Living on good terms with gods

in Sanur, Bali, Indonesia
561 words, 3 minutes to read

Mind your step. They’re on the ground at every gate or entrance, though they’re not meant to greet visitors. Canang sari are offerings to gods—flowers, incense, often with some food, wrapped in bamboo leaves—freshly laid out every day. A symbol of the Balinese’ affinity with gods and spirits.

Canang sari

Canang sari

Each morning, a household member or an employee (companies follow the same tradition), prepares and distributes the colored pellets. One for the entrance, then one for every building, placed in a small, wall-attached shrine. And I mean every building. Even shacks at the beach, storing windsurfing equipment, or individual stands at the local market. Cars carry them, either on the dashboard when moving, or on the hood when parked.

These are magical moments to watch, as the person performing the ritual also takes a moment to whisper silent prayers, while the incense produces a thin streak of fragrant smoke.

We haven’t quite figured out the layout of the shrines yet, and there is a system to it. The family shrine—a household’s most important one—is always located in the northeastern corner of the property, north being the direction “to the mountain”, associated with everything sacred, and east, where the sun rises, associated with life. But other shrines vary in their layout, some mounted with their back to a building, facing south, others mounted with their side, facing west. There’s clearly more reading to do.

Then there are the temples. Squeezed in between city buildings, with ornamented gates, community halls, countless expressive statues and shrines. Closed for most of the day and opening at 6AM, 12PM and 6PM for the traditional Tri Sandhya prayers. We learned the schedule the hard way in Ubud, where our guesthouse was located just next door from the local temple, and the 6AM chanting delivered our a wake-up call, courtesy of 20th century sound amplification equipment.

Truly committed devotees obviously wanted to escape the hustle & bustle of cities, so they built isolated temples, hidden away in forests or nested on the cliffs, facing sea. The latter locations are indeed perfect to get in touch with gods, or at least one’s inner self.

Tanah Lot temple

Tanah Lot temple

Priests here must be enduring a love-hate relationship with tourists. On the one hand, many of the temples are highlights of the island—Uluwatu, Tanah Lot being prime examples—and money is always welcome. On the other hand, they’re all sacred places, often closed for outsiders and allowing entry for prayers only. Even when a temple is open for tourists, there’s usually a large sign at the entrance, spelling out the rules:

  • behave modestly,
  • dress appropriately, cover your arms and legs (popular places will have sarongs available—garments to wrap around the waist),
  • if you’re a woman in her period, do not enter!

At the risk of offending Hindu readers, I do have issue with the last rule. We have a pretty good understanding of the menstrual cycle these days, and its critical role in fertility and conception—giving life, which most religions worship as gods’ workings. Why continue discriminating against women this way, where their biology is actually clearly in line with religious principles?

Antiquated restrictions aside, Bali really lives up to its nickname of Pulau Dewata, Island of Gods—not because of its gorgeous natural environment, as we were expecting, but because of its vivid Hindu traditions. An almost tangible presence of gods and spirits.