Enchanting Bali - pratyush

A three days ‘photography outing’ with 30+ other photographers from around the world, came about recently to the beautiful island of Bali, my first visit to a predominantly Hindu region, outside of India (never been to Nepal, another major Hindu country). Incidentally, Odisha (the state I come from in India, known in earlier times as the powerful kingdom of Kalinga, extending from the Ganges to the Godavari rivers) had extensive maritime trade links with Bali and other islands in the region, like Java, Sumatra & Borneo (from 1st century AD and prior), collectively called Suvarnadwipa. As such there was additional curiosity, from a cultural & religious perspective. Human nature, when it finds something similar, is to compare, wonder and try to find emotional links, and that is what I’m going to do in this blog, ending with a little about the ‘photography’ trip itself.

Bali is the only Hindu province of Muslim majority Indonesia and on a per capita income basis, the richest province in the country, its economy primarily driven by tourism. Accounts vary between historians about how Hinduism came about in Bali with opinions varying from contacts with Hindu culture/kingdoms of Kalinga and Tamil kingdoms in South India. But being from Odisha, I will stick to the Odisha/Kalinga narrative. Hindus from Kalinga established a kingdom in Java around 75BC from where it spread to nearby Bali. Many of Bali’s later kings mention people/traders from the kingdom of Kalinga, in their inscriptions. While Kaundinya, possibly from Kalinga, was attributed to be the 1st Hindu ruler of Bali, the Cholas/Pandyas from South India ruled over Malaya and Java and introduced Hinduism there. Kalinga’s traders and political travelers popularized Odiya culture, religious beliefs, language and scripts in Bali. For example Balinese words for mother (bu or boo) and father (bapa) are almost same as the common equivalents in Odiya language (bou and bapa, respectively). One of the primary invocations chanted by Balinese priests at temples and religious ceremonies mentions the river Mahanadi (the biggest river in Odisha) along with the other familiar ones of river Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati & Godavari.

Arrived at Denpasar’s Ngurah Rai International Airport late on a Thursday evening (Gusti Ngurah Rai is a Balinese national hero from 1940’s, who fought Dutch colonizers and died in battle). Picked up by the local photography group, the ride on the bus through the streets of Denpasar, and to Kuta (our base for the trip) reminded me of Bhubaneswar, the capital city we grew up in, in Odisha. Old Bhubaneswar or Old Town as we call it, has one of the densest concentrations of ancient temples in India with every street corner and square boasting of a gorgeous temple, big or small. Same with Bali’s many towns and villages. If you clean up the streets of old Bhubaneswar and make them a bit wider, you will probably be forgiven for mistaking Bali’s towns as siblings of old town Bhubaneswar! As we waited for the bus each morning, to take us to our chosen locations, I couldn’t help notice the colourfully bedecked women folk of Bali doing their daily morning prayers and offerings at an alter like structure in front of their homes.

Initially I thought it was the Tulsi Chaura (a worship structure with the sacred Basil plant) that we have back home in every Hindu home, on the right side of the gate to a house as we exit our homes. My mother, like any other Odiya lady would offer water and flowers/offerings to the Chaura every day, in the morning. But on closer observation, it turned out to be a multi-tiered small architectural structure. The Sanggah Kemulan, as I learnt later, is dedicated to the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva (in each of the tiers) with an additional top empty one, dedicated to Acintya (a Sanskrit word from the Vedas meaning that which is beyond thought) or Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, the supreme One God of Balinese Hinduism, or Brahman, as we call it in Hindu philosophy. 

Our 1st day itinerary started at a nearby sea beach to witness a ‘Melasti’ (with Mt Agung in the background), a traditional Balinese purification ritual, mostly performed a few days prior to the holiest day in the Balinese calendar, the Nyepi. Symbolically it is meant to cleanse the world from all sin and bad karma by acquiring the Tirta Amrita (water of life) and performed as a procession in which colourfully attired village folk carry sacred objects & symbols/flags of a temple to a water body, mostly the sea (but can be a lake, pond, river or water filled rice fields) and clean and purify them.

Balinese Hinduism’s geographical orientation revolves around the sacred mountain of Mt Agung in Central Bali (an active volcano that erupted in late 2017), considered as the abode of Gods, much like the mythical Mt Meru or the Himalayan mountains in Indian Hindu belief system. It is called Suarga. The middle grounds of the plains and valleys and rivers/coastal plains (including River Ayung) constitute the residences of humans and creatures of the earth and are called the Buwah. And the sea is considered the abode of demons, also called the Bhur. In Indian Hindu Puranas (a series of religious texts), these would correspond to Bhur-Bhuvah-Swaha, with the story of the fight between demons of the sea and the gods of swarga (heaven), for possession of the nectar pot of immortality, being a very prevalent story from mythology. Purification ceremonies in Indian temples are also very elaborate affairs but mostly performed in private by priests or very specific group of villagers. And in Hindu homes in India, we grew up watching and performing purification steps as part of daily worship rituals (with holy water from River Ganga) inside our worship room. It was indeed nice to see young men and women taking part in the Melasti ritual and keeping the traditions alive in Bali.

Lunch was at a restaurant in a nearby town. Trying to avoid the possibility of eating meat of any kind (pork is very popular among Balinese), I chose to go vegetarian for the entire trip (sharing kinship with two other vegetarians in our group, from Singapore and Vietnam). The waitress, to my surprise, asked if I was ok with onion & garlic in my vegetarian food. It was the 1st time outside India that I had been asked this question at a restaurant on asking for vegetarian food. I can’t speak about other religions but in Hindu texts on Ayurveda and meditation, the connection between the food we eat and the thoughts we have, is quite elaborately described. And onion and garlic are specifically singled out as having the same effect on the mind as meat/non-vegetarian food, so they are considered non-vegetarian by the most rigid of Hindu food standards. Once again reminding me that I was in a Hindu dominant region of Indonesia, in case I had any doubts!

Afternoon, we headed to Tukad Unda and a dam, for photo session with local kids and young men, doing what they enjoy doing, jumping around the place, splashing water and having fun, and indulging in some good old village games (cock fights) and chit-chatting around the river and the small falls. 

Evening was reserved for watching the famous ‘Kechak’ dance at Batu Balan. A super condensed version of the Hindu epic Ramayana, it mainly depicts the exploits of the monkey god Hanuman in helping Lord Rama search for and find his kidnapped wife Sri Sita and get her back, after battling the demon king Ravana. A very warrior type energetic musical performance resembling the ‘Paika’ dances of Odisha (Odiya warrior dance). Digressing into mythology and Hindu epics a bit…the name Bali appears in two prominent forms. One is the famous monkey king Bali, elder brother of Sugreeva (Bali’s successor), who at the height of his power and before the Ramayana story starts,

had smashed the demon king Ravana in battle. The other is King Mahabali (also known as Bali), the legendary king of the three worlds and grandson of Prahlada the great devotee of Lord Vishnu, who was forced into the underworld by Lord Vishnu’s Vamana Avatar, for all of the year (except a specific few days when he comes unto earth and blesses the people). Continuing on with the topic of epics and mythology, in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, another epic very popular in Bali, Duryodhana (who led the Kauravas in battle in the famous Kurukshetra war) married Bhanumati, a princess from Kalinga. So Kalinga, as a kingdom had to support and fight on the side of the Kauravas, against the Pandavas.

Next day started at an expanse of terraced rice fields and a ‘Melasti’ by two women from a nearby village. At this point will digress a bit and go back to Odisha and its links with Bali. Even to this day, two major festivals in Odisha (and some more through the yearly calendar) depict and celebrate the maritime trade exploits of the sailors of Kalinga. 

The famous ‘Bali Jatra’ (Festival of Travelling to Bali) held across the coastal belt of Odisha with the biggest one being held by the banks of River Mahanadi in Cuttack city and the ‘Kartika Purnima-Boita Vandana’ immediately preceding it, held in the cold winter months of November across the coastal regions. ‘Boita’ being the specific sailing boats used by then sailors of Kalinga to travel to Bali and other south-east Asian nations.

I still remember the yearly ritual of us as little kids tugging along behind our parents, way before sunrise, in shivering cold, but excitement in our hearts, holding little boats made of paper, cork or banana stems…heading to the nearest river or village pond, to float them in honour and memory of the brave sailors of Kalinga who spent months and months on the high seas, in quest of commerce and brought back riches from far away lands like Bali. As part of these festivals (that have been going on since centuries), which are basically emotional send-off parties from families of the traders and sailors, the women folk (& their children) left behind, wish their husbands, fathers and sons, luck on their journeys and pray that they return back safe and with much riches and objects. I wouldn’t be surprised if in their prayers they didn’t secretly pray also, to keep their men folk (travelling for long periods away from their families) from falling for the beautiful young women in those far off lands and getting too distracted from their trade interests! But that is how civilizations and cultures mix and carry forward, richer and more tolerant.

Next stop in afternoon and into evening was Sangeh, a beautiful little rural place with a Pelinggih Meru, a temple structure inside a pond. Witnessed a cock fight, some graceful dancing scenes & a ‘Melasti’ by some young local folk, by the pond. A nice ending to the day.

The last day started with a visit to a ‘Barong’ dance performance. Another beautiful and elaborate musical story depicting the battle of good (Barong, a mythological animal) vs evil (Rangda, a mythological monster). The costumes of the main characters resemble Tibetan Buddhist performers/dances. In later years, there was significant influence of Buddhism in Bali’s cultural landscape and now they exist side by side, in harmony, and sometimes mixing effortlessly in their stories and mythologies. Another interesting fact about Hinduism in Bali is that it was officially recognized as a religion, only in 1962 by the Indonesian government because until then the Islamic govt couldn’t reconcile Hinduism as a religion, as it did not have a single book or a single god. With President Sukarno’s help, Balinese Hinduism was ultimately recognized and the ‘Acintya’ as the one god concept came further into prominence.

Afternoon photo session was in a rural area with traditional Balinese youth showcasing their warrior heritage in a wooded/river setting. Thus ended a spectacular short trip to the enchanting island of Bali.

Coming to the Photo-Trip itself… This trip was organized as a Photography outing, by Photographers, for Photographers (or anyone who even had a slight interest in photography, iphone and android cameras being fair game as well). The organization behind it was the Singapore based APU (Asia Photographers Union) and its head, Steven Yee, himself a ‘Grand-Master of Photography’. Over 35 photographers, including several Grand-Masters from the US, Greece, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Vietnam and China participated. This was 1st time I was going as part of a photography group. For a people/culture type shoot, I think this is the best way to experience and shoot interesting pictures of a region or country you are totally new to. I hardly do any people photography nowadays, so such trips are a good refresh of high speed/fast shutter photography skills that I rarely use during my usual solitary landscape photo shoots/trips. The biggest positives being, you don’t have to beat your head about planning where to shoot, what to shoot, logistics etc. Everything is taken care of by the local photographer guide/s. You just have to get your lazy bum off the bed, early morning each day and get on the charter bus, to be transported to perfect photogenic locations and local folks willing to stage scenes that they would normally do in their everyday lives, but at their own times. If anyone is based in Asia and wants to participate in these photo-outings, feel free to contact APU and Steven at http://www.photovivo.com/

For the full photo-set click here   Bali

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