Festive Funerals
Cremations are truly memorable occasions in Bali – referred to locally as either ngaben or pelebon – loud and festive sights complete with processions and blaring rhythmic gamelan accompaniment on the way to the pyre. The coffins are also sights to behold, being ornate, towering high and carried by a troupe of male villagers. The forms and height of the coffins, or bade, in Balinese, are according to the social class of the deceased. Members of royal families tend to have higher pagoda-like coffins (measuring up to 10 metres high!) meticulously constructed by the village craftsmen and decorated with flowers, wooden masks and colourful papier-mâché ornaments. They can become spectacles of epic proportions, with cremation schedules announced months beforehand, and droves of international visitors flying in, just to see the rare sight. The white shroud-wrapped body is carefully moved from the mourning house to the parked coffin, which is then transported through village streets and to the funeral grounds through a great procession. Ultimately, the burning pyre reduces the body, and the great works of art, to ashes.
The windy season in Bali is when the blue skies are speckled with soaring giants, locally known as layangan or layang-layang. It is when the Bali Kite Festival starts gearing up, with dates confirmed by the last minute due to the patient wait for the most favourable weather. Nevertheless, when you happen to be in Bali during this time of the year, the kites flown by just about every kid and village troupe offer a show for free with their gigantic creations.
Kites in Bali are really a big deal, as testified by this grand annual festival that invites scores of troupes from all over the island by the year. Transporting their massive flying works of art by truck, they often require escorts to get them through the already jam-packed traffic. Successful take-offs are dramatic, complete with gamelan accompaniments to hype up spirits, and attractive cash prizes are up for grabs for the best creations, best launch and most elegant flying forms. Read More...
Another unusual sight to behold that you’ll only get to see in Bali is around the Saka New Year celebrations. There’s nothing really happening on the actual New Year itself as the whole island literally shuts down for one whole day, but the eve celebrations are filled with noisy firecrackers, torches and parading monstrous papier-mâché figures around village streets. These effigies are called ogoh-ogoh and, just like the Balinese kites, are passionately crafted by youths, with creations that get more creative, sophisticated and stunning year after year.
Banjars (communal halls) and roadsides become showcases of ogoh-ogoh in various forms and sizes, built through several weeks leading up to the Saka New Year Eve. Youth groups brainstorm, raise funds, conceptualise and build their mythical figures from scratch using intricately woven bamboo frameworks and adding several layers of artwork to create their most artistic creations to date. What visitors might find hard to understand is that, after the parades, these ogoh-ogoh are set on fire. Basically, they represent demons and burning inherently rids them for the silent and peaceful day that follows.
Splashes ‘n’ Smooches!
The day after Nyepi (Saka New Year), get ready to witness one of the most peculiar Bali festivals around. On one of the roads in the village of Sesetan in south Denpasar, the whole community descends to cheer on participating youths who get in line for the omed-omedan – roughly translated as ‘pull and tugs’, or even loosely, the ‘festival of smooches’. The village festival is a much localised event, undertaken only by youths of the Banjar Kaja community of the Sesetan village. As boys get in one line and girls in another, elders armed with buckets and hoses douse them with water, and a tug-of-war-like scene ensues.
But it is rather a push than a pull, with successive (pre-arranged) couples coming of age at the front of the lines shoved against one another to eventually ‘kiss’ and embrace for a very brief moment... before cheerfully being pulled apart again. The scene gets crazier as the participants and asphalt become drenched with the elders seemingly enjoying their role spraying and dousing the crowd. As the local legend goes, it all started a very long time ago when a male and female pig fought in a push and pull clash on the same street. When the festival was halted, a plague hit the village, so it has been held each year ever since.
Despite ongoing criticism and legal issues, Bali remains one of the places where real cockfights do take place. Although gambling is inadvertently involved, these are mostly intertwined with rituals that require offerings of blood – in this case, from a defeated fighting cock. The very old tradition of ritual cockfighting, known as tajen, dates back centuries and is a form of purification via animal sacrifice, known as tabuh rah or ‘blood offering’, which usually precedes each temple festival or religious ceremony.
What about human blood? Well, instead of fighting chickens, male youths of the Tenganan village, several kilometres north of Candidasa, take to a raised platform arena for a coming-of-age bout, using tied bundles of thorny pandan leaves as weapons and woven rattan shields, which interestingly don’t seem to get used that often. The result? Garish slashed backs of manly gladiators who show no sign of pain. These friendly bloody matches, known as perang pandan or ‘pandan battles’, take place during the fifth full moon on the indigenous Tenganan calendar, and are held over several days each year. Read More...
The Balinese Alphabet
Temple plaques and signs, local government offices and some road signs in Bali are subtitled with Balinese script, known as the Aksara Bali or Anacaraka. Some temples use it without the Latin. The alphabet originates from the Brahmi script, much in common with the variety of scripts that you’ll encounter throughout Southeast Asia. Bali’s own is quite elaborate and prevails in religious texts, especially in the well-preserved ancient lontar palm leaf manuscripts.
To save the heritage script from waning, movements have called out for its preservation, and the provincial government requires all public signs to feature the script, hence the subtitles on public signs. Go ahead and ask a Balinese you meet to help you read out the signs and decipher them for you, it can be fun!
Traditional Balinese attire is unique and colourful, and is mostly worn during religious ceremonies or social events. The male costume consists of a headdress known as an udeng or destar, which is originally folded from a single piece of square batik cloth. The ends form flaps at each side of the head with the right usually being larger. The pointy end that forms after the knot in the front symbolises the male lingam. Requiring skill to result in a perfect form, boys practice wearing udeng from an early age. The batik sarongs, or kamen, are open-ended, and wrapped around the waist to form a pleated front called a kancut. Then an outer saput wrap completes the lower male garment. Safari-style shirts are common.
For the ladies, headgear only comes in the form of optional faux-silver or golden flower hairpins worn in their bun-tied hair called sanggul, and are more elaborate during rites of passage such as weddings, with tall golden flower crowns called gelung mas. Embroidered long-sleeved kebaya come in all sorts of patterns, colours and styles; all tight-fitting, enhancing the feminine figure. The sarong differs from the male form, as a whole tight wrap around the lower body, fastened around the waist with a waist cincher and a sash. Whenever you come across a procession or a ceremony, enjoy the unique fashion parade!