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More Hindu than in Hindustan

From the names of shops to ornate temples, from the dominance of Hindus to customs, Bali has similarities to medieval India, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

india Updated: May 16, 2008, 23:21 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Bali could label itself the Island of Hinduism That Time Forgot. The names of shops and streets are overtly Sanskritised, temples ornate and plentiful, and Balinese leave the local equivalent of prasad in small square leaf plates on every wall, under every tree. One can almost imagine India was like this a millennium or two ago.
The Balinese cling to their identity tenaciously. One driver said, "We Balinese don't like living on other Indonesian islands. And they don't like living here. That's why we are still 85 per cent Hindu." A Jakartan Muslim groused to me: "You Indians will get bigger discounts than we Javanese." The locals ask you with restrained excitement: "Are you Indian? Are you Hindu? I am Hindu."

Tourist trappings

I didn't save any rupaiahs by claiming to be Hindu. The Balinese have made a fine art of tourism. Every ounce of the island's natural beauty, its people's cheerful nature and its local handicrafts have been distilled and marketed for the consumption of outsiders bearing travelers cheques.
The beaches, especially Kuta, have been colonized by Australian backpackers. Sanur is emptier because its placidity repels surfers – but is thus very child friendly. Japanese are so plentiful that Bali has first-rate sushi: rolls with local butterfish substituting for tuna are recommended. Ubud, the interior town whose residents all seem to either sculpt, paint or sell all this gross artistic product, is the European hangout. There is a bit of the primeval in watching the steam rise from the Ayung river valley, its sides dense with tropical foliage, enhanced when a fist-sized snail crawls in front of you and a passing bellboy says, "Good to eat, sir. Slice and fry?"

Art for tourists' sake

Ubud's main streets are lined with brand-name havens and overpriced batik. It hasn't been a one way street. Balinese, thanks to the island's hardwood forests, have a strong local furniture tradition. Explore a bit and one finds eye-catching modernist wooden and ceramic work. "We borrow from many cultures," said a Balinese. Locals are big sculpture buyers themselves. "We keep many gods in our homes," explained one.
Ketut Madra is one of Bali's best-known contemporary Wayang artists and has earned enough to have a sprawling courtyard complex on Ubud's outskirts. After a cup of sweetened tea, I was shown a storeroom of paintings. He pointed to a black-and-white drawing, "Pandawas." I surprised myself by recognizing Yudhishtira losing his brothers to the embrace of the god of death. "Yama?" I said. He clasped his hands and bowed. He offered it to me for $ 250. Unfortunately, Ketur only took cash and I only had credit cards. There was no pan-Hindu discount: a Christian American was offered the same painting, same price. (here's a detail of one of his paintings)

Serpents in paradise

I was there to attend the annual Asia Society Williamsburg conference. One theme was Islam and democracy, but the balmy environment didn't parallel the tempestuousness of the topic. But Yud, a local journalist, told how close serpents had come to nesting in paradise. The slowness of the Indonesian mullahs in denouncing the 2002 Bali bombing had caused huge resentment among the Balinese. "It was only the effort of one man, a Balinese maulvi, who worked tirelessly to help the victims stopped Hindu retaliation," he said.
Balinese Hinduism has another set of problems. Nouveau riche Balinese youth have begun traveling to India these days and discovering "authentic" Hinduism. "There have been cases of stone-pelting in Bali temples as these youngsters denounce the rituals of their ancestors," said the journalist. And who has the right stuff? The ways of the Brahma Kumaris, ISKCON and Sai Baba. Ouch. This small Hindu island in a Muslim archipelago, the last remnant of the mighty 14th century Majapahit empire, may yet be undone by contact with 21st century India.

Holy costs

The Balinese endlessly give prasad. Small platters of fruit and vegetables are ubiquitous. They are given when it rains and when it doesn't. When the sun rises, the moon wanes, stars twinkle and probably when the first Boeing Dreamliner lands at Denpasar.
A Balinese scribe said "the island's dirty secret is that all this tourism has helped preserve Balinese rituals. Balinese Hinduism is expensive to maintain." Akuang, a hotel driver, told us about a fender-bender he had with a buffalo. "Holy animal, so I had to make offering at the temple where the buffalo came from, where the accident happened, at my family temple and at that of the mother goddess, Baisakhi." All this propitiation cost more than repairing the car.
At every street corner there were stone deities with black-and-white chequered clothes draped around their waists. "They remind us that good and evil are inseparable," I was told. Who footed the bill for replacing tens of thousands such cloths every week?

Bloody history

Bali wasn't always peace and paradise. Historically it was ruled by seven kings who fought like cats and dogs. "Only six palaces left, one king left two sons who fought and destroyed their palace," explained one local laughingly.
They also had a number of Hindu sects who waged saffron jihads against each other. Some centuries ago, a Balinese scholar explained, a Buddhist monk got all of them to agree to coexist on the island peacefully. The monk won credibility by agreeing that his own creed would not be propagated on the island – confirming my prejudice that the best things in Hinduism tend to be traced back to Gautama Siddartha.
One Balinese explained the temple density. "Every village has three temples. One to the Trimurthi, one to goddess like Devidurga or Devitara, and one to animal spirits." I presumed the last was the indigenous animism on which the imported Hinduism had been grafted. When I realized that one of the gods who still gets attention here is Brahma, a deity who only survives in Amar Chitra Katha in India, I spent a few afternoons looking for a Brahma statue amid the islands hundreds of woodcarving shops. No luck. A few salesmen tried to palm off Buddhas, Sivas as the Creator. Most said Brahma had to be ordered in advance. "Not many people ask for him," one explained.

Priests and propaganda

The Balinese have a watered down caste system. Big daddy priests are called pandityas and are hereditary. However, I was surprised to hear how democratically local priests were selected. "In the village, a person is chosen when people start to dream about him," explained a Balinese. "But when villagers say he is chosen, he cannot refuse the job." He added seriously, "As soon as he becomes priest, the person immediately knows all the religious rituals and right words." Perhaps the fact the Balinese Hindu was never exposed to many texts helped: only two Vedas supposedly made it to the island.
But why Bali deserves a place in the Hindu Hall of Fame was its response to a Dutch invasion in 1906. Recognising resistance was futile, Bali's kings, their entire courts and families in tow, marched into the Dutch bullets dressed in white and armed only with flowers. The massacres were called "the puputan", the ending. But they were caught on that newfangled contraption, the movie camera. Some historians argue the international revulsion this triggered marked the beginning of the end of European colonialism and the rise of Christiane Amanpour and TV journos-in-flak jackets.
Sanur, where the only danger today is ticklish seaweed underfoot, is where the Dutch colonial army disembarked.

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