Nature and Culture in Harmonious Balance
To truly appreciate the environmental wonders of the island, one needs to understand that Bali’s beauty is not merely the result of faceless natural forces such as the grinding of ocean plates, the rush of volcanic flows, the pull of the tides or the sweep of the sea winds. Bali’s spectacular natural bounty is also very much a product of the intimate relationship the Balinese people have with their environment. To the Balinese, the natural landscape is a divine creation marked by spiritually powerful sites. According to local belief, the environment is not merely a neutral backdrop for human activity, but is a vital, animate force with which one must maintain harmonious relationships.
This is expressed in the Balinese concept of Tri Hita Karana — the “three sources of life” in the ancient Sanskrit language — which holds that God, humanity and nature are inseparably linked. As in other parts of the world, in Bali the environment is seen as the source of life giving nourishment, of food to sustain the body and beauty to lighten the soul. But in Bali, nature also provides the organizing principles for almost every aspect of life. Ritual and economic activities still follow many of the traditional rhythms of the rice harvest. Myths and legends take their inspiration from the lush island landscape and the magical creatures inhabiting it. And the Balinese mark their orientation in space not by the compass points of north, south, east and west, but by kaja, toward the mountains rising from the center of the island, kelod, toward the sea ringing it, kangin, toward the wind and the direction of the sunrise, and kauh, toward the setting sun. The mountains — especially the sacred Gunung Agung or “great mountain,” a 3,014 meter high active volcano whose cloud draped peak towers above the island — are thought to be the abode of the gods, the cosmic center from which all power emanates. By contrast, the sea — despite the enthusiasm of the surf and sand worshipping tourists for Bali’s beaches — is considered by the Balinese to be a dangerous place, inhabited by the mysterious forces of the unseen world. Everyday life in Bali follows this sacred topography, with houses built to align their “pure” areas — the head of one’s bed and the family temples — with the sacred mountain and the “impure” areas — the bathroom and the garbage heap — with the sea.
If mountains and seas give shape and structure to the Balinese world, water brings it to life. The rivers which run down from the high mountain peaks toward the shores branch off into smaller streams and hand-made irrigation channels, flooding the rice fields with needed moisture, turning the landscape into shimmering pools of green and gold grains. And just as water mediates between mountain and sea, linking them together as it flows, so water mediates between God and humanity. Although Bali’s belief system is officially classified as Hindu, the Balinese have their own traditional name for their religion: Agama Tirtha, or the religion of holy water. The importance of water in Bali’s religious rites can be traced back to the Bhagavad Gita, the ancient Indic text which provides direction for Hindu worship. In one passage, the god Krishna instructs his followers: “If one disciplined soul proffers to me with love a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, I accept this offering of love from him.” Following this command of the god, water saturates the spiritual practices of the Balinese. There are dozens of types of holy water in Bali, collected from various springs considered to be sacred, and sanctified by priests in special rites. This water is a necessary part of all Balinese ritual, from the most elaborate temple ceremony to the simple daily act of placing offerings to the gods and ancestors in one’s household shrines.
Trees and flowers are also given an important place in Balinese culture. Traditional Balinese literature is full of references to the powers of certain plants to cure illnesses, to inspire love or spiritual devotion with their beauty, or to attract or repel spirits. The majestic banyan tree — called waringin in Balinese — is considered to be especially powerful, and can be seen marking crossroads and temples, its thick branches and hanging canopy of aerial roots providing a favorite haunt for invisible beings. In the traditional Balinese calendar, there is even a special day devoted to honoring trees, Tumpek Uduh. On this day, many Balinese dress up the trees in their temples and houseyards with special cloths and scarves and make offerings to them, beseeching them to bear fruit. A Balinese will also be careful to apologize to any spirits that may be gathered around a particular tree before he cuts down their dwelling place, and will wait for an auspicious day of the Balinese calendar before undertaking such a task.
Animals as well are honored by the Balinese. Although the concept of owning a “pet” is foreign to the Balinese sensibility — most Balinese are shocked and amazed at the amount of money Westerners spend on the care and feeding of their beloved dogs and cats — animals are respected for the useful role they play in human life. Farm animals such as cows and pigs are honored on the traditional holiday Tumpek Kandang, when they are bathed, offered special foods, blessed with holy water, dressed up in gaily colored sarongs and decorated with elaborately cut and shaped palm leaves. Even Bali’s huge population of dogs, mangy scavengers they might seem, are respected as providing a useful service to humans. Dogs clean the streets and houseyards of leftover food and warn of intruders by sending up an amazing symphony of sound. Dogs also warn of other more magical visitors as well. Because dogs’ eyes are said not to be “clouded” like they eyes of humans, dogs are believed able to see the spirits of the unseen world that their owners cannot. A dog barking at the shadows cast in the deserted corner of a houseyard on a moon-filled night will be said to be conversing with a supernatural guest, notifying the neighborhood of its ghostly presence.
The deeply held connection between the Balinese and their environment is also evident in the most stunning and sacred of traditional art forms: the offerings, called banten in Balinese, made to thank the gods and divine ancestors and welcome them down to earth. There are many kinds of Balinese offerings, from the simplest palm-leaf baskets holding a few blossoms, grains of rice and betel that are placed in the household shrines each evening, to the most elaborate constructions, towering sculptures that combine fruits, flowers and brightly colored rice dough for use in elaborate temple ceremonies. Balinese use organic materials from the environment to create these spectacular offerings, and then shape them to symbolize forces in the natural world. Small cones of rice represent the cosmic mountain, eggs and coconuts represents the fertility of the earth and its inhabitants, while fruits evoke the bounty of the land. Despite the wide variations in form and function of the offerings made for different ritual occasions in different parts of the island, these offerings share one common characteristic. They all take the wonders of nature created by the gods, turn them into spectacular symbolic representations of the cosmos, and then give them back to the gods as gifts for their blessings, closing the circle between humans, their environment and the divine.
The deeply held reverence of the Balinese for the natural world does not, however, make them “conservationists” in the typical Western sense. In Bali, nature is not considered to be an object set apart from humanity that must be conserved in parks or preserves removed from human habitation. For the Balinese, respect for nature means that one must enter into a familiar relationship with it. By lifting flower petals up to the gods in prayer, by cleansing one’s soul with pure spring water made holy in ritual, by shaping nature’s bounty into stunning works of spiritual art, and by thanking the gods for the gifts of one’s trees and animals and asking permission to use them for one’s one purposes, the Balinese express their close relationship with the natural beauty of their island home.