Bali Land & People

Temple Offerings
Balinese ladies taking fruit offerings to the temple on a holy day.

Once you leave the beaches and venture into the volcanic mountains that gave birth to Bali, everywhere you look you will see hillsides formed into terraces for growing rice. Rice has been grown on Bali since Neolithic times, and for over a thousand years, a complex system of water distribution has allowed the crop to be grown all year round.

Not surprisingly, rice is the center of a whole system of beliefs, with many elaborate ceremonies. In one corner of many rice fields, you'll see small shrines to honor the rice goddess Dewi Sri, the Hindu goddess of prosperity. According to traditional beliefs, a tiny rice offering must be set aside from the daily meal before it is eaten.

The Balinese are thought to be descendants of Southern Chinese peoples who migrated in waves through Southeast Asia. They are believed to have arrived in Bali around 2000 BC. There are practically no written records of Bali before the 20th century. It does appear that Bali was under the more or less continuous influence of the great kingdoms that were based on Java, although it wasn't until the middle of the 14th century that the Majapahit empire on Java actually subjugated Bali.

Most of the Balinese people are Hindu, although a complex system of animistic beliefs permeates daily life and religious practices. Villages are organized around a system of three temples. At the center of a community is the pura desa, where the village's traditional deity is honored. At the highest end of the village is the pura puseh, the temple of origins, where the founding ancestors of the village are worshipped. On the lower, seaward side of the village is the temple of the dead, the pura dalem, which will also contain the cemetery. This organization is thought to date from the 11th century.

Balinese Boys
A group of Balinese boys in their "Sunday best" on a Hindu holy day, when the entire village will attend services at a local temple.

On holy days, the women in each household of the village will prepare offerings for the temple. These offerings will usually include palm leaves, flowers, fruits and other foods, often piled impossibly high on an offering bowl. The skill in making these gravity-defying offerings is passed from mother to daughter. These bowls are then carried to the temple on the heads of the women. The sight of an impeccably dressed lady walking with a meter high bowl of fruit on her head is quite a common sight, but still one you're not likely to forget.

On temple days, men will wear a colorful sarong, white jacket and white head cloth. The holy days are plotted on a lunar calendar or the 210-day Balinese calendar. Important dates on the Balinese calendar include the first and last days of the cycle, as well as the days in between that complete a 35 day cycle.

You will also note that stone statues around Bali are also swathed in black-and-white checked cloth. This textile is known as poleng, and symbolizes the balance between "high" and "low" spirits. The ritual offerings at temples and all around the island are meant to help keep these spirits in balance.