Your first experience of a Balinese Ceremony is likely to be quite bewildering.
Complex ancient rituals and sacred moments take place amongst equal amounts of chaos and calm. Major temple ceremonies can be quite spectacular, whilst ceremonies inside the family compound are smaller but no less important or complex.
This excerpt from my favourite book ‘The Secrets of Bali’ helps set the scene for non Balinese…
During a ceremony, the place of ritual activity is a stage. The believers are actors, the priests are directors, their helpers are assistant directors, and the gods and demons are the invisible, critical audience. Whether or not we are believers, we should honour and respect the work of art, which is a Balinese Temple Ceremony.
Thanks to many years of gentle nudges, and being watched over by my village friends, I’ve avoided committing major cultural faux pas. These are my tips to help you avoid the awkward moments..
Grooming Counts. Dress up.
The Balinese wear only their finest clothes to the temple. It’s important to ‘mandi’ (shower) first. Hair and makeup gets more elaborate for a major temple ceremony. You will at least need to wear a sarong, short sleeve shirt and a scarf around your waist. A ‘just got off the beach look’ won’t cut it. Being well groomed will earn you respect.
Pay Attention To Where You Sit.
Best to be at the same level as everyone else and never at a higher level than the priests. When the Balinese shift to the ground to sit, do the same. It’s usually a sign that blessings are about to take place or the Barong is on the move through the temple. Don’t sit on statues or on platforms used for the tall offerings.
Time Has No Meaning
There’s hours of sitting around whilst the various rituals are carried out by the priests and their helpers. Do as the Balinese do, sit patiently, talk, just be. Teenagers will be on their phones. Kids will be playing. Ducking in and out of ceremonies is not done. Settle in.
Pick Your Crowd.
Roles during a ceremony are clearly split for men and women. This goes for who sits where too. They don’t hang out as a family within the temple area, men gather together usually around the kitchen or music area. Women and kids usually sit in the entry area. Avoid awkward situations by following along.
To Pray or Not?
You’ll be welcomed if you want to pray. Be prepared to kneel or sit cross legged on the ground. (Copy the Balinese, use your sandals as a cushion). Those closest to you will shuffle their flowers and incense to get you set up. Just follow along, someone will help you with the rituals, pointing out the right colour flower, the hand movements and how to receive the holy water from the priest.
Get ready to have your personal space tested. It’s kinda rude to take up too much space so shuffle along when someone starts squeezing themselves into your space. Take note of the way the Balinese duck down slightly when walking through a crowd of seated people.
“Sudah makan?” (have you eaten?) is a question you’ll be asked by anyone passing. It’s expected that everyone eats at a family ceremony, it’s considered quite rude to refuse. If you’re an adventurous foodie it’s your chance to taste authentic local food. Worried about the effects on your belly? Avoid the meats, stick to a small amount of rice and vegetables, enough to be polite. Eat with your right hand. Everyone eats quickly and quietly usually in the temporary kitchen area. They come and go, so there’s no pressure to chat. Before eating its polite to acknowledge those around you by saying “Selamat Makan.”
The Rubbish Will Shock You.
It’s hard to fathom how rubbish appears to be unseen amongst so much beauty. Food stalls and markets at big temple ceremonies especially generate huge amounts of rubbish. Bins are slowly appearing, education and rules are changing, but there’s a long way to go. Resist the packaged snacks and drinks, they’re the biggest offenders.
You’ll get some great photos. No one minds if you get up close to the offerings or the gamelan players. Older ladies are not always keen so be respectful, and always ask permission before you snap a photo of a priest. The Balinese will be snapping away if there’s a dance or theatre performance. Sometimes the best moments aren’t those seen through a lens… so give yourself some ‘phone off’ time.
*Please don’t jump into the middle of a passing ceremony parade to get photos if you’re not dressed appropriately. Especially if it’s a cremation. By all means take photos, but stand back.
Ceremonies in my village have taught me much about patience, the comfort of ritual, the grace of stillness and the power of community. I’ve also enjoyed my share of laughter and good times watching the late night theatre performances into the early morning hours.
I encourage every traveller to Bali to take up any offer to attend a ceremony.
It’s an honour and will take you closer to the heart and soul of life in Bali. As in any cultural exchange, you’ll feel moments of awkwardness, but be assured that if you make a little effort to participate and show respect you’ll be warmly welcomed.
*The Secrets of Bali by Johnathon Copeland & Ni Wayan Murni is my go to reference book when I’m bewildered by Balinese life. It’s an easy read, breaking down the complex rituals and history into simple language.