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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 inspiring way.

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 very alive.

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 emerge.

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 experienced.

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 inherently artistic.

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 reserved.
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