Of gods and men

There is a flower in Bali that is more lovely than almost any other.

At first glance it’s pretty but not striking – white tubular blooms crowded together along the tip of a stem – but in the evening, it becomes unforgettable. As the day dissolves into twilight, the flower releases a scent so delicately sweet you barely notice it’s there; but once you’ve breathed in the fragrance it lingers and becomes more intense and for a few moments, in a confusion of senses, the world seems more vivid. You might know the flower as a tuberose. The Balinese call it sedap malam – perfume of the night.

It was a vase of these flowers that was on my table the evening I sat on the deck at Amandari, a beautifully tranquil resort on the side of a jungle valley just outside the town of Ubud. On that calm evening, the Indonesian night rolled in through an enchanting choreography that played on the senses. As the perfume of the sedap malam deepened, the sunlight faded, throwing the sky into a thick haze of tangerine before dipping into soft shades of purple and grey, and then finally sinking into darkness. The temperature fell with the light until a tepid breeze settled in, and through the gentle haze, pangs of gamelan music resonated across the valley. Sometimes, it became louder with the wind.

Gamalan is a style of music that dates back to around the eighth century. It’s a hypnotic symphony of gongs, bamboo flutes and xylophones that originated on Bali’s neighbouring island, Java, and over the centuries it has become integral to Balinese life. Every village will have a gamelan ensemble and you’re likely, on any given evening as you wander the streets, to hear a group practising together. Gamalan is central to most Balinese ceremonies and rituals – and, it seems, these take place almost every day.

There is a strong sense of culture influenced by religion on this Indonesian island. Although it belongs to the world’s largest Muslim country, Bali is predominantly Hindu and the customs and rituals have morphed into a way of life that is unique to the place often called “the Island of the Gods”. While the cycle of reincarnation is central to Balinese Hindu belief, the focus of the perennial temple rituals are hyangs, the local and ancestral spirits – both good and bad – as well as entities of God.

Breaking occasionally through the gamelan music, on that early evening in Ubud, was the proud call of cockerels from a village lower in the valley. I’d seen them on the side of the road in every village we’d passed through that day, travelling from the beachy tourist hub of Kuta to artsy Ubud in the island’s interior. Instead of roaming free like the hens, cocks are sheltered in loosely woven baskets and often watched over by old men. The pride of many families in Bali, cocks are bred for fighting. Although the fights are illegal in the rest of Indonesia, special dispensation has been given to Bali, where cockfights form an important part of the temple ceremonies when blood needs to be spilled on sacred ground.

The road we’d driven that day into Bali’s highlands weaved through ribbons of villages and beautifully rich green rice paddies, and we never went far without passing a temple or a shrine. Shrines – carved from stone for spirits and ancestors – are often wrapped in fabric of black and white checks, symbolising the human qualities of good and evil, while entrances to temples are usually clothed in yellow or white, pure colours for the gods.

Every home, shop, rice paddy, hotel and warung (eatery) has a shrine where offerings are made at least once a day. It’s usually women who place the offerings in a small basket they’ve woven or folded from palm leaves, and it always holds a flower, a few grains of rice, something edible, something to drink, as well as burning incense. The gods’ tastes are always taken into consideration, and sometimes cigarettes or sweets are offered too.

The remnants of offerings from previous days – dried flowers, crinkled leaves, strewn rice – are scattered all across the island. From the grand entrances of chic hotels in Nusa Dua to the crowded market stalls of Kuta, the grungy surfer warungs of Belangan and the art galleries of Ubud, a sweet incense lingers in the air and trampled offering baskets cover the ground.

Baskets and temple decorations are made on such a regular basis that it seems the Balinese don’t give their skills much thought. On quiet afternoons around the island, I’d see waitresses sitting at tables in their warungs, catching up with friends while casually weaving offering baskets or a family by the road creating a penjor, the elaborate staffs made from bamboo and palm leaves, that curve elegantly over so many Balinese roads for Galunggan, when the ancestral spirits come down to earth to dwell a few days in the homes of their descendants. The apparent ease with which the women worked, and the quality of the things they created, reveals a population where creativity, craftsmanship and attention to detail is such an integral part of life, it seems to be taken for granted.

As though on cue, three fireflies flitted from the falling darkness and across the deck at Amandari. They danced with each other, their paths weaving intricately through the evening air and the light of their tiny bodies faintly illuminating the blossoms of the sedap malam as they flew past. And for a few intense moments, as evening fell across the edge of a valley in South-East Asia, it seemed the world was in absolute harmony. It really is an enchanting land, this place they call the Island of the Gods.


Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 9.51.19 AMThis feature was commissioned by Signature, the magazine for Diner’s Club cardholders.

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