Bali is predominately Hindu (Java is predominantly Muslim) and the number of festivals is pretty staggering, but travelling in late March, early April, out of the main tourist season, is a special experience as it coincides with when Hindu’s celebrate Galungan, the creation of the universe. The central focus of the holiday is an expression of gratitude to the Supreme God through offerings of flowers, incense and fruit.
For a whole month, the streets are decorated with towering bamboo palms, called penjor, each still traditionally and lovingly crafted by households. The penjor is embellished with coconut, cabbage and banyan tree leaves. The upper edge curve down to symbolise the mountain, and the pole is decorated with rice, coconut and fruits. A piece of white fabric symbolises purity.
The island is home of many mystical stories and the legend of Rahwana and Hanuman is one of Bali’s most famous and enduring. It is often narrated through dance, known as the Kecak or fire dance, with as many as 50 dancers.
It is thanks to Hindu and Buddhist teaching that Bali came to adopt the story, which is originally from India. With roots dating back to 100BC, the audience is presented with religious, moral and cultural lessons through the Kecak dance. It is a story of love, faith and bravery.
While the story unfolds, a circle of male dances, wrapped in black and white check sarongs, surrounds the stage, waving and chanting rhythmically “Caca cha, caca cha, cakcakcak...”.
A beautiful princess called Sita is kidnapped by the demon Rahwana. While trying to rescue his wife, Prince Rama and his brother Laksamana are attacked and tied up by Rahwana’s son. The King of all birds, Garuda, frees the Princes. With the help of the supernatural powers of a white monkey called Hanuman, and surrounded by flames, the Princess is rescued.
This is of course, a very simplified version of a hypnotic dance that leaves the audiences swaying and entranced. Hanuman, the incarnation of Lord Shiva, a Hindu deity, is a central character.
The costumes, make-up and choreography are immediately recognisable, and it is difficult to leave Bali without a lasting impression of this spiritual introduction. If travel is about learning about how we come to live like we do, then this introduction is an essential step in understanding Bali.