By Andrea Granahan
I woke up and wandered on to the terrace outside the rooms where my friends and I were staying in the city of Ubud in Bali.
The garden was a blaze of tropical flowers. The losman, or family compound, was waking up. The grandmother of the family had already woven the morning offerings for the family temple. She had made little baskets of banana leaves, filled them with rice and fruit and decorated them with flowers. Those were for the gods. She had made another set, which she set outside the gate to the losman on the street. Those were for the demons. It never took long for the stray dogs to find them and gobble them up. That was all right because the dogs were considered the reincarnation of faithless wives and therefore in the demon category.
The houseboys had already made a thermos of tea for us and left it on our table. Theodora, our landlady, ran an efficient operation. All the money she earned within the losman was hers to spend. The family rice fields and such belonged to her husband, a lazy, good-natured fellow, and those earnings were his to spend. Theodora had earned enough to give her daughters an excellent education. The family had four children, twice the number of the usual Balinese family.
Theodora set a big pot of rice to boil and sautéed a batch of vegetables to go with it. She spent about 10 minutes at that task. I had noticed Balinese families did not sit down for meals together. They just helped themselves from the pots of food throughout the day whenever they felt hungry. Then Theodora and grandma got down to the task that really mattered. They began making the offering for their banjar’s temple.
They gathered perfect fruits, made various colored rice pastes, took a large basket and began constructing a beautiful tower of shaped rice paste sculptures, integrating the fruits and flowers from the garden. It would take them hours. It would be done before sunset when Theodora would dress up and carry it on her head to offer up at the temple. After the gods there had eaten their spiritual bellyful, she would retrieve what fruits were still good for the family kitchen and discard the rest until tomorrow when the process started all over again.
Whenever anyone asks me what is the most exotic place I have ever traveled to, Bali springs to mind. It wasn’t the incredible landscape with layer upon layer of rice terraces and jungle. It wasn’t the beautiful dancers and hypnotic music. It was their challenge to my entire set of Western values.
I was raised with the concept that our families are our first responsibility and providing for the family is paramount, therefore what one does to earn a living or to care for the family comes first. It is a way of life central to most cultures whether they be Moslem. Jewish, or Christian. So much so, I took it for granted as a basic human value. I was startled in Bali to realize there are other ways of looking at life. Family counts in Bali, but it is secondary to their religious responsibilities.
The Balinese are very devout people and the religion they practice is a form of Hinduism. It’s not Indian Hinduism – they do eat meat and kill cows. Their unique form of it is a gentle form of worship. They believe strongly in karma so won’t steal or lie (cheating, now, is something else altogether!). They revere human life. I never heard a Balinese raise his or her voice in anger although I spent three weeks in the busy losman near the market where there was plenty social interaction. When they get angry they pout instead. They never even shouted at the numerous pesky stray dogs they refuse to kill but do not control.
In Bali the center of one’s life is the banjar, a temple based group, usually consisting of about 100 families. It is a form of government, extended family, and church. It is so integral to Balinese life that the various governments that have taken over Bali – the Dutch, even the Japanese who were slavers and occupiers in World War II, and, most currently the Indonesian government, all have been forced to accept the banjars and deal with their elected leaders. The Balinese simply know no other way to handle life.
Theodora’s daughters all went to the temple after school to study the sacred dances. They were expected to perform in the complex dance dramas at least once a week. Once they were good enough these dances would be their offerings to the gods. Their father had to go practice in the banjar’s gamelan orchestra each day that the rice paddies didn’t need attention.
Even a lot of the tasks at the paddies, such as planting and harvesting, were controlled by the banjars and turned into religious festivals.
The only really shared meals were when the temple held a festival. The men then cooked while the women made more elaborate decorative offerings to celebrate. The banjars knew who was married to whom, how many children they had, and even what form of birth control was practiced. When someone died, when there was a wedding, when someone needed a house built or repaired, when there was any festival, the banjar had to show up – every man, woman and child, to help make the floats and elaborate offerings that would be needed or to cook for those working, to provide music, or even just stand around and encourage the others.
Earning cash was a problem. Regular jobs in businesses were not allowed to interfere with banjar duties. Our driver Wayan lived far from his banjar but traveled back when he was called to duty altering his work schedule. He played drums in the gamelan. Theodora’s family had solved the cash flow problem by opening their losman to tourists.
Many banjars allowed tourists to attend their dance dramas. The money from the small admittance fee they charged went to paying better dancers and musicians from other banjars to teach them how to make better offerings. That hospitality also provided the benefit of the tourists’ laughter. Laughter is also considered an offering to the gods and most of the dramas included bawdy humor to provoke it.
Everything is about the offerings. The rest of life is peripheral to that and must be squeezed in. One of my friends had spent a lot of time in Taiwan and had warned us about relaxed “Asia time” but she was surprised to learn when the Balinese said they’d pick you up a 9 a.m. they meant 8:55. Time is precious to them because anything they do for a living is taking away from their precious banjar offerings.
I noticed the older folks tended to be marginalized because the dance/dramas are very demanding and strenuous. It was their job to take care of the babies and minor jobs so the rest of the family could get on with the offerings with minimal interruption. If the family had a shop, the old folks tended it much of the time. But even they participated as much as possible in the offerings. Some of them made extra morning offerings and sold them for a pittance to the workers who were rushed in the mornings so that the gods would be sure and bless even the busy. Wayan always bought one when we left for an excursion, then casually tossed it out to the dogs a couple hours later.
I learned just how much the Balinese could squeeze in their mundane work with their spiritual duties when I bought a ticket to see a special drama at an outlying village that included “transport”. My transport turned out to be a motor bike the fellow playing the demon in the drama drove. He didn’t wear his mask, but he had his costume gloves on as he sped me to the temple.
In the evening, after the local temple had performed a lovely version of the Ramayana, a beloved sacred text for the Balinese, my friends and I sat sipping tea on our terrace. The family was outside watching television which featured American shows but Balinese commercials complete with gamelan music. Theodora’s little girls sprang up and began practicing their dancing to it. They would soon be ready to go on stage and begin the hard work of making their offerings.