An ancient outpost of the Hindu world is under threat from banal conformity, and the traditional Legong of Bali is simply turning into background music. The tourists are gone, but there may yet be hope.
Located in the equatorial underbelly of the Indonesian archipelago, the island of Bali is one of the few remaining Hindu-Buddhist cultures south of the Malaya peninsula that, at an earlier time, dominated the landscape of Asia from Sindh and the Himalayan massifs downwards in a southeasterly arc. Nestled next to the much larger island of Java, Bali is tropical, green – a formerly remote outpost of an ancient world known to tourists as “the island of the gods” and termed by Jawaharlal Nehru as the “morning of the world”. It is an emerald tucked into a corner of the warm, blue ocean, and home to a culture that has resisted successive waves of conquest and conversion.
Bali is also a land of picturesque extremes. Its majestic volcanoes touch the clouds while its skilled musicians play gentle variations of traditional Legong court music as vigorous dancers step barefoot on burning coals in the nocturnal bravado of ritual performances. Painters labour over unique canvases in studios on the edges of deep and mysterious canyons. These are the scenes of ‘exotic’ life that frustrated city-dwellers come from the around the world to experience and appreciate. Is Bali then a paradise on earth?
Definitely not. It is an awkward, clumsy Shangri-la, retaining many of its original qualities but ravaged by colonialists and globalisation. Despite its charm and beauty, Bali is like the rest of the world – a confused place fighting to retain its uniqueness, its way of life, its old and deep Hindu culture that seems to be under constant attack from ‘modernisation’ and Western influence. It is desperately trying to find a third way between newly introduced consumerism and ancient traditions, and struggling with the nuanced act of balancing culture and commerce, heritage and high-rises.
This struggle is neither unique to Bali nor entirely new to the island. In 1935, the music ethnographer Colin McPhee lamented the island’s burgeoning motor traffic and noted that only three years previously islanders would ask him how “a chariot [is] going like that without horse or cow?” The roots of disaffection and disruption extend back even further; in 1906, the entire Balinese royal family committed mass suicide by marching into the guns of the Dutch. By 1908, the colonists had secured complete control of the island, and missionaries and ‘modernisers’ set out to remake Bali in a foreign image. The question that haunted the island then – as it still does today – was how to face the challenges of a contradictory world. Will Bali become a fenced-in cultural preserve or a five-star fantasyland?
Hindu-Buddhist states, centred primarily in Java and Sumatra, ruled large sections of the Indonesian archipelago for more than one thousand years. Various dynasties – Srivijaya, Mataram, Sailendra, Kediri, Majapahit – consolidated their power and built large temple complexes and stupas, including the famous Borobudur complex near Yogyakarta. Indonesians fused Hindu- Buddhist concepts with local traditions. The Javanese shadow puppet tradition (wayang), which scholars suspect dates back to the neolithic age, combined with Hindu dramas (lakon) to create a new art form.
Beginning around the late fifteenth century, the Hindu- Buddhist rulers of the archipelago faced twin invasions: Islam and Christianity. While extensive Muslim contacts dated back for centuries, the decline of the Indonesian states vis-à-vis the Muslim city-state of Melaka, which dominated the Strait of Malacca and controlled much of the trade throughout the archipelago, helped a surging Islam spread throughout the islands. Although Melaka ceased to be an Islamic centre after its fall to the Portuguese in 1511, proselytisation continued at an accelerated rate in the islands to the south through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Indonesian rulers sometimes converted to Islam and then forcibly converted those under their control, such as the ruler of Gowa in 1605, while others preferred to adopt Muslim overtones without dropping other aspects of the Hindu-Buddhist tradition, such as Sultan Agung of Java (ruled 1613-1646).
Christian missionaries arrived in Indonesia at almost the same time. Saint Francis Xavier founded the first Christian mission in 1546, and some pockets of Christianity continue to exist in Indonesia to this day. However, while the Portuguese (and later the Dutch), were able to establish stronger political control over the islands than Muslim rulers, in the long run the European colonists lost the struggle of religion: 88 percent of Indonesians today are Muslims.
In certain ways, the political-religious story of Indonesia mirrors that of South Asia. In both places, millennia-old Hindu-Buddhist traditions faced a surge of Islamic power, which gained adherents amongst large sections of the population and established political dominance. At the time Muslim empires were consolidating their control in Delhi and Java, European colonists inspired by greed and faith gained control of huge swathes of land and submitted millions of people to the cruel tasks of empire building. As with South Asia, Indonesia gained its independence from colonialists after World War II, and the cultural divisions built on millennia of practices and traditions have reemerged in both places.
While the modern state of Indonesia is known for its cultural diversity (there are 688 languages spoken in Indonesia, including 15 spoken each by at least 1 million people), Bali is one of only a handful of islands that retains its ‘original’ Hindu character. While the Hindus of Bali have maintained their traditions for nearly two millennia, the tidal flow of tourists in search of exotica during the last three decades has drowned Bali’s traditions in ways that Muslim and Christian missionaries were unable to do in five centuries.
Ninety-five percent of Balinese people are Hindus, despite the preponderance of Muslims in most other parts of Indonesia (only two other places – both of them in Western Java – remain Hindu). Statues of Dewa Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge and the arts, stand in front of countless museums and galleries. The island’s narrow beaches are still used for ceremonies; ashes of the dead are scattered on the sand after cremation. Women walk to magnificent temples, dressed in colourful sarongs, carrying offerings of fruits in large baskets, balancing them skilfully on top of their heads. But how Hindu is Bali?
Purists would argue that Balinese religion (known as Hindu Dharma or Agama Hindu) is in fact a unique blend of Hinduism, Buddhism and pre-Hindu animist beliefs. Balinese worship the Hindu trinity of Vishnu, Brahma and Siva, but they also worship their ancestors and deities of fertility. Buddha is regarded as Siva’s younger brother. The aim of Balinese Hinduism is to reach ‘peace of spirit and harmony in the material life’ by achieving a balance of philosophy, morals and ritual. Reincarnation, an integral part of Balinese religion, is observed mostly in connection with newborn children, who are believed to be reincarnations of ancestors (mostly dead grandparents). Often, a birth is followed by a ceremony to ascertain who has been reincarnated in a ritual performed by a spirit medium.
Religion was crucial in forming the complex and unique Balinese society – its culture, social solidarity and family values. Religion helped this island to become philosophically and culturally self-sufficient and remain so for centuries. This fierce cultural independence preserved and reinforced Balinese traditions, but in doing so it also created an isolated exotica waiting to be ‘discovered’.
Jane, a 65-year old literary agent from New York City, first visited The island of gods in 1969. She fell in love with its natural beauty and local culture and decided to divide her life between New York and Bali:
I found a gorgeous little village in the middle of the jungle. I hired an interpreter and approached the elders of the village, asking them if I could build the house here. We spoke for seven hours. At the end they said to me: ‘We think you are a good person. We are accepting you.’ I didn’t have to pay for anything – they built the house for me. The word ‘money’ was never mentioned… Now look around: it is not the same Bali anymore. It totally changed.
Indeed, Bali was ‘discovered’, first by the globetrotting and fashionable crowd (including Mic Jagger, but also by some great painters like Antonio Blanco and Rudolf Bonnet), and later by the ‘general public’ that arrived in droves from every corner of the world. Thousands of Australian, American and European tourists came in search of ‘enlightenment’, tropical beaches and exotic adventures. Very soon, dormant and reclusive Bali became ‘in’. Flashy five-star hotels forced the traditional and quiet lifestyle off the southern coast of the island. Kuta was the first to loose its dreamy charm, ‘enriched’ by countless nightclubs, restaurants, boutiques and an international airport.
Beaches became over-crowded and almost fully dominated by foreign visitors. Locals complained that they now had to disperse ashes of their dead while being photographed by topless Australian and European female tourists. “I feel like some exotic animal”, says Ketut, a fisherman from Sanur. “They look at me, point fingers at me, photograph me”.
With the boom, Bali became a land of opportunity, attracting thousands of seasonal workers and prostitutes from the poorer parts of the Indonesian archipelago, particularly from Eastern Java. The population of Denpasar, Bali’s biggest city, doubled, and traffic jams and pollution became a part of everyday life. Sanur and Kuta beaches became associated with ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll’ in the early 1970s; with time they also became increasingly dirty. Temples built on the coast came to be surrounded by beach resorts and golf courses. Young Balinese boys began walking the streets for easy cash from amorous encounters with middle- aged European and Japanese women. Female sexual tourism was booming.
While Western pop music was introduced at most of the bars and night clubs, traditional Legong was rapidly turning into just some sort of background music, drowned out by the nocturnal screams coming from drinking establishments along the beach. The style of painting was changing too, catering mainly to the tastes of package tourists. Ramayana was performed for a bored foreign crowd in T-shirts and sneakers. Thousands of years of culture were not undone overnight, but the pressures of the outside were quickly altering the cultural and social interior of Bali.
Up in the hills, the situation is markedly different. In the ancient Kingdom of Ubud, the monarch still owns close to 80 percent of all land. He has rejected attempts to develop Ubud into another tourist trap. This small town, home of great painters and musicians, reacted to the tourist invasion by building grand museums, including the world famous Puri Lukisan. Visitors are confronted by great beauty and sophistication. Those looking for the wild nightlife have realised that Ubud is definitely not their place. Visitors are welcome to Ubud, but they have to play by the rules. Foreigners unaccompanied by locals are not admitted to the main hall of the temple during ceremonies and a sorong has to be worn before entering religious sites. The building of American fast-food joints is discouraged — the only one in Ubud, a Dunkin Donuts outlet, closed down right after the attacks of 11 September. All new cafes, galleries and restaurants have to comply with the unique local style of architecture and landscaping.
In the heartland of Bali, local culture is slowly fighting back and in some cases even regaining ground. Hinduism has proved to be an important tool in this fight for the cultural preservation and survival of the island. In Ubud and elsewhere, two powerful cultures have suddenly managed to coexist peacefully: one traditional – Balinese, the other international.
The ‘quality’ of tourists visiting Ubud has suddenly improved. Those who now arrive come because they wanted to experience local museums and galleries, performances of Ramayana ballet, Kecak and Trans dances or Legong music. By defining itself, Ubud defined its visitors and shaped its own destiny.
Did the ‘Ubud experiment’ come too late? When anti- Suharto demonstrations and riots shook Jakarta (and consequently almost all foreigners cancelled their trips to Indonesia), the Balinese economy collapsed, and the island was on the verge of starvation. Many owners of small hotels, restaurants and shops decided to return to the fields, in order to feed their families. But there were not enough rice fields left to feed the Balinese population — many of them were sold in previous years to developers and foreigners.
The situation deteriorated even further after 11 September. Tourists afraid to travel to the ‘most populous Muslim country on earth’ almost all cancelled their trips to Indonesia. The Laskhar Jihad militants and other groups promised to attack American and Western travellers and there were bizarre rumours that Osama bin Laden himself was hiding in the wilderness of the neighbouring island of Lombok. As if this was not enough, Indonesia’s 14 percent inflation rate made Bali more expensive than Thailand and the Philippines. ‘Paradise’ became suddenly empty. Hordes of tourists moved to other, still ‘undiscovered’ places.
“I don’t know what happened”, says the owner of the prestigious Agung Rai Gallery. “One day we woke up and there were hundreds of thousands of foreigners in Bali. We had to change our culture, the way we live and the way we do business. A couple of decades later they were all gone, but Bali will never be the same”.
Bali has long been a land of struggle: of a tiny island against the mighty sea; of a distinct Hinduism against the invasion of Muslim and Christian missionaries; and today of a unique culture pitted for its survival against the worst excesses of globalisation. Now is the time for soul searching. “I don’t understand how we got so dependent”, laments a taxi driver in Ubud.
Will Bali go back to its roots? If so, what will happen to the devastated coastline, broken family structures and over-developed land? And can people who got used to motorcycles and television soap operas return to the way things were before? Are Balinese the victims or the villains or both?
In the ancient Balinese political tradition (negara), ceremony played an important political function. Symbolic acts assumed concrete proportions and rulers believed that by imitating divinity they could attain earthly perfection. Thus, the kingly pretension of ruling people as Siva rules the heavens was not a cynical gesture; as the scholar Clifford Geertz notes, the Balinese believed that “to mirror reality is to become it”. The question today is what reality Bali will imitate.
The story of modern Bali is not unique. Thousands of beautiful cultures were ‘discovered’, utilised and abandoned, leaving them confused, angry and poor. However, Bali is too unique to be in this sad position for a long time. It will probably soon recover, attracting millions of foreign visitors once again. The questions remain, however: is that what the Balinese really want? And do they have a choice? Can one attract visitors and prosper without having to ruin nature, culture and identity? Does one have to ‘serve’ people from rich countries, catering to their wishes, or can one demand that visitors respect the culture of the place they are visiting?
If positive answers to these questions really exist, chances are they will be found in Bali. In economically depressed times, people are returning to their temples, their courtyards, their families. Money and the West have influenced this island of three million inhabitants, but money never became the most important part of people’s lives. When the party is over, it turns out, they still have plenty of places to return to.