It’s the name that immediately comes to mind when you think of the romantic ending of Eat, Pray, Love. The lush, languid island of Bali lingers, embedded in our imaginations from Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling book and the movie starring Julia Roberts. As much as Bali is known for its romantic resorts, sandy beaches and luscious green landscapes, it is also known for its fascinating women.
Women Preserving the Ancient Arts in Bali and Beyond
In a land that values artistic expression like few others, women’s volcanic energy fuels four ancient traditions; daily offerings to the gods, dancing the dramas of ancient Hindu stories, weaving fiber arts and healing by touch.
Women Appease the Spirits
In Bali, an island of temples, the unique Hindu-Balinese religion is a part of daily life, and as a visitor you will see offerings everywhere. Women prepare offerings all times of the day and night. They are all sizes, combinations of food and flowers and shapes.
Multi-generations and extended families live together in large one-house compounds, which include at least four or more shrines. Sacred holy spirits – either ancestors or Hindu deities – reside in each shrine. They ward off evil, insure happiness, protect and promote prosperity and peace.
Women appease the household spirits as well as the spirits of the dead. The Balinese don’t grieve as we know it. Weeks, sometimes months, after a death, relatives throw a big bash culminating in a cremation. In Bali this is a festive and celebratory passage into the afterlife. If you want to see a big, dramatic party, join in the festivities of a cremation.
You may see one if you get lucky and happen to be in the right place at the right time. Often, even the Balinese don’t know when a cremation will be staged until the last minute because the date and time depends upon the phase of the moon, position of the stars and the community priests.
A mirage of ethereal women in golden silk, shaded by pastel tasseled parasols, glided through the crowds with silver bowls and pyramids of fruit and flowers poised on their heads. Women have labored for weeks preparing the food and offerings for this ceremony. On the day of the cremation, a percussion orchestra sets the tone with energetic, syncopated music and men carry the body inside an ornate three-story high tower, balanced on a bamboo platform, to the cemetery for burning. The women’s food and offerings are given to the gods.
The Legong, perhaps the most beautiful dance in Bali, is performed predominantly by women and young girls. Legong dancers must master detailed precision in each minutely choreographed movement from her eyeballs to her fingers to her toes. Each tiny movement has meaning in the dance drama of ancient Hindu stories.
Young girls begin at a very young age, three-to-six years old, often learning from an aunt or mother. Children are eager to train but many do not have the discipline or dedication to continue for years when they discover that the hand motions are very difficult. Whether a child can become a performer depends upon the skill of eyes movements, hand positions, facial expressions and rigorous training. Those who are disciplined and dedicated learn to dance gracefully with skill far beyond their years.
One afternoon, I stumbled upon a dozen young school girls changing from crisp blue uniforms into elaborate silk and ikat costumes in the opulent gardens of the Amandari Resort, in Ubud. Nearby young boys teased each other while they practiced traditional Balinese Court gamelan music. I photographed and filmed the young girls as they meticulously helped each other apply make-up and style their hair. Like typical pre-teens, they giggled and gossiped until they were dressed for their rigorous dance lessons. Boys and girls gather for free after school dance and music lessons available to the children of the Amandari employees. They prepared for the evening performance to be held in the lobby.
As an orange sun slipped behind the palm trees by the infinity pool, hotel guests and families from the neighboring village turned out to watch the six-to-eleven year-old girls. The Legon dance, in fact, all performances and festivals in Bali, revolve around the community. Brothers, sisters, parents, aunties, uncles and grandparents watched with pride. Although they may have understood the ancient Hindu love story much better than us, we were equally enchanted by the melodic magic of the music and the graceful dancers.
Bali and Java 411
When to Go: As soon as possible! The weather is always warm. Located just miles north of the equator, Bali and Java sit in the exotic reaches of the Indonesian archipelago just 8 degrees south of the equator, northwest of Australia. Indonesia has a tropical climate, meaning warm and humid in the summer months. The cooler dry season is April to October. Average temperatures range from 78 to 82 degrees F.
What to Pack: A bathing suit, shorts, sun dresses, t-shirts that cover your shoulders and capris for visiting temples, sandals and a wrap for air-conditioned restaurants. Tourists in Bali dress casually. If you plan to do serious shopping, and it’s hard not to, bring an extra bag.
Getting There: Singapore Air, Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, American, Korean, EVA fly to Indonesia.
This story first appeared in Travelgirl Magazine.