Bali culture is so different from any culture you may have seen that you quickly ask yourself: What kind of cultural explosion happened here?
It’s everywhere, from the gamelan music in the hotel lobby, the beautiful decorated Balinese people on the streets, statues of fierce looking guardians, the numerous colorful umbrellas to the beautiful made offerings on cars, in front of shops and pavements.
Be careful not to step on them though...
“So what happened to Bali that didn’t happen to the other Indonesian islands?”
The answer lies in an interesting event in Bali history. After the great Hindu Majapahit Kingdom on Java collapsed by the influence of Islam in 1527, lots of intellectuals, noblemen, artists, priests, dancers and actors were forced to flee to Bali.
They brought with them their rituals and traditions and mixed these with those of the local Balinese people making Bali life what it is today...yes even when it happened 481 years ago.
Everything you see the Balinese people do is connected with their beliefs in the gods and goddesses, good spirits and bad spirits in the Bali religion.
The Balinese people believe the sun, the rice fields, a tree and even a rock has a spirit. They organize their entire life to live in harmony with the good and the bad spirits.
Two organizations that play a very important role in the daily life of the Balinese are the Subak and the Banjar of every village. The subak is the irrigation organization which is responsible for all the beautiful rice fields and agricultural affairs of the village.
The Banjar is responsible for all other activities in the village such as helping with marriages, cremations but also temple repairs.
Somewhere on Bali there's always a religious ceremony or colorful ritual taking place in one of the many temples or just outside your hotel on the beach. You'll be surprised how many Bali festivals take place in one year alone.
Just by driving around I've run into several cremation ceremonies called ngaben and women carrying towers of food on their heads to bring to the gods in the temples such as on the national holiday of Galungan.
Bali culture and religion is famously expressed in music and dance.
For one of the best venues to see and hear Bali music and dance you’ll have to go to the cultural center of Bali, Ubud.
The Kecak or Monkey Chant is one of my favorites even though there’s no gamelan or any other instrument involved. You’ll see a bare-chested choir of men sitting in a circle making “chak-a-chak-a-chak” sounds on the rhythm of the story.
It tells the Ramayana story where Prince Rama accompanied by the monkey army tries to rescue his wife Sita from the hands of the evil Rawana, the King of Lanka.
Bali culture is also expressed in handicrafts such as paintings, woodcarving, masks and batik. Through time the role of painters has changed from suppliers to temples and religious ceremonies to suppliers for a wider market.
Statues of demons around temples and hotel entrances are also an important part of the Bali culture.
Nowadays they are even sold on the market. When you drive around Bali you’ll notice the many shops with statues ranging from big-bellied Buddha’s, dancing horses to dolphins in all shapes and sizes and even life-sized Indians. Indians...?
On the road to Besakih for example you might run into various craftsmen churning out amazing pieces for various temples on the island or for the international trade.
This is one of the places to get a decent bargain far away from the expensive shops.
Bali food is a mix of influences from the other islands in the Indonesian archipelago. It’s hard to point out Balinese specialties but there are a couple worth mentioning that are specific for the Bali culture such as ‘Babi Guling’, ‘Bebek Betutu, ‘Lawar’ and ‘Satay Lilit'.
Other famous dishes you’ll find but do not originate from Bali culture are the Indonesian ‘Rijsttafel’ and ‘Nasi goreng’. Nasi goreng can be found in almost every restaurant and can be considered Indonesia’s national dish.