A bastion of alluring art and drama, Ubud is Bali’s cultural epicenter and gateway to the island’s enchanting heartland, where village streets are stitched together by temple after temple of a syncretic religion overlaid with as many unique characteristics as the Balinese themselves. This is the ‘other’ Bali. While conversations about the island tend to arouse images of idyllic surf and turquoise tides, that is only part of the story. On my recent jaunt there — I quickly found out — Bali is as much a cultural trove as a palm-fond paradise.
The most indelible moments of travel are never expected. And it was the mere existence of Ubud that caught me off guard. Maybe I wasn’t looking in the right places, but I had never thought that the Balinese (and their island) were embodied by such mystery. Even the sense of time here, as proven by the their capacity to pass on rituals every 100 years, is intangible to the world as we have come to know it.
Let me try to paint the picture: In the small town of Ubud, moss is a natural color. It carpets the facades of buildings, the nooks of every stone-scuptured alleyway. The jagged gateways to temples, palaces and homes are still as much a part of surroundings as the chic hotels that have since sprang up to cater to travelers, a good portion of which come for yoga retreats (where I stayed if you were wondering). When I was there, every road in Bali — especially central Bali — was lined with decorative bamboo stalks from a recent festival that draped over traffic as if in welcoming the return of some conquesting king. Traffic circles are more often than not designated by large stone statues of gods both known and unknown to the Hindu sect.
The Balinese live in compounds where every member of there family can congregate around a communal temple and open-air living space. Titles — comparable to Mr. and Mrs. — are given according to order of birth: the first is known as Wayan, Gede or Putu; the second Made, Nengah or Kadak; the third Nyoman or Komang; the fourth Ketut. After the fourth, it goes back to the beginning.
Every morning I found myself waking up to palm leaf baskets stuffed with an assortment of flowers, food and even candy, topped with a stick of incense. These are canang sari, the daily offerings made by the Balinese that bear more animist qualities than Hindu. For you see in Bali’s brand of Hinduism, these offerings are used to placate the evil spirits below the ground — though most of them end up as ant or monkey food.
Bali is home to some of the best traditional acting I’ve seen in Asia. (see video above) Jerky movements from characters in ornate costumes are synchronized with music perfectly. There was no word for ‘art’ in traditional Balinese because it came so naturally. To this day, everyone can play at least one instrument and sing. Hypnotic chants of the island so engrossed a German traveler in the 1930s that he decided to stay and turn the kecak kecak dance into a drama (see video below).
On my last few nights, zipping down the narrow streets on the back of a scooter, I noticed floodlit temples with what appeared to be large, half-bulit paper mache statues. If I had known what these splintered mannequins were meant for earlier, I would have considered moving my flight ahead.
If you have a chance, the Balinese new year is not to be missed. In the weeks leading up the new year, Nyepi, young Balinese gather together to design, construct and decorate giant statues of Hindu demons as an offering to their elders and to scare away evil spirits. The ogoh-ogoh, as the statues are known, are paraded through the streets on new year’s eve and then burned. It is rumored that foreign travelers, upon seeing the pain-stalking work that goes into crafting an ogoh-ogoh, have started buying them up. Though this would be considered apostasy, that it is happening is a sign of the changing of values on the island, whose many secrets and charms still remain cloaked to the outside world like the moss that clothes the corridors of their homes.