Bali's Cultural Legacy
by Richard Semarr
The more you learn about Bali, the richer your visit will be
Established out of a deep respect for the Balinese culture, Saraswati
Storybooks with their Trisakti Trilogy aims to present a basic understanding of
Bali's unique cultural heritage. Through supporting education within cultural
tourism we hope to protect and preserve Bali's root wisdom in an artistic and
The short essays below are courtesy of Richard Semarr and are
© SaraswatiBooks 2003-2004. All rights reserved.
Creating a Sacred Space
In today's world where fast-paced western materialistic society and worried
thinking tends to dominate, there remains a haven. This haven is a temple of
our "global" village, which has been protected and preserved for
hundreds of years. This "sanctuary" is Bali.
The lotus bud of the Balinese culture has yet to reveal "her" hidden
glories. Her outer petals are withered; superficially damaged from the
onslaught of commercialization and corruption via tourism in the Suharto era.
However, the essence of Bali, the sacred spice of soul merged with the essence
of high Hinduism (Siwa) and Buddhism, deeply flavored with animism and
ancestral worship, are now concealed in the protective "mask" of
Hindu Dharma. The inner preserves of what the Balinese call Tri-Sakti, is still
The Balinese continue to protect and maintain the sanctity of this island of
Gods and Goddesses. Whatever madness and terror is besieging humanity around
the world, it is important to know that we all have a place, a retreat where
the majority of the Balinese population sacrifice a tremendous amount of time
and energy in "holding this sacred space".
Since the bombing in Bali and the subsequent decline in tourism, the Balinese
have maintained a harmonious and positive disposition. In the face of economic
hardship the culture has sustained equanimity, and a resolve is emerging to
embrace the positives of this tragedy.
When you come to Bali, free your mind for a time, study, observe and tune in
and you will be re-inspired, your creativity opened, and brought to a place of
peace within your own being.
Bali remains our protected temple, which allows us the possibility of relaxing
and releasing the materialistic mind, and entering the inner chambers of your
own heart. The beauty and artistry is obvious. The fluidity and humor of the
people delight the senses. Drop down a little deeper and you feel a new burst
of creativity awakening in your own life, a taste of pure soul consciousness.
The opportunity to drink deeply of the elixir of this culture will always be
defended and protected by the Balinese. They have provided the space and style
to fit all persuasions and the Balinese have more than ever demonstrated their
ability to be gracious hosts to a global clientele.
Sacred Culture in Bali
In Bali there are two very distinct worlds. The "sekala" is the
dimension of existence that most can see and touch. The "niskala" is
the unseen (by most) realm of magical currents and forces. The unseen world in
Bali is senior and has priority over the physical manifestation we typically
call life. In Hindu terminology the physical/material plane of existence is
called Maya, or illusion.
Hinduism is one of the oldest religion's on earth, deriving its elements from a
hundred different directions, incorporating every conceivable motive of
religion. Worship of earth, sun, nature, sky, ancestors and heroes, mother and
father, as well as a mystical association with plants and animals, are all
thoroughly explored within the Hindu religion. Balinese spiritual culture in
reality is too animistic, too rooted in their native soil and soul to be
compared to the Hinduism of India.
Bali's first recorded contact with world religion was the Mahayanic Buddhism of
the Sailendras in the 7th century. Another dominant early influence was the
worship of Siwa. These two ways, Siwaism and Buddhism, were first mixed during
the Mataram era, taking Siwa (advanced Hinduism) as the religion or "inner
science" and Buddhism as the philosophy for everyday life. The same blend
was later refined through the majestic style of the Majapahit. At one time
Majapahit was the largest kingdom in all of Southeast Asia, acknowledged today
as a pinnacle of spiritual and cultural expression. In 1478, when this vast
empire founded its last outpost on Bali, the culture of the Balinese
flourished, enjoying a renaissance of the arts and a strengthening of their
religion, then called Siwa-Buddha.
The majority of Balinese today have ardently taken on the Hindu dharma system
of religion, which is not the Balinese tradition but a system, which protects
the "batin" or soul of Bali and its people. Buddhism was maybe a
little too compassionate to face the tidal wave of global tourism. The Hindu
Dharma is not as high or advanced as the Siwa sect of Hinduism. Hindu Dharma is
the basis, or the basic training of spiritual aspirants. For the Balinese
sacred culture, Hindu Dharma is simply further protection, similar to a goalie
in hockey requiring a protective mask.
So the Balinese, despite the years of onslaught by the modern material world,
have continued to "maintain" their culture and traditions. How can
the Balinese continue to safeguard and protect their sacred essence while
opening and revealing their deepest and most guarded secrets to humanity? One
answer is re-education from the roots up; for after 32 years under a socially
and politically controlling military dictatorship, confusion and ignorance was
allowed to grow. Now this current state of affairs must be countered and
corrected through a return to the real roots. So, back to the basics, Bali:
rising to a new relationship with the outer world where a new destiny can
A World of Sharing
The power and beauty of Bali lies deep within the lay of the land and the
connection that the Balinese maintain with the earthy deity called Ibu Pertiwi
(First Mother). They have a deeply ingrained sense of understanding and
appreciation that all they have and love is birthed and given by mother earth.
In this way everyone is bound to the collective principle, all brothers and
sisters of the one mother.
Within this union a shared responsibility for the whole is felt by all. Most
everything in this way falls into the category of "biasa", which
simply means what is normal or ordinary. From this normalcy comes an
extraordinary feeling of continuity. Observe closely the gamelan orchestra,
hammers prancing along the brass bars at incredible speed with precise
synchronicity. Or the Pendet dancers in the temple, brought together from old
and young, unrehearsed, yet moving gracefully in unison, perfectly coordinated
through submission to the "one".
In a culture such as this, instinct and intuition are the founding forms of
intelligence. The disposition of sharing or "gotong royong" is most
basic. Once the Balinese are married, (within the structure of
"banjar") forms of cooperative life are demanded. Most Balinese would
have it no other way, for they can observe the characteristics of
individuality, especially since the advent of tourism, yet they much prefer the
communal ethic. In Bali every personal calamity becomes the shared problem
among family, friends and ancestral deities, and oppressive solitude is rarely
From around the world, people of all races and persuasions continue to be
attracted, like bees to Bali. Most westerners come from a very different
upbringing where, from a young age, individualism is promoted and competition
encouraged. Bali can be an extraordinary blessing for those who come to her
shores to learn the art of sharing.
The bearer of Hinduism to Bali, a great saint from India was first rejected by
this sacred land. It was only when he recognized the superior power of Bali's
earth energy did he surrender. In this submission he was received and Bali
opened to accept this new form of instruction called Hinduism.
From such a small island the global population has much to learn. When we learn
to share we learn that we are never alone.
The Artistic Culture
Wherever you go in Bali, day or night you will always come across the sound of
gamelan, which sets the rhythm of the Balinese life. With the air of religious
devotion carried by the guiding rituals of a strong religion, the creation of
beauty in music, dance, painting and sculpture has become the norm. At the
heart of the artistic culture lies the concept of ngayah - a dedication towards
work with the sense of religious duty or simply a service to God. It is this
devotion, whether sweeping, dancing or carving that has formed the solid
foundation to the Balinese sense that a life lived in relation to God is
From ancient times to present, the wealthy assumed patronage of the arts and
sponsorship for the beautification of temples. A tremendous amount of skilled
labor and money goes into the many temple festivals creating a wealth of beauty
and a powerful sense of devotion. In this highly charged environment the
Balinese joyfully commune with their Gods and Goddesses. In the convergence of
beauty and ritual, there is a continual renewal of artistic endeavors, keeping
Balinese culture alive and dynamic. A perfect symbol for the Balinese artistic
culture are the elaborate offerings, varying widely in shapes and sizes. They
are in essence, beautiful works of art, made in devotion to God. The name Bali
derives from the Sanskrit 'a Wali', which means "offering".
Thus all of the arts have stemmed from an understanding and participation in
the spiritual process. In this way art was never considered a conscious
production for its own sake but rather a collective participation in the
creation of beauty.
Ritual demands a continuous renewal of the relationship between the Balinese
and their divine deities. All the temples and the many forms of offerings, the
music, dance and theatre are continuously remade or improved upon to keep the
heavenly host of Beings satisfied.
Music, Dance & Drama
It is said that Balinese music and dance have their origins within realm of the
Gods and Goddesses or Dewa Dewi. Batara Guru or the Supreme Teacher, is said by
ancient scripture to be the creator of Balinese music. In an assembly of
celestial beings the Lord Indra had his angels, the dedari, dance to this
heavenly music. Their grace and beauty was so overwhelmingly attractive that
when the dedari circumambulated the assembly, the Lord of war, Indra,
manifested many eyes and Lord Brahma grew his four heads so not a single
movement of these exquisite angels would be missed.
Through contact with the spiritual world this celestial music and dance was
adapted by the Balinese to magnify and celebrate their communion with their
heavenly deities. Thus the fundamental disposition of the Balinese performer is
the mood of devotion and prayer. In Hindu terminology, this artistic endeavor
is called yoga, a yoga being defined as union with the Divine.
The musicians that form the gamelan orchestra and the dancers in a troupe are
seen as a spiritual need for the local community. The village takes great pride
in their performing artists and will make great sacrifices to see that they are
appropriately trained and beautifully costumed.
Dance and theatre in Bali are viewed as an integral part of life. Many
Balinese, whether they be farmers or teachers are also performers. A good
Balinese dancer may not be paid for his performance but they will be lavishly
feasted and treated as an honored guest wherever they perform.
Long intense training is required to produce a quality performer. Not only must
they be proficient in the highly stylized dance techniques, they must also be
able to play the instruments and understand the context or philosophy in which
they dance. Each salient gesture has a name, which describes the movement as
taken from nature or from animals or the motions of birds. These sets of
movements are intended to give the dancer the precise character and feeling
within the gesture or posture. Thus the dance and theater are filled with signs
of nature giving the Balinese dance an air of spontaneity.
The most extraordinary phenomenon related to musicians and dancers in Bali
occurs within the collective; the cohesive precision of movement and sound. The
power and beauty of the music, dance and theater in Bali fundamentally lie
within the ability of musicians and dancers to cooperate and share not only
their time and money but also their very being. Yadnya is a term describing the
sacrifice of the separate self for the sake of the whole. This is the most
basic of spiritual laws for it directs the being towards oneness with God, all
of nature and humanity. Out of this sense of unity, diversity is guaranteed.
Tourism & The Arts
One of the main attractions in luring foreigners to this enchanted island has
from the beginning been the music and dance. As early as 1924 brochures were
being produced showing dancing girls in promotion of the island. From the
earliest days of Bali's tourism, overseas visitors have been entertained with
Kebyar Duduk, Legong and certain dances that became stock presentations
tailored to fit as welcome ceremonies for foreign guests staying at the Bali
Hotel in Denpasar during the 20s and 30s.
The artistic culture of Bali was first globally spotlighted in 1931 in Paris,
where both gamelan performers and dancers electrified the international
audience. The outstanding performance struck a nerve which put little Bali on
the world map of tourism.
With western education, modern technology, books, films, magazines and a steady
tourist trade, Bali was opening to a whole new world. For the first time
artists began to treat their work or performance of art for art's sake -
experimenting in new styles, themes and forms of presentation.
The discovery of "The Island of The Gods" by world travelers was
inevitable and now tourism in Bali has become the norm. However, the ordinary
in Bali (with tourism as well) is always mixing with the extraordinary, the
mystical "unseen realm" of the Balinese niskala.
There are those rare, pure artists like Ni Ketut Reneng, who are critical of
packaging the arts. This same dancer refused to dance for the first president
and founding father, Sukarno when he set a time limit on her dance. When
Sukarno lifted the twenty minutes time allowance Reneng conceded and her
performance lasted forty minutes, leaving the President suitably impressed.
Great masters of the arts are most often the harshest critics for they are
attempting to protect and preserve the "yoga" (union with God) and
the spiritual exercises of ngayah (selfless service) and yadnya (sacrifice),
which are the foundation of the arts in Bali.
Courtesy of Richard Semarr and © SaraswatiBooks 2003-2004. All rights