Saturday, December 15, 1990


I went to Bali in November 1990, after Singapore and before Java, Malaysia, Thailand, and Burma; later I went to New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti, and the Marquesas. The present article was written for Gourmet and appeared in April 1991, with photos by the redoubtable Ian Lloyd, who had co-authored the best book ever done on this magical island and hence proved an extraordinary guide.  

Bali is a small and mountainous island lying to the east of Java.... I went there half-unwillingly, for I expected an uninteresting piece of bali-hoo, picturesque and faked to a Hollywood standard; I left wholly unwillingly, convinced that I had seen the nearest approach to that Utopia I am ever likely to see.

The British traveler Geoffrey Gorer wrote that in 1936. His words are still appropriate. One comes to Bali doubting the enchanted name, fearing the worst. One leaves doubting the rest of the world. 

The island lies just south of the equator, amid the most profuse scattering of islands on earth. No one knows Indonesia. It is the fifth most populous country in the world and by far the largest Islamic one; superimposed on a map of the western hemisphere, it would reach from Oregon to Bermuda, nearly fourteen thousand islands in all, three thousand inhabited. As the sole Hindu island in this vast Muslim sea, Bali is unique within Indonesia. It may be administered from Djakarta, but it is still ruled by gods and demons.

The island seduces with the ease of many tropical places. Prodigal beaches, volcanoes, palm trees, and the emerald geometry of rice fields enthrall Westerners. The people are as beautiful—a blend of Malay, Polynesian, Indian, and Chinese. Their faces are expressive, their bodies small, lithe, and graceful. They seem radiant at every age.

Westerners have been calling Bali paradise since Dutch sailors pulled ashore in 1597. For much of this century, visitors have sounded a gong of doom for the island, hoping a little ingenuously that everyone else might stay away. In 1930 the filmmaker André Roosevelt wrote: “This nation of artists is faced with a Western invasion, and I cannot stand idly by and watch its destruction.” The Mexican painter Miguel Covarrubias, in his superb book Island of Bali (1937), called its culture “doomed to disappear under the remorseless onslaught of modern commercialism.”  More recently, writers have been fond of saying that one should have gone to Bali a year ago, or not at all. The point of Eden is to get there first—or, failing that, last.

I wasn’t so sure. Everything I knew of Balinese culture, everything I read about Balinese history, confirmed the people’s resilience. Perhaps they have drawn strength from a sense of divine favor; they have always believed their island the first seat of the gods, even before the seventh century, by which time most had been converted by Indian traders and priests from Buddhism or animism to Hinduism. The fourteenth-century conquest of their sacred island by a Hindu dynasty, the Majapahit from neighboring Java, only reinforced this belief. Balinese culture subsequently survived both the shattering fifteenth-century subjugation of the rest of Indonesia to Islam and the late nineteenth-century Dutch colonization, by turns uninvolved, brutal, then apologetic after the fact. It survived Japanese occupation during World War II and the sometimes violent struggle for equilibrium following Indonesian independence in 1949. I thought Balinese culture might yet survive a few tourists.

It was Balinese art and the beliefs behind it that propelled me to the island. Why the people of such a small place (roughly the size of Delaware) should be so imaginative remains a mystery, though good earth and a kind climate feed them easily, leaving time on their hands. But this does little to explain the Balinese capacity to make beauty. As Gorer wrote, “The outstanding characteristic of the Balinese is their love of art in every form... Balinese art is extremely local; each village has its own orchestra, its own dancers, its own particular style of carving or painting. Above all Balinese art is living....” In fact, the Balinese have no word for art. They think of it as doing something as well as possible, which is no more than their duty to the gods.

For an outsider the question of where to plunge into Balinese art becomes colossal and confusing. In the realm of music alone, there are thousands of orchestras on the island that play regularly for their villages and temples, accompanying dancers, singers, and storytellers in religious or secular performances.

I did have an idea where to begin. I wanted to see the splendor of Balinese dance: the masked Barong, alternately violent and comic; the legong, the dance of the celestial nymphs; and the kecak, or monkey dance, a Hindu fable accompanied by a chorus. I wanted to see a temple festival and a cremation, the most important rituals for villages and individuals. And I wanted to meet a great woodcarver or painter and see some communal artisans at work.

I also wanted to explore the countryside of one of the loveliest islands on earth. I had the opportunity one morning to go up in a helicopter to see it from on high. The east-west ridges of the volcanoes lay in profile like the sleeping forms of enormous shadowy animals. All were dominated by Mount Agung, at over ten thousand feet the ultimate temple watching over the ultimate island. I understood the reverence of the Balinese for that volcano and how they can believe it to be the navel of the world. Rising suddenly from a flowing green sea of palms, its shape is perfect. As the helicopter dipped low among the villages, I could see the temples’ pagoda-like thatched roofs rising in tall, many-layered stacks. The roofs seemed deliberate echoes of Agung’s contours; the most sacred volcano was mirrored everywhere.

From horizon to horizon, seen from above, Bali is principally mountains, wild palms, a few roads—and rice fields: an articulate watery green world reflecting an articulate heaven. These stepped rice terraces, with little harvest houses on stilts wading through, make an abstract jigsaw one can contemplate for hours.

More than anything, Bali is temples, several hundred thousand of them. The most remote hills and volcanic peaks have their temples to the rice goddess, and even bridges have their temples, as do corners of lanes and wild paths. Every village has at least three communal temples, every family compound has a private temple with shrines to deified ancestors in the garden (some almost like toys, others as grand or grander than the house itself). Every shop, every restaurant, every hotel, every isolated beach, every view has its temple. And many receive offerings every day. In Bali it is not unusual to see palm-leaf trays, plaited that morning, heaped with food or flowers and placed in those spots that gods, ancestors, or demons might frequent.

For the Balinese, life is based in ritual. Their faith is predominantly Hinduism with still strong undercurrents of Buddhism and animism, the belief that an individual spirit abides in every single thing, down to the tiniest flower. Paramount is the knowledge that they are the chosen guardians of the Pulau Dewata, the Island of the Gods. Land on Bali may be privately owned, but it is regarded more as a leasehold from the gods, with complex custodial duties attached. Each Balinese feels he plays a specific and integral role in the balance of the cosmos and that “disordering” forces are ever at work that must be countered constantly by ritual. The Balinese also believe that dangerous witches and demons prowl about, especially at night, and these, too, must be appeased.

A young Balinese woman, an office manager in an international press agency, told me, “We follow an ordered calendar of ritual. Many days are special. Nyepi, our new year, is a day of silence, when no one leaves the house. A day for quiet. All over Bali, no one goes out. We have another day when we give offerings to books. On another, to trees; on another, to puppets.”

No people are more accessible than the Balinese. They happily welcome visitors into their temples and ceremonies, as long as one’s legs are hidden by trousers or a sarong. Yet their religion is almost too elaborate to grasp. As the American writer Leonard Lueras points out in Bali: The Ultimate Island, Hinduism here “only cosmetically resembles what an Indian in New Delhi would puristically interpret as Hinduism. How do you explain that hairy, lion-like Barong with chattering teeth. . . .Or those eerie black magic nights, when the Balinese hide in their homes to avoid making contact with mysterious creatures called leyaks said to be lurking in the dark? Or rituals such as a tooth-filing ceremony...?”

All, Lueras adds, “are part of the uniquely Balinese religious phenomena that drive visiting anthropologists and theologians batty.” Best, perhaps, simply to witness and wonder.

I began at the summit of Balinese belief: dawn at Besakih, the holiest temple on the island. With sunrise came the hysteria of dogs echoing off the forested slopes of the mountains. Children hurried through the temple gardens on their way to school. I mounted steep stone steps through the split gate: two huge vertical pillars that resembled the uplifted wings of a great bird, pointing back and up to the sky. Higher, I came to the main temple, dedicated to Shiva. Within its courtyard, several tall shrines were decorated with parasols, but the mood was otherwise unadorned, dignified, and quiet. Carved wooden doors opened onto mists and descending subsidiary temples, back down through that unearthly gate. With morning, roosters took up the litany of dogs.

The only way to explore Bali effectively, short of bicycling around it for several months, is by car, armed with either a guide or a detailed map and a good sense of direction. Driving in Bali is like playing one of those video games in which unexpected obstacles (a dawn market) and oncoming surprises (a ceremonial procession) pop up relentlessly. Yet everywhere lies the seamed, sunken beauty of rice fields, a luxurious green resplendent in nearly every light.

Driving one day into Batubulan, a village known for its expert stone carvers, I came upon an entire pantheon in stone for sale: thousands of carved gray figures of grotesque demons, spitting dragons, gods in repose, voluptuous dancers, intelligent elephants. A princess rode the back of a beaked monster; a dancer cradled a baby monkey in her arms. A live hen pecked among them.

I wandered behind one workshop to watch a set of stone carvers at work. Two were using pickaxes on blocks of stone to hack out the fundamental shape of a statue. Another did the detailed work, giving face, wings, and expression to a second statue’s vague head and torso. Another carved the scales of a third creature’s skin and gave the statue a final polish.

They were using a soft volcanic rock, which, exposed to the elements, looks weathered and old very quickly. One reason crafts like stone carving thrive in Bali is that little here lasts. Wood carvings get eaten by ants, cloth and paper rot in the humidity, stone sculptures and reliefs crumble away.

The hill village of Ubad has been called the cultural center of Bali and is probably the first destination for most “serious” visitors. Although Ubud was once a quiet place where American and European painters from the twenties on set themselves up to work in paradise, now cafés, art galleries, and clothing stores line its main street. It is also home to several hundred Balinese artists—both painters and carvers—as well as to numerous dance and musical groups.

Ubud’s Neka Museum offers a good survey of the work of local and Western painters who have flourished here over the last half century, although those who some consider to be the two best foreign artists. Walter Spies and Miguel Covarrubias, are not well represented.

Despite the number of expatriates the island has attracted, it has fostered no Gauguin. Yet the expatriates have inspired the Balinese. As Covarrubias noted: “When a foreign idea strikes their fancy, they adopt it with great enthusiasm as their own...."

Set in gardens in the middle of the village, the Puri Lukisan Museum, or Palace of Fine Arts, has a range of native Balinese paintings from the thirties and forties, a particularly productive era, and a good selection of contemporary works for sale. Balinese painting of recent decades is roughly comparable to Haitian: crowded tropical scenes depicting the fervent landscape, executed with an eye for the telling detail. Some of the best painters, like I Madé Budi, of Batuan, wittily portray today’s Western tourist, armed with surfboard, camera, and sunglasses, while jet airplanes swoop above like winged creatures out of the Balinese imagination. But whereas the Haitian genius is for color, the Balinese is for line.

One sees that invigorating sense of line in Balinese dance. While in Ubud, I went to an evening legong in the courtyard of the old village palace. It began with music by a twenty-three-piece gamelan orchestra of drums, gongs, and hammered metallophones. The American composer Colin McPhee, recalling his nine years on the island in A House in Bali (1944), described gamelan music as “a shining rain of silver” that “rose at one moment to a fury, and fell the next to an inaudible throb. . . blithe, transparent, rejoicing the soul with its eager rhythms....” McPhee learned to hear the “flower patterns” in the music, to “the separate repetitive phrases that fitted together to form an unbroken and incredibly swift arabesque.”

Those flower patterns bloomed in the hand gestures of the the three legong dancers, young women in glorious golden head-dresses and ornately brocaded sarongs. Like the music, their barefoot dance was meticulously structured and kept turning inside out into endless variations. Traditionally performed by very young girls, the legong is a masterpiece of restrained sensuality, its arching, controlled calm interrupted by bursts of slow shivers and swaying encouragements.

The kecak, or monkey dance, portraying a tale from the Hindu epic the Ramayana, is performed by several principal dancers and a chorus of at least sixty men and boys in a circle who keep up a steady “cak! cak! cak!” throughout. I went to see it one evening in the capital, Denpasar, at the Budaya Arts Center, an amphitheater set in lotus gardens and lighted with flickering oil lamps. The bare-chested males all wore black-and-white checked sarongs, a red flower behind each ear, and white markings on their foreheads.

The kecak’s story concerns the abduction of the lovely Sita, wife of the divine prince Rama, by the giant Rawana, king of demons. It takes place in a forest, where the royal couple are in exile. After diverse episodes, Rama rescues his wife with the help of the chorus, which acts as a huge army of monkeys. At one moment, to signify that an evil arrow shot at Rama became a snake strangling him, men and boys from the chorus surged and re-formed into a serpent’s coils. Always their motorlike chant went on, chattering, thrumming, now a gradual swoon, now a grunting attack, accompanied by heads and hands swaying and fluttering. It was like a powerful Greek chorus continually commenting on the action, arguing with it or urging it forward. The effect of the swift chant against the slow, fluid dance was startling: the dancers seemed even slower, like glittering friezes coming to supple life.

In Mas I visited Ida Bas Sutarja, one of the island’s finest mask carvers. A focused, rather courtly man, he is a Brahmana (upper caste) whose family came centuries ago from India to Java, then to Bali. His wife also is an accomplished mask maker. Their high-ceilinged gallery is hung with dozens of masks out of dream and nightmare.

“I started carving when I was about ten years old.” Sutarja said. “I’m fifty-five now. To make the design and decoration of the mask, if it’s for a dance, I read the story and think about it. For pure sculpture, I usually look to history for inspiration. It can take me about four weeks to make one large mask.”

His large, elaborately colored masks had beards or bushy wigs and mustaches, with jaws that could be worked. At my request he put on an old man mask; instantly he assumed the body and pinched voice of the mask’s character, rather like a mime but with full-throated noises and alarming poses. I understood then that the mask was the character, and anyone wearing it became him. The effect was electrifying.

I attended an impressive masked dance, a Barong, in Batubulan. The mythological Barong, a creature representing the incarnation of good, fights the Rangda, an evil witch-goddess who cannot be destroyed. The Barong is a huge, shaggy, lionlike beast, played by two men—one to work the torso and tail, the other to work the clacking jaws and grimacing head. At the conclusion of the Barong dance, the beast’s loyal warriors, bewitched by the Rangda, seem to impale themselves in a furious trance on their krises and fall dying until the Barong brings them back to life.

In Denpasar early one morning, I went to the market, which flowed along both sides of a sluggish river. Beneath enormous hand-painted film posters, some women were selling limes, mangoes, coconuts, saffron, fish, and pineapples; others carried the day’s supplies home in floppy baskets balanced on their heads. Soup steamed in pots by a wall crowded with carved mythological figures.

Balinese cuisine is fundamentally Indonesian cuisine subjected to an odd lot of influences. These came about gradually over several thousand years of traders and immigrants bringing their own ideas and delicacies: curries and cucumbers from India; the wok, the mustard, and stir-frying from China; the kebab (reborn here as saté) from the Middle East; and tomatoes, peanuts, pineapples, and cacao from Europeans. One of the few Dutch colonial inheritances is the rijsttafel, rice served with a dozen meat and vegetable courses.

The average Balinese family’s diet remains largely vegetarian—rice, vegetables, peanuts, grated coconut with spices, fruit. For a feast the Balinese will pull out all the stops with a roast pig. Strangely, for such a communal society, family members usually help themselves to food in the kitchen, then eat alone, quietly and quickly.

On Bali the presence over several decades of a tourist market has resulted in a plethora of reasonably priced restaurants of various foreign persuasions. Predictability enough, it has also produced restaurants that serve Indonesian food far more complicated than that cooked in the Balinese home. Probably the great surprise is that few of the restaurants offer dishes that involve fish; the Balinese traditionally consider the sea impure, full of danger and demons, whereas the land and its produce are sacred.

Dessert in both Balinese homes and restaurants almost always consists of fruit: mangoes, papayas, guavas, grapes, pineapples, or several others rarely, if ever, found outside of Indonesia. Salak tastes like an apple—but appears to be covered in snakeskin. Sawo tastes a little like a pear and looks a lot like a potato. Durians may be one of the smelliest fruits on earth, but most who can overcome their initial repugnance learn to love it. Balinese coffee, with the grounds afloat on the surface, usually follows, as strong as jet fuel.

While in Denpasar, I paid a call on Verra Darwiko, proprietor of the Arts of Asia Gallery, which caries sculpture, jewelry, paintings, and textiles from all over the Indonesian archipelago. A mixed Chinese-Balinese and originally a painter, Darwiko has owned his business for twenty years and is meticulous about the background of his objects. When I asked about the problem of authenticity, he laughed. “Two times I made a mistake, only two times. I gave the money back. But someone who comes to Bali can lose a lot of money on fake antiques. Here people can make a statue out of ironwood, bury it in a river for three weeks, scratch it with iron bars, and it will look very convincingly old. They have even learned how to imitate the patina of age. It’s harder and harder to find good quality. I have a simple wooden boat, I go to very isolated regions, visit each island, spend a month. That is the only way now.”

He showed me two matching nineteenth-century Balinese temple figures. Carved from sandalwood, the goddess and god were eight inches tall, painted with gold leaf, and inset with rubies. “Hindu statues often occur in couples,” Darwiko explained. “Sometimes they represent a wedding, or perhaps opposing forces. Sometimes they’re ancestral symbols.”

Asked about the age-old continuity of style in Balinese art, he said, “Most artists feel the pressure always to make something new, to create a completely new style. Not here on Bali. Balinese art makes a very steady line historically, because the people never had a transition period from Hindu to Muslim, as on the other islands. There was no translation, so nothing was lost.”

A ceremony commemorates every important moment in a Balinese person’s life, and the most significant of those ceremonies is cremation. One morning in Bangli I witnessed several, held in a large field of palms. Each had its own gamelan orchestra and canopied tower, in which a lavish sarcophagus in the form of a bull or winged lion would receive the body and burn along with it. Because the Balinese, as Hindus, believe in the journey of the soul through many lives, death is considered not the end but another beginning. If the body is correctly cremated, the soul is free to start its next life.

I watched the preparations around one tower, which held a lion with a red face and blue and gold wings. The body, wrapped in a sheet, was placed in the hollow of the animal’s back. The family made offerings and watched expectantly as a high priest scattered holy water. The sarcophagus was closed and the sacred fire set; the bamboo caught; and in a moment the blaze was terrific. The wooden skeleton of the sarcophagus was exposed, and the beautiful decorations dropped away in charred ruins. The flames roared through the body inside. A great puff of black smoke hurtled up as the soul was released, the family smiled, and the gamelan orchestra played on.

I had come across the cremation by accident. This is, finally, how one discovers Bali. Driving along the east coast, I happened upon a a beautiful beach of black volcanic sand at Kusamba. Outrigger fishing boats with grinning elephant eyes and trunk-shaped prows were pulled up. Along the beach stood thatched huts and wooden cradles in which water was drying: these made people salt for a living. It seemed incredible that no one had built bungalows along the gorgeous black beach, but a weird racism attaches to sand, so I had miles of beauty to myself.

Inland, at Klungklung, I was stunned by the magnificent painted ceilings of eighteenth-century royal pavilions. In a palace floating on a lotus pond, they show scenes of great violence: dragons, torture, arrows flying, lascivious maidens, and golden birds.

And at Langsat, just past Bangbang, I found a green cascade of rice terraces climbing the sky. Here the crowded vistas of Balinese paintings made sense; the longer I gazed, the more the finer details emerged. A duck herder chucking to his flock. A few huts, a bridge, a waterfall. One man hoeing several levels above another who traipsed behind a water buffalo. Light awakened each successive terrace as morning broadened across the valley, with Agung brooding above it all.

In search of temple festivals, I stumbled on a small, intimate temple at Bodukleon. I wrapped on a sarong and entered the courtyard of carved gray stone. Gamelan musicians, wearing white shirts and yellow sarongs, hammered at their metallophone pots and chanted. The sweet stench of the incense and clove cigarettes was pervasive. Beside green and blue parasols, red and yellow banners hung from the thatched canopies of the temple pagodas. Wooden shrines were piled with monumental offerings of rice cakes, apples, limes, cooked chickens, and flowers.

A dozen women and girls, from the elderly to the very young, seemed to float with slow-motion gestures in a free fall through outer space. Beads of rice were stuck to their foreheads as proof of blessing. They did a swaying, forward, backward dance with curlicue motions of their arms that never ceased. The dance went on to the droning incantations of the gamelan orchestra for perhaps a half hour, though it might have been an hour; I lost track of time.

Suddenly, the rhythms erupted. men in white or gold head scarves leaped to the dance, each brandishing his ceremonial kris. A small chicken was sacrificed; a priest, all in white, intoned one whispered prayer. The women began to collect the offerings of food they had brought earlier, the little girls followed obediently in beautiful brocaded sarongs.

It seemed to me then only vanity to imagine that a few tourist hotels, or even two hundred, could fracture the personality and beliefs of this island. I understood the protective alarm those travelers early in this century had felt, but to my mind they underestimated the resilience of the Balinese. Fortunately for Bali, most travelers today no longer work to seek out the deeper life of a place and hence leave it largely untouched. They are content with what is most obvious. Yet no one can see much of Bali unless he is willing to get lost—or at least to keep looking.

One afternoon I drove to see the sunset at Tanah Lot, another of the island’s most sacred temples. It perches on an islet of mottled, sea-sculpted, black volcanic rock about ten feet off a small beach below a cliff. Multitudes of tourists were gathered to see the day die behind the sixteenth-century temple’s black pagoda roofs. After buying sodas at the soft-drink stands and knickknacks at a long row of souvenir shops, they relaxed in bamboo chairs and waited for the Technicolor sunset. When it finally got underway, there was scattered applause; then everyone hurried back to the tour buses. By the time the light had faded to its most benign and beautiful, all the visitors had gone. The temple was left again to the Balinese, the twilight, and the gods. 

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