Anyone who has spent more than a couple of weeks in Asia will have witnessed a widespread belief country in ghosts or spirits. The scary creatures are part of popular as well as religious culture and people young and old, male and female are not afraid to say they are, well, afraid of them. As a resident of Thailand I have adopted various local traditions and practices in a shamefully selective manner, but I have still to find myself awoken drenched in sweat in the middle of the night by a ghost.
Not just a cliché
Having no direct experience of other worldly beings, I did not anticipate that I would return from Bali with a newfound appreciation for things magic and mystic. despite the island’s reputation as a spiritual centre. I’d read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Prey Love and sat through the tedious film that followed, so I knew of the town in Bali where mostly female travellers in lotus positions, MacBook in lap, tried to find themselves and the greater meaning of life. The Beach made a cliché of Thailand, and Eat, Prey, Love has done it to Bali and Ubud in particular.
But one thing is the forced spirituality of middle aged western women, another is the engrained spirituality of local Balinese. When Islam forced out the remnants of Hinduism from Java in the 16th century, Bali became a refuge for many Hindus in the region and the religion practiced on the island today, Hindu Dharma, is shaped by ancient local beliefs and Hindu influences from mainland South and Southeast Asia. Everywhere you look, the architecture and decoration of private houses as well as temples, monuments, restaurants and museums reflects how in Bali religion and everyday life are tightly interwoven.
In the words of Stevie Wonder
Planning is not a virtue of mine so I arrived at Denpasar international airport after dark without knowing where to go and how. A quick decision followed by a heated haggling session with the private taxi drivers outside the terminal saw me in Ubud an hour and a half later and 350,000 rupiah poorer. Not exactly a bargain, but I was happy to be on my way.
Everywhere you look in Ubud, there are sculptures of mythical creatures with large teeth and starring empty eyes. They line house walls and entrance gates and at night, after a long day of travelling, with a heavy bag on one’s shoulder surrounded by unfamiliar smells and sounds, they can be quite intimidating. More than once I found myself looking over my shoulder only to meet the cold gaze of a dragon or monkey like creature. “When you believe in things you don’t understand, then you suffer,” sings Stevie Wonder, and I couldn’t agree more. So I decided to try to understand.
A good place to start is in the making of the sacred Balinese wooden mask, replicas of which are sold at almost any souvenir shop in Ubud. The mask serves as a protector of a village and is thought to inhabit a deity that provides protection. The mask is made on the instruction of a temple priest and villagers summon one of Bali’s very few consecrated mask makers to make a mask for a specific deity. Only four species of trees are used to make masks, the Pule Bandak, Waru Taluh, Kepah, and Kepuh Rangdu. Since the tress are considered sacred and thought to inhabit spirits, they are not cut down for the making of masks. Instead, the temple priest chooses an auspicious day and asks the tree spirit for permission to cut a small piece of its wood as material. Once the wood is cut, it is taken to the home village where it will reside in the temple until it is deemed safe to start the carving process. Another auspicious day is chosen and after the wood has been sprinkled with holy water to rid it of any impurities, the carver can begin the detailed work. Before completion the mask is painted with a base made of ground pig jaw or deer horn, according to an ancient process calling for 150 layers of paint. Finally, hair from the temple priest or the villagers is applied and the mask is ready for a final purification ceremony and a power investing ceremony, the Pasupati, in which the deities are invited to come and reside inside the mask.
Almost a true believer
The Pule Bandak tree happens to grow in Ubud’s Sacred Monkey Forest and the following day I went to search for the tree. If it hadn’t been for the help of a local guide who pointed the tree out for me, I would have never guessed it to be sacred, as it looks like any other of the approximately 115 species identified in the tropical forest. And that may be the reason, I realised, why religion and spirituality in Bali seems so much more sincere than that of naval-gazing travellers in search of something to enrich their mundane lives. The ritualistic dances performed every night in Ubud may be performed for tourists and the replicas of the sacred masks are indeed mass produced for the tourist market. Yet, there is something so genuine and unassuming about the religious traditions in Bali, isolated on that small island in the Indonesian archipelago for centuries, which you don’t find elsewhere in the region.
There are many famous temples in and around Ubud where visitors can see the sacred wooden masks:
- Yeh Pulu: Found as recent as 1925, this temple features life-sized carvings engraved into a cliff that is believed to date back to the 14th century.
- Goa Gajah: This temples is believed to have been Buddhist. The name means ‘Elephant Cave’ although there were no elephants in Bali at the time it was buil
- Pura Desa Ubud: The main temple, located in the town centre, with access from Ary’s Warung
- Pura Taman Saraswati: This temple, part of the larger Pura Saraswati temple complex, is devoted to Dewi Saraswati, the goddess of learning, literature and the arts.
- Pura Dalem Agung Pedangtegal: Devoted to the darker side, this temple is located down by the Sacred Monkey Forest.