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Island of the gods

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Bali has been coined "Island of the Gods," which it is - friendly Balinese smiles; warm, clean ocean water; incredible flavour bursting fresh food; and magnificent scenery.

However, Bali also has a much less exotic side: HIV, AIDS, prostitution, family violence, environmental degradation - the same social challenges the rest of the world faces. Like every vacation destination, tourism has brought economic prosperity and with that many pressing problems. Bali's strength has been its capacity to adjust and adapt to globalization by doing its best to meet demands on its natural resources and Western influences.

In the 1930s author Miguel Covarrubias wrote in his book Island of Bali that social breakdown began when the Balinese were forced to pay property taxes to their Dutch colonists. (The Dutch arrived at the end of the 16 th century and took control in 1906. Bali became a part of the United States of Indonesia in 1949.) At that time locals were forced to sell whatever they had of value - jewelry, antiques - to tourists to pay their taxes, while theft and prostitution were also on the increase.

Today the island is home to 3,885,000 Balinese Indonesians. An estimated two million tourists visited last year. Tourists come for the surfing, the spas, the shopping, the cuisine, the culture, the ancient sites and the overall Balinese experience.

Despite the influxes of the 21 st century Bali is still a very spiritual island. For the Balinese, mountains are the home of the gods and along with lakes and rivers they represent all that is holy. They believe heights are for the gods, the middle for humans and the lower for the spirits of the underworld.

The island follows Agama Hindu Dharma, a combination of Hinduism and Balinese beliefs. Mystic and daily rituals are prevalent. Artistic offerings are made every morning and evening to honour the island's gods and spirits. Little squares of woven banana leaves carry rice; flowers, perhaps with salt and chili-peppers, are all quietly delivered and placed at the alters of businesses, at the entrance to front doors, on temple steps and other auspicious places. They are an expression of the people's devotion to the gods.

The reverence for tradition is everywhere. While driving around Bali, it is likely that one will eventually have to pull over by the side of the road and wait for a funeral procession of well-wishers to pass by. Their gongs and cymbals clang and all ages participate. As they travel from the cremation site to the temple, those in the procession are honouring their loved one's soul. Cremation is an important event as it's when the dead person's soul is released. Other than numerous pairs of Ray-Bans and noisy motorcycles, it appears as though the ceremony is the same as it has been for hundreds and hundreds of years.

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