“If you haven’t been to Ubud, then you haven’t been to
Bali,” says the bespectacled middle-aged woman sitting next to me on the
flight from Jakarta. She’s my aunt. Half- awake, I watch Mount Merapi
poke its nose through the clouds, snorting steam at the rising sun.
“Ubud is to Bali what Yogyakarta is to Java, the cultural heart of the
island,” she says.
As I catch a taxi, I call up my
cross-cultural expert in Jakarta, Ali Syarief. He gives me a number and
tells me Ubud might look like a town, but it is really 14 villages, each
run by its own committee. “If it’s party time you want, Ubud is
strictly a no-go zone,” he says.
Instead, we might chance on a
Barong ritual, a dance-drama with tales of battles between the mythical
witch Rangda (representing evil) and Barong the lion or dragon
“The performers fall into a trance, and attempt to stab themselves with sharp knives,” he tells me.
billboards, advertising rafting, Safari World and fine silver never
really fade during the hour and a half it takes to drive the 25
kilometers from Ngurah Rai airport to Ubud. The driver points out where
we can buy batik, silver and even where to turn off to the volcano. We
jump out of the taxi when we see eco-shops.
The manager of our family-run homestay makes us Balinese coffee and proudly shows us his fighting cocks.
Balinese temple is a pura, and unlike the towering indoor Indian Hindu
temples, the Hindu temples of Bali are designed as open-air places of
worship within enclosed walls, compounds connected with intricately
decorated gates. Some temples are associated with the family house
compound (also called banjar in Bali), others are associated with rice
fields and still others with key geographical sites.
tolerated, but portable aunts don’t thrive on the finer points of
chickens with spurs. This aunt split from my bags and disappeared in a
market at the corner of Jalan Monkey Forest and Jalan Raya Ubud, a
double-story warren of stalls bursting at the seams with wood carvings,
batik shirts, sarongs and all manner of other souvenirs aimed
specifically at tourists, and built above and around a fresh food pit.
states of self-control (or lack thereof) are a notable feature of
religious expression among the people, who for this reason have become
famous for their graceful and decorous behavior. What is really going on
in Ubud that isn’t sanctioned by the Tourism Board and aired in glossy
magazines? I call the number that Ali gave me.
A man in his
mid-40s turns up at my homestay in traditional dress. “You are very
lucky,” says I Made Sana, my cultural guide. “Today’s temple festival is
once a year. Its auspicious, praying for this time and leading into the
new moon cycle.”
Twenty minutes later, on the back of a
motorbike having passed through streets where every second shop sells
wood carvings, I am in a clearing in the forest. Nearby, in a deep
valley, farmers are going about the cultivation of rice; a dwarf is
cutting this year’s harvest.
We are at a pura mraje pati (a
Balinese cemetery), small headstones surrounded by bamboo fences holding
back the forest. A woman pours fresh Balinese coffee on a grave.
Another offers sweets wrapped in banana leaves. This ritual of making
offerings to the recently deceased (coffee, rice, snacks) is a way of
cleansing any impurities, so that the people from Tegallalang village
can enter their temple without any repercussions from their pantheon of
gods and goddesses.
Sana tells me memungung is an offering to
the spirit of the dead, and to the dead they are offering milk, coffee,
cakes, sweets and even cigarettes.
They are chanting “Sam Ba
Yung,” a special prayer for the dead. “Please wake up and eat our
offerings,” they say. It’s a soft kind of joyful mourning, with a touch
of the macabre. The village head, Wayang, explains the significance of
Sana says, “Whenever someone in Bali dies and we
cannot cremate them immediately, we have the funeral ceremony, asking
permission from the gods to keep them safe, and bring back the five
elements of the human being before they are cremated. Earth, liquid,
heat or light and the universe are integral parts of Shiva symmetry.”
graves are temporary. After a year or so of resting in the ground,
relatives will dig up the bodies and cremate the bones in an open-air
The men are singing now, inviting the dead to have a
light snack or meal that lies at the base of the headstone. A lady
nearby, who speaks English, asks me if I am single. I say yes. She says
her friend, a widow, who is making offerings to her deceased husband, is
I head for Sana and safety. He explains that his
wife’s aunt will be cremated in between 6 and 12 month’s time. He adds
that a committee of cremation was set up by the government to reduce the
number of cremation days in Bali. “First,” says Sana, “it makes
cremation cheaper. Second, it means we don’t have bodies burning every
day of the year.”
We leave the cemetery for a cockfight, which
is allowed in Bali during ceremonies. It’s the day of the Kajeng
Kliwong, a vicious sport, where cocks wear sharp spurs and fight to the
death. I arrive for the last fight of the day in a large stadium, which
is more like an open-air market with a gambling pit. The fight is over
in two minutes. One owner scoops up a bloodied rooster. Another looks at
slices, blood and feathers. “The proceeds go toward building
infrastructure,” Sana says.
A quick stop at Sana’s house. “The
women at my home have a ceremony in my household every day,” he says.
“At the new moon, the village makes a procession to protect us for the
new month. We have other festivals, too, that are every seven months. It
depends on the temples and size.”
He shows me the tree that
shades his house, dripping in mangoes. “I bought the plant for 1,000
rupiah when my daughter turned 4 and went to kindergarten,” he says.
Sitting on Sana’s shelves, are examples of his woodwork, from dolphins,
to large wooden phallus carvings, which are popular items at the market.
His father is making the Hindu offerings, fruit, flowers, rice,
on banana leaf squares, you see almost everywhere. His wife makes them,
too, and sells them at the market, keeping a tradition alive.
of the Balinese work in hotels and other places, and don’t have time to
make these things,” Sana says. He’s talking about canang, or thanks to
the gods. Saeban is a small offering of thanks for a meal.
wraps a few sarongs around me and a headscarf, so that I blend in with
the local Balinese. Now we are ready to enjoy one of Ubud’s amazing
festivals, the celebration of the sixth new moon. The intention today is
to chase out the bad spirits before tomorrow’s new moon.
caught Sana on one of the most important days of the Hindu calendar, but
that doesn’t stop him from picking me up and inviting me to his
village’s festivities. We arrive in time for the procession and before
the monsters parade on the streets, following the four cardinal
directions, north, east, south and west. Ahead lurches Barong, the good
spirit, hard at work protecting us from the evil Rangda.
ceremony continues at the Temple of the Dead. Statues of earthly
delights look down, tempting the flesh, pendulous breasts of one ornate
statue representing evil. This temple is where, in the past, Ubud’s
kings were cremated. Its spirits are being mischievous, and for the life
of me I can’t get one photo in focus.
At the west junction, the
priests set up shop. The music is a constant tribal drum beat. Bamboo
instruments emit eerie tunes. A knife flashes and slashes at the throat
of a baby pig. The gods now appeased by sacrifice, upbeat and more
festive music starts playing from speakers. Rising notes of mourning
come from women who recite prayers throughout the evening.
head back to Sana’s village temple. There we all sit down, spilling
outside of the temple and saying our final prayers, hopefully purging
any last evil spirits as the new moon arrives.