A Balinese man named Nengah picked my wife and I up at around 5am. Still dark outside, and exhausted from the 38-hour journey we’d just made from Miami to Denpasar, I could barely make out what looked like a little palm basket on the dashboard of Nengah’s car. It seemed to be full of food of some sort, so I assumed it was his, breakfast, maybe? Well, it wasn’t, and more on that later. But little did I know that 3 weeks later, I’d be a changed man. And not in small part thanks to Nengah and his “breakfast basket”.
Spirits, Gods & Demons
Bali is a magical place, and I mean this literally. Now let me qualify this by saying that normally I’m not a superstitious man. And before you categorize me in some manner, I am not a “New Age” kind of guy. And I do not, (or at least did not), believe in things like ghosts. So how did Bali open my heart and my mind?
“We know Bali, those of us who have read about it, as a magic island where there are thirty thousand temples in a space not much bigger than a major city.”
– Pico Iyer
An island with a sacred jungle temple protected by monkeys, and a holy cave filled with bats and a giant snake king? No doubt this world I had entered was like no other I’d experienced before.
And while tourism has had its effects on the place, for those who extend their journey beyond the tourist-laden beach resorts, there is another Bali; one that seems not to have changed for centuries. Finding this, it feels as if you’ve stepped back into a different dimension, a different time. There is a magic to this island, I felt it, experienced it. This is a place where spirits, gods & demons still exist, and are active in everyday life. I quickly learned that the Balinese people are simply the most spiritual people I have ever come across. These people believe. I mean, REALLY believe. And their intense energy is palpable.
Bali is the only Hindu island in Indonesia, a country which is predominantly Muslim. However, Balinese Hinduism is a unique mix of Hindu and Buddhist influences brought to the island by Indian traders in the 2nd century, as well as the local animistic folk-religion, which existed on the island prior to their arrival. This blend of spirituality is unique to Bali.
Nengah was my driver during my entire stay in Bali, taking me to many temples and holy sites across the island. We usually started before sunrise so I could be on-site to catch the early morning light that is so clear and beautiful here. Heading back home after one shoot at a particular temple complex, we passed an interesting looking walled area with many smaller temples, and I immediately asked Nengah if we could check it out. His response was swift and certain; this was a burial ground and thespirits would NOT welcome a photographer to visit! He simultaneously sped up and our jeep shot right on by.
Spirits abound in Bali. Animism is the belief that objects, places, and animals all possess a distinct spiritual essence. Trees, cats, or stones are enlivened with spirit or even a soul. Balinese animism believes that good spirits live in the highest mountains — the holiest places on earth, and evil spirits are in the rivers and oceans — the lowest places on earth. People live in between these two worlds.
Restless spirits also frequent burial sites, like the one we passed by that morning.
A few days later, while sipping our chai tea on another of our pre-sunrise journeys, I mentioned to Nengah the news I had read that morning that a massive tidal wave had just hit the island of Sumatra, another Indonesian island not too far from Bali. He stated instantly and matter-of-factly that the Sumatrans were not making adequate offerings to the gods. End of discussion. To Nengah this was not a question to ponder, but a certainty.
Nengah taught me an intensity of belief I had never encountered before. I now believe that somehow, the magic of this island has some connection, some relationship with this intense belief. I no longer doubt it, because I experienced it. It cannot be rationally explained, but it is tangible and real.
Temples are everywhere in Bali. Across the island there are many large and famous temple complexes and pilgrimage sites, and each of the local villages and towns has its own neighborhood temples. And additionally, most homes have smaller family temples dedicated to their ancestors. Toward the end of our visit, my wife and I were humbled to be invited to Nengah’s home to meet his family and see his family temple. Bali lives up to its name of the Island of a Thousand Temples.
It can seem like the Balinese wake every morning simply to devote their day to making offerings to the gods. Each day is a series of offerings, purifications, and ceremonies. They are time consuming and demanding, both physically and economically. But far from draining them, it seems to empower them, for what could be more important than showing their gratitude to the gods who are responsible for everything in their world?
I learned much from this tiny island and its inhabitants. I learned to have an open mind and to never doubt the power of belief. I also learned that there is magic to being grateful. Of course, each man or woman must decide what they are grateful for, but once established, it can liberate you. As it turned out, the basket on the dash of Nengah’s jeep was not breakfast, it was his daily basket of offerings to the gods. Each day he had a new basket made fresh that morning, which was eventually left at the base of his neighborhood temple that afternoon — the gods having been successfully appeased for another day. I suspect Nengah slept pretty well most nights.
Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
The town of Ubud is located in the central part of Bali Island, set in a lush, tropical rainforest. The name Ubud comes from the Balinese word for medicine, as seen in the abundance of medicinal plants and herbs in this region of Bali. This region is also dotted with Hindu temples and shrines, and is one of Bali’s most beautiful landscapes.