As readers, I’m not sure how much you know about Balinese culture and/or religion. Truth be told, prior to Andrew telling me that he was being sent to Jakarta and Bogor for three weeks to conduct training on mapping and forestry for a few NGOs and other partners in Indonesia, all I knew was that Indonesia was relatively close to Australia, it was comprised of a bunch of islands, palm oil is big [from what Andrew told me], and I wanted to go there. I love new cultures and I live for traveling. Naturally, my mom was the first to google things like “Indonesian safety” and “women traveling in Indonesia”. Which, in retrospect, was a smart thing to do– you should never travel somewhere without first conducting a little research on the customs and traditions. The last thing you want to do is show up and make a full of yourself. I mean, would you feel comfortable showing up to a black tie event in pajamas? Would you feel comfortable being throw in jail for missing a curfew? No. So, here’s a brief breakdown on Indonesian and Balinese religion/culture.
Indonesia recognizes six major religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. While all Indonesians are required to carry an identification card that includes a space for one of these six religions, some Indonesians may leave this area blank. Atheism is not recognized and blasphemy is illegal. A census in 2010 showed that the majority of Indonesians identify themselves as Muslim [almost 90%]. Most of the muslim population from my understanding and little research resides on the main island of Indonesia [where you’ll find cities like Jakarta and Bogor]. Here it is still common for women to remain covered up, including a head and face cover. So, if you are going to visit Jakarta, for example, my advice would be to cover as much as possible [ie, definitely NO tube tops or tank tops]. Obviously tourism has brought other types into the mix, but remember, it’s not always fun to stand out.
In Bali, the majority of people [almost 90%] relate to Balinese Hinduism, the remaining as Islam. Religion and culture are very big in Indonesia, and Bali is no exception. As the majority of my time in Indonesia was spent in Bali, I can’t comment specifically on other provinces of Indonesia, but I can comment on Bali. Just about every single home, shop, hotel, and other workplace had at least one small temple. Homes have family temples, intricate and elaborately designed temples with statues and pointed/angled architecture. I could honestly spend months just touring around Bali and looking at family temples. They are gorgeous. Balinese Hinduism includes a focus on local and ancestral spirits and is different from traditional hinduism which focuses primarily on rebirth and reincarnation.
One Balinese guide/driver we had during our trip told us that there are a number of ceremonies that occur for newborns and children and that the child is actually not given a name until one of these ceremonies about 3 months after the child is born. Ceremonies are also big around the puberty timeframe, marriage, and perhaps most importantly, during the time of cremation in celebration of the afterlife. When it comes to cremations, the Balinese conduct an absolutely remarkable event and celebration as we learned through a few Balinese folks and conversations in Jakarta with other native Indonesians [Andrew worked in Jakarta for a few weeks prior to our Bali trip]. Large cremations occur on different time intervals so deceased family members will be buried until the appropriate time. At that point the bodies will be dug up for a proper cremation. Large models/statues of animals are built in which the bodies are placed to be carried to the appropriate temple. Once there, the bodies are transferred to lion or tiger statues for the actual “lighting on fire” part.
During our time in Bali, we were able to catch some set-up for a Cremation, a short parade of a Cremation, and the aftermath of the Cremation next to the graveyard where the platform continued to burn. Our hope is that on our next trip, we will be able to attend a Cremation from start to finish. The Balinese do not seem to mind if you want to go along, as long as you are respectful and have the proper attire [including a sarong/sash].
Another large part of Balinese Hinduism includes offerings. These can be of all shapes and sizes and typically include flowers, some type of food [rice], and incense. They can include a great number of items and depending on the temple or the person, the size of the offering may vary. During your time in Bali you will see the occurrence of people taking offerings to a temple and lighting incense… many times. The offerings are beautiful and as you walk around town looking in little shops for Batik or other trinkets, you will likely also see women working to put together offering trays. The traditional offering methodology so to speak is described below. My understanding is that it varies from place to place and person to person. One many told us they only pray once a day, other people we saw pray more than once while we were in a restaurant [for example]. In some areas there is also a loud speaker that plays a prayer at certain time intervals throughout the day for prayer times. Again, it depends on where you are and how religious the folks are who are near you. For more detail on traditional Balinese Prayer visit the Balinese Prayer Page: http://www.filosbali.net/BalinesePrayer.htm. Traditional Offerings in a day:
1. Family temples are located in the corner of the house plot [or compound or land or whatever you want to call it] closest to Mount Agung [a volcano, the largest in Bali] where the Gods are believed to live.
2. The first act of the mother is to visit the family temple. The gods receive their offering in the family temple while the demons receive their offerings on the ground [Balinese believe in recognizing the balance between good and evil]
3. Women will repeat these offerings at work, in the shop, and at the beach.
4. Husbands will similarly pray and present offerings which are often seen in the taxis or other cars they drive.
In Bali, head covers are much less prevalent as islamic religion is not as widespread. However, it is still respectful and tactful to avoid wearing overly revealing clothing [including short skirts, tank tops, tube tops, halter tops/dresses, etc], especially in temples. In areas of Souther Bali [such as Kuta areas], you’ll find a plethora of Australians and other tourists. I relate Kuta to the “Cancun” of Bali. For Australians, a flight to Bali is often cheaper than flying across Australia so many younger people travel there for vacations, spring breaks, and surfing. We only drove through Kuta and did not spend any time there as we tend to appreciate the “not so touristy, glitzy” areas of the places we visit. This is not to say that we didn’t spend our fair share of time in touristy areas as well. Just putting things into perspective.
So, if you’re headed to Bali, remember- be respectful. Don’t wear overly revealing outfits and clothing. Your world won’t crumble if you actually wear a shirt on a moped and no one will check you out less for wearing a short-sleeved shirt instead of that new halter top to the sacred temple. Enjoy the ride!