Bali's Bedazzling Cultural Identity, Bali's Annual Day of Silence and Shaped by Volcanos and Fiery Invasions

Music, Art and Dance

Bali's Bedazzling Cultural Identity

Deftly adapting to new influences, Bali retains its graceful arts heritage

By Rajiv Malik, Bali

Creative and unique yet traditional, Bali's art is a reflection of its culture and its people. Temple architecture, dance costumes, paintings, everyday utensils and even food manifest an unmistakable style, with lively curves full of movement and dist inctive, pointed ornaments. The Balinese are a celebratory people with high aesthetic tastes, and art in its many forms is essential to them. On this island, beauty is a sacred form of worship.
Most art in Bali is based on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata--though it may not seem so to untrained eyes--and also on indigenous stories, where Barong and Rangda play a large role. It is through art, music, dance and puppets that the epic sacred stories are conveyed here, not through kathak and other spoken methods as in India. Damar Wayanag, a member of the former royal family of Ubud and a consultant in Balinese culture, explains, "Religion is the spirit of culture here in Bali."
From the 16th to the 20th century, East Bali was the center of classical Balinese art. During the early 1900s, Ubud established a reputation as the new cultural epicenter. Ubud and Batuan are known for their paintings, Mas for woodcarving, Celuk for gold and silver smiths, and Batubulan for stone carving.

A Recent Revolution in Painting

Until the 1920s, Bali's painting followed the traditional kamasan style, with two-dimensional drawings drawn on cloth or ulatanga (bark) paper. Colors were limited to available natural dyes, mostly red, ochre and black. With the arrival of many Western artists in the 1930s, Bali became an artists' enclave. Local artists experimented with new materials and colors, merging old and new with ease, but the results were still distinctively Balinese. This so-called "modern traditional Balinese painting" thrives, highly regarded, to this day. It is on display at several museums worldwide, notably at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, the Leiden Museum, the Asian Art Museum in Fukuoka and the Singapore National Art Museum. Hinduism Today so admires the style it has commissioned paintings from Bali over the years.
Ida Bagus Jembawan, 51, is a painter and art teacher in Ubud. His atelier is crowded with sketches and vibrant paintings of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, full of the dynamic force and mystical quality typical of Balinese art. Though the noises of roosters and the laughter of small children compete for his attention, Jembawan, a quiet and unassuming character, remains immersed in his craft.
"I feel my paintings will encourage people to worship the Gods. I do paintings and art for the temples for free," says Jembawan. "I get up at 4 in the morning to paint. I also give classes at an art school from 7 am to 2 pm; after some rest, I paint some more until 6 pm or later. If I work continuously on one painting, it takes me around one month to complete it. Life is a struggle because I have five children to raise, but I am quite contented as an artist."
His wife, Anak Agung Raka Putri, is a greatly skilled artist of another kind. She creates intricate canangs, the beautiful offerings taken to Gods at the temple. A canang is a square basket made of a coconut-palm leaf, filled with fruits, sugar cane, rice and betel nuts and topped with a wide variety of colorful flowers and shredded leaves. She told Hinduism Today that even though the younger generation is enthralled by the lure of the West and fancy tech gadgets, the young girls eagerly and lovingly learn the traditional art of making offerings. In Balinese culture it is the women's duty to care for the family shrine and make sure that all the necessary materials are available for the husbands or priests to invoke the Gods. Only then will the Deities come and bless their families.
Ketut Budiana, a local master painter, creates art as a sadhana. "The paintings I love I do not sell at any price. These paintings are a lesson for me. For instance, there is a painting entitled 'Teertha, the Generator of Life.' Through this painting I am trying to explore how to discover the nectar of life. To create a work of art, one has to do a lot of penance. One has to do a lot of hard work." Budiana's inspirations reflect his lofty intentions. "Yoga and kundalini awakening are my favorite subjects. Through my paintings I want to promote peace in the world. I want to highlight that the environment should not be disturbed, but before that we have to learn not to be ruffled ourselves. We use the Balinese akshar (alphabet) which originates from the nada (sound) of nature. For instance, we make the paintings based on the nada of the waves. Nature is my guru, and you are my guru, too."

Art in Buildings and Temples

Bali's unique artistic style is quite evident in temple architecture. I Nyoman Artana, an expert in udangi, temple building, says, " In Bali every village already has its temples, so not many new temples are being built; but a lot of renovation work is being done. We follow the ancient rules of construction. The entire layout of the building is done as per ast kaushala kaushali. I learned temple architecture from my father and other senior members of my clan." Artana sees his art as a craft so sacred he will not accept money for it; being a udangi is not his daytime job. "No udangis would do temple work for money. Usually udangis would have a business or profession to support their families. We build big temples and homes, but we sometimes have no proper home ourselves. Even if we did have money, an udangi is expected to spend it in service of the community."

Dancing Is for Everyone

The Ancak Saji Ubud Palace Court Yard, built in the 16th century, is one of the noblest stages on the island. Its dance and drama performances brim with finesse, vigorous movement and a youthful swirl of energy and color, expressing not just professional virtuosity but the dedication of a people who love their art.
"Bali is one of the few remaining places where one can still experience sacred theater and art done by common people. Someone who harvests rice all day long might change into an elaborate costume and ride his bicycle to perform on stage at night," explains Erika Batdorf, a Canadian performer who lived in Bali.
Tourism is the backbone of the economy, and the government wisely throws its weight behind the people's love for the arts. "The government is invested in our art and culture," says dancer Dr. Nyoman Catra, a professor at the Indonesian Institute of Arts. "Formal art education is available in high school. Villages also locally promote performances. In addition there are private schools, known as sanggar, which help to preserve the culture."
Dr. Catra feels confident about the future of Hinduism on the island and the endurance of their culture. "We are not afraid that Balinese art and culture will be swept out by modern Western culture. Youth can perform at the temple festivals; there are also hundreds of performances at the Bali Arts Festival held every year for one month in June/July. Young people are trained in the performing arts everywhere in Bali."
Dr. Catra believes the religious spirit and content infused in art also contributes to its endurance, even as tourism exerts a pull. "The soul of the art and culture in Bali is Hinduism. Hindu traditions are there in offerings, performance and culture. When you go to the temple, or to weddings and cremations, you always go in the traditional costumes. I perform as a dancer in temple rituals. I make intensive use of our masks during performances. Once I performed in New Delhi with multiple masks, and the audience took a deep interest. Our performances are effective and powerful because we do them as an offering to the Gods, or as part of ritual--and not just for pleasure. This is devotion.
"It's true that tourism has affected some of the local traditions. Some performances of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are held specifically for the tourists. I have been performing in these as Hanuman, and I see that the quality of performance declines; it becomes a repetitive, everyday event rather than a rare celebration. But from another angle the tourists help in maintaining the culture by paying for keeping it alive. So tourism here is a mixed blessing; it both preserves and destroys."

Dance Styles

Balinese dance follows the rhythms produced by the ever-present gamelan. In Balinese music you can also hear metallophones, gongs and xylophones, along with the anklung (a bamboo rattle) and the rebab (a two-stringed spike fiddle). There are fewer codified dance hand positions and gestures, the mudras, in Bali and Java than in India.
Bali has several distinct styles. The popular Barong dance enacts the endless struggle of the good God Barong against the evil personified by Goddess Rangda. At the end, evil is always subdued, though never vanquished. The Legong dance is a refined form characterized by intricate finger movements, complicated footwork, and expressive gestures and facial expressions, which probably originated in the 19th century as royal entertainment. Legong dancers are always girls who have not yet reached puberty. They begin rigorous training at about the age of five. These dancers are regarded highly in the society and usually become wives of royal personages or wealthy merchants. Legend tells of a prince who fell ill and had a vivid dream in which two maidens danced to the sound of gamelan music. When he recovered, he arranged for such dances to be performed in reality. Others believe that the Legong originated with the sanghyang dedari, a ceremony involving voluntary possession of two little girls by beneficent spirits. In Legong, the little actresses are accompanied by a third dancer called a tjondong or attendant. She sets the scene, presents the dancers with their fans and later plays the part of the raven.
Most famous is probably the Kecak dance, also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant. A circle of 150 or more performers wearing checked cloth around th eir waists, percussively chanting "cak" and throwing up their arms, depict a battle from the Ramayana where Hanuman helped Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana. Originating in the 1930s, Kecak has roots in sanghyang, a trance-inducing exorcism dance. Living in Bali at the time, German painter and musician Walter Spies became deeply interested in that ritual and recreated it as a drama for tourist audiences, basing it on the Hindu Ramayana and including dance. An innovation was to only use voices and not the gamelan.
Also popular in both Bali and Java is the shadow puppet theater. Some puppets are crafted from hide and mounted on bamboo sticks; others are flat woodcarvings barely one-fourth inch thick. When held up between an oil lamp or electric bulb and a piece of white cloth, shadows are cast on the screen.

An Example to Be Followed

Babies born into the families of Balinese dancers learn the craft from infancy. Music rocks their cradle, and their mother teaches them to dance doing mudras with their little hands before they can walk. Official training as a dancer starts early. "My own son performed for the first time when he was five years old," says Dr. Catra.
The professional dancers of Bali earn their living from giving classes as much as they do from performing. I Wayan Karta, a 51-year-old dancer, learned the art first from his father, and later at dance and music schools. "Now I teach dancing, singing and music at school. I teach the children how to play gamelan in a private school. I also teach traditional classical dance to the foreigners. And because we are so happy to see our children taking an interest in our tradition, many colleagues and I go to villages and teach dance and music to the children for free. My wife is a stage make-up artist, and she comes with me."
Hinduism Today visited a private school in Klungkung where children learn the traditional Balinese dances, paying the teacher by the hour. Some of the children were paying her out of their own pocket money. Would that children everywhere were so keen to learn and live their tradition, following the lead of the remarkable island of Bali.


Bali's Annual Day of Silence


A time of purification and reflection for the whole island--with no exceptions

n Bali, the start of a new year is not marked by fireworks or a ten-second countdown; ritual here is much deeper and more ornate than the celebrations of the West. For the Balinese, the dawn of each new year is a time of purification, reflection and spirituality, a day when complete silence descends on the island, as if no one lived there.
The Balinese follow two different calendars, forming a system almost incomprehensible to uninitiated foreigners. In the pawukon calendar, a year lasts 210 days. The saka, a lunisolar calendar, is used to calculate Nyepi, the new year. In 2012, this falls on March 23rd.
Dr. V. Ramesh Sastry, a Vedic scholar and secretary general of the World Hindu Youth Organisation, explains, "Nyepi marks the beginning of a new lunar year. It occurs at the beginning of spring, between the last week of March and early April."
Gathering on beaches a few days before new year's day, beautifully dressed in ritual clothes, the Balinese perform a ceremony called Melasti to honor God as the owner of both land and sea. Balinese Hindus purify their bodies and souls in the presence of their Deities with ritual and pujas at seaside temples, where offerings are made. Water is blessed as amreta (amritam), a gift from Gods Baruna (Varuna) and Wisnu (Vishnu); it is used to purify other parts of the island in the days ahead, cleansing all spiritual defilement.
On the next day, known as Bhuta Yajna, the people dedicate time to getting rid of all the evil thoughts and spirits that have accumulated during the year. Vanquishing all negative elements, the aim is to create a balance between God, mankind and nature. This connection is an integral part of Balinese Hindu worship, the foremost goal of which is to uphold cosmic harmony. On Bhuta Yajna, offerings are made to appease upset spirits and ancestors. "All the bad karma accrued in the year is supposed to be removed by these rites," explains Puneet Malhotra, an Indian who has lived in Indonesia and Bali for more than 22 years and is the general secretary of the Bali Indian Friendship Association.
For truly demonic forces, asuras and evil thoughts, the Balinese perform a ritual banishment to drive away the forces of darkness. The Balinese do all they can to instill fear in their spiritual foes. On the day before the new year's day of silence, in a ritual known as Ngerupuk, local Hindus march around their villages with bamboo torches in their hands, making as much noise as they can to scare demons away. In a recent but widely-loved tradition started in the mid 1980s, Balinese youths parade ogoh-ogoh, giant figurines of paper and bamboo, spectacularly decorated, scary representations of the demons, with fangs and bulging eyes. Famous local politicians are sometimes also recreated as ogres on this day, causing embarrassment to the leaders and laughter on the streets.
Ngerupuk is a joyous carnival. Loud street parades feature the famed, traditional percussion instrument, the gamelan. The processions are usually managed by the Seka Teruna, the youth organization. Families merrily attend together; children are at both fascinated and scared by the event. Author Janet De Neefe, who lives in Bali, recalls, "The boys in our street made a terrifying demon with a huge snake wrapped around him, more than three meters high. The perfect snakeskin was made from layers of thinly cut foam, then painted in shades of green and brown. The monster was red, black and white. Music blasted from its mouth (there was a transistor radio connected inside) and its eyes flashed. When seeing these monsters, small children often cry with fear, or hide behind their mother's sarong; but slightly older kids love it. My two boys were in awe of its creators." Finally, most ogoh-ogoh are taken to the intersections and burned to the ground, in a clear message of what will happen to any malevolent ones who dare to stay.
After that, the island falls silent. Nyepi, as that day is called, begins at 6 am on the day after Ngerupuk.
Demons expelled, evil purged, the Balinese lay quiet. If any bad spirit decides to come back, the idea is that they will find the island uninhabited, not worth occupying; and, confused, the demons will leave forever.
Nyepi is a day reserved for self-reflection. Pecalangs (traditional Balinese security men), wearing a black uniform and a ceremonial hat, secure the streets and stop any activities that disturb Nyepi. No vehicle or foot traffic is allowed, save for medical emergencies.
At home, no work should be done. Many fast and perform religious practices. It is a particularly good day for meditation. Fires are also proscribed. Electricity is turned off in most places and all public lighting is shut down. Stars are strikingly visible on that dark night, a spectacle that does not go unnoticed when there is no television or radio to distract--even sex is not supposed to happen on Nyepi's eve.
"When we first came here we did not know the full rules about Nyepi," shares Puneet Malhotra. "My wife was pregnant and we switched on the light for safety. Immediately people came asking us to switch off the lights."
"Nothing is happening on Nyepi," recounts Bhubneshwar Sharma, deputy director at the Indian Cultural Centre of the Embassy of India. "Even dogs stop barking. There is pin-drop silence. Everything is closed. It may seem like a wasted day, but it is really great. Something like this cannot be imagined in India. But these people have a lot of patience."
Although Nyepi is primarily a Hindu holiday, non-Hindu residents of Bali observe silence out of respect for their fellow citizens. Tourism is the lifeblood of Bali's economy. Still, on Nyepi, tourists are expected to understand and respect the tradition. While not bound by law to obey the holiday disciplines, they find the hotel staff reduced and striving to remain quiet. Visitors are free to do as they wish in their hotels, but no one is allowed on the beaches or streets, and the island's solitary airport is closed. Tourists may turn on the lights in their rooms, but their windows are often draped and curtained to keep the hotel inconspicuous. Most find the day charming rather than a nuisance; in fact, many schedule their trip to experience the peace and quiet, when one need not retreat from the bustling city to find silence. Hotels offer special package rates for the three days of new year.
The day after Nyepi, social activity picks up again. This is a time known as Ngembak Geni, when families and friends gather to ask forgiveness from one another and perform certain religious rites together. Harmony prevails. The Balinese have done their part, through sadhana and worship, in hopes that a wonderful new year has begun.

History and Geography

Shaped by Volcanos and Fiery Invasions


The thrilling history and active geographic features that shaped the island of Bali

It looks a lot like the descriptions of Elysian lands where the Gods dwell. If you ask the Balinese, they will say that heaven is identical to their island--just, perhaps, a smidgen better.
Bali is surrounded by coral reefs and colorful fish in calm waters. It lies 3.2 km (2 mi) east of Java and approximately 8 degrees south of the equator. East to west, the island is about 153 km (95 mi) wide and spans approximately 112 km (69 mi) north to south; its land area is 5,632 km.
Volcanos stand tall on Bali island, active harbingers of both life and occasional doom. Bali's volcanic nature has contributed to its exceptional fertility; and its tall mountain ranges provide abundant rainfall that supports the highly productive agriculture sector--although tourism is the main economic activity.
The highest volcano is Mount Agung (3,142 m), known as "mother mountain." Agung is popular with mountain climbers; there are two major routes up, with breathtaking views. An active stratovolcano, it has had major eruptions in the recent past. Another important volcano is Mount Batur, located at the center of two concentric calderas northwest of Mount Agung. In the outer caldera, formed 28,000 years ago in a massive explosion, lies Lake Batur with stunning biodiversity. It is famous for being a great source of fish.
South of the mountains is a broad, steadily descending area where most of Bali's sprawling rice crop is grown. The northern side of the mountain, which slopes more steeply to the sea, is the main coffee producing area, along with rice, vegetables and cattle.
Beaches in the South tend to have white sand while those in the North and West have black sand. Bali has no major waterways, although the Ho River is navigable by small sampan boats. The largest city is the provincial capital, Denpasar, near the southern coast. Its population nears half a million people. Bali's second largest city is the old colonial capital, Singaraja, which is located on the north coast and is home to around 100,000 people. The island has 3,891,000 residents and is 92% Hindu.

Refuge of a Lost Kingdom

Bali's modern history began when a Javanese king defied the grandson of Genghis Khan. This was in 1290, when King Kertanegara ruled over a mighty kingdom, and the Mongols lived too far away to be considered a real threat.
The Khan did not take the insult kindly. Enraged, he sent a massive expedition of 1,000 warships to Java. Mobilization and travel were slow in those days; the expedition arrived only three years later. By that time, the offending king had been assassinated by a usurper and the former royal family was in exile. The vast armada was left pondering what to do. Ever helpful, the son-in-law of the ousted King Kertanegara, Raden Wijaya, offered to host the invaders and guide them to victory over the new king. It was an offer hard to refuse; after all, the avenging army knew little about life in the tropics--so different from Mongolia--and Java in particular.
Raden Wijaya helped the Khan's fleet crush the usurper in 1293. Almost immediately, he launched a surprise attack on his allies. The operation had been timed to perfection: unable to miss the last days of monsoon winds which could take them home, the Mongols had no choice but to flee in confusion. They never returned.
Ambitious and able, Raden Wijaya became the first sovereign of the Hindu Majapahit Empire, which eventually expanded to encompass all the surrounding islands. In 1329, a brilliant strategist called Gajah Mada became the mahapatih, or prime minister, to the royal family. For 35 years, he led a golden age of the Majapahit empire, consolidating a culture that would eventually survive to the present, not in the capital on Java, but on the neighboring island of Bali.
Bali was home to the Bali Aga people, who followed a form of Mahayana Buddhism with Saivite Hindu and indigenous influences. The Balinese were closely related to the Javanese; both belonged to the Austronesian race, the indigenous people of Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritius, New Zealand and Hawaii. In 1343, Gajah Mada defeated the Balinese king, bringing a strong influx of Javanese culture into Bali--in religion, architecture, art, dance, theater and (with the introduction of the Kawi script) literature. Those Balinese who refused to be assimilated created small communities which survive to this day in Bali, with a population of about 3,000 and a distinct language.
Little did the Majapahit Javanese know that by creating an outpost of their civilization in Bali, they were also creating a heaven that would allow the survival of their culture.
After a brief golden age, the archipelago empire fell into dynastic conflict and civil war, weakening its ability to defend itself. Meanwhile, its expansionist ambitions made it no friends. In 1400 the Majapahit Empire used thousands of ships to conquer Parameswara, the last king of Singapore island. Parameswara fled with his court and personal guard to North Sumatra. There he created a new country, the Kingdom of Malacca.
His was a tiny nation, but Parameswara was a cunning ruler seething for revenge. Struggling to hold his position against old Majapahit enemies and several local tribes, Parameswara sent his ambassador to visit the Emperor of China, the superpower of that period, and the two sovereigns agreed to become allies.
The Ming Dynasty ruler of China sent one of his most trusted generals to protect his new ally and take hol d of that area of the Pacific. This was Admiral Zheng He, a devout Muslim, a trusted eunuch, a warlord with wide autonomy. Islam had arrived in China in the 8th century through Persia and the Himalayas, converting a small following, including the admiral's ancestors.
Eager to please his new protector, King Parameswara converted to Islam and adopted an Islamic name, Sultan Iskandar Shah. He renamed the formerly Hindu kingdom of Malacca as the Sultanate of Malacca. Under the might and influence of the new local potentates, surrounding nations and tribes quickly fell to either the Sultanate or Zheng He and his tens of thousands of soldiers.
Admiral Zheng He left a massive legacy. He is the sole reason why Islam is present in the Pacific. His personal religious choice, impressed upon several kingdoms, was never reverted. By the end of his life, China itself had changed. When the new Hongxi Emperor ascended the throne, he withdrew all expansionist policies, called back all ships and left the rest of the world to itself, initiating an isolationist policy that would last for centuries. With China absent as a cultural, military and religious influence, the only real powers in the South Asian sea were the Muslim kingdoms established by Zheng He.
Abruptly surrounded by hostile forces following an alien religion, the Majapahit fell quickly. In despair, those who could retreated to Bali, where the mountainous geography provided strongholds that were harder to conquer. The Hindus remaining in Java, though weakened, managed to defend themselves until the Sultanate of Malacca became distracted by invasions by Portuguese mariners in the North and left them alone.
Gathering the remnants of a formerly splendid empire, the refugees slowly built a nation, found a new life and created a new identity in the island of Bali.
The Kingdom of Bali lasted for hundreds of years, its kings deftly maneuvering among the warring powers that navigated the waters of the archipelago. Occasionally it allied itself with the Dutch and French against the British and Malacca, but forbade foreign interference on the island.
In the late 19th century, however, the Balinese kings' grip on the nation began to slip. The Indonesian archipelago became the Dutch East Indies. In Bali, the Dutch used the pretext of eradicating opium smuggling, weapons traffic and slavery to impose their control on Balinese kingdoms.
In 1906, claiming as an excuse the plundering of shipwrecks, the Dutch mounted large naval and ground assaults on Bali, leading to several massacres and the elimination of the royal house. The Dutch attacks were followed closely by the media, and reports of the sanguinary conquest shocked the West. Afterwards, the Dutch governors exercised administrative control over the island, but under pressure from the outraged international community, they interfered little with religion and culture. In 1914, Bali was opened to tourism.
In the aftermath of World War II, when European colonialism lost its last claims to legitimacy, parts of the Dutch East Indies declared independence. When conceding, the Netherlands recognized all the islands under its influence as a single new nation, the Republic of the United States of Indonesia. Though this was a melange of nations with great cultural differences, such as West Borneo, Java, East Indonesia and Bali, it remains a united country to this day.


Safeguarding Bali's Sacred Palm Leaves


Bali's lontar bundles contain scriptures brought from India over a thousand years ago, including ancient versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata

By Rajiv Malik, Bali

Bali's ancient lontar are identical in concept to the palm-leaf manuscripts of India. By some estimates, 50,000 ancient lontar manuscripts are held by the priests, scholars and ordinary Hindus of Bali, passed down from their ancestors. These were the books and ledgers of their day, used for everything from the Vedas and Agamas to the epics to land records. In Bali we find lontar on religion, holy scriptures, prominent rituals, family lineages, law codes, medicine, arts, architecture, calendars, poetry, prose, black magic and even the rules for cock-fighting. Many of these palm-leaf manuscripts are kept in beautifully hand-crafted wood boxes and cleaned and worshiped yearly on Saraswati Puja.
Though many Balinese Hindus have lontar in their homes, few understand their contents. The language of most is Kawi, also known as Old Javanese; a few are in Sanskrit. Dr. Nyoman Catra, who heads the lontar digitization project at the Dwijendra Foundation, explained that the texts date back as far as the 9th century ce. The Ramayana and Mahabharata were translated from Sanskrit into Kawi, a script derived from the Pallava and Grantha scripts used to write Sanskrit in South India from the 6th century ce onwards, during the era of seafaring exploration by Indian kingdoms. Some newer lontar are written in Aksara Bali, a script derived from Kawi around the 15th century. (Several old scripts of Southeast Asia are closely related, as are modern Malayalam and Sinhala.)
When the Majapehit kingdom collapsed due to the Muslims coming to Indonesia, the lontars were brought from Java to Bali and maintained there ever since. Palms grow everywhere in Java and Bali, so the leaves are readily available, Dr. Catra explained.
The Dwijendra Foundation is a government-supported institution which has 3,000 lontar and funds the ongoing digitization project headed by Dr. Catra, who also lectures on the performing arts at the Indonesian Institute of Arts. Hinduism Today was directed to this institution by Dr. Ron Jenkins, professor of theater at Wesleyan University, Connecticut, USA. Dr. Jenkins has a long association with Bali and a particular interest in the lontar dealing with theatre production. Together he and Dr. Catra transcribed and translated Sivaratrikalpa (Siva's Night Meditation), a story about knowledge and enlightenment. They teamed up with the San Francisco-based Internet Archive Foundation to digitize the 3,000 lontar at Dwijendra Foundation.
The word lontar comes from Old Javanese ron meaning leaf and tal meaning the rontal tree (Borassus fabellifer, commonly called palmyra or toddy palm). The leaves are cut, dried, soaked in water, dried again, steamed, treated with herbs, then flattened and dried one last time. They are assembled into bundles of varying number of leaves, trimmed with a plane, fitted with boards top and bottom and bound together with strings through two or three holes punched in the leaves. The resulting bundle is far more durable than a modern paper book and can last for hundreds of years with proper care.
According to an article at, there are nine categories of lontar: 1) Weda, dealing with mantras and religious rituals; 2) Agama, religious rules, ethics, morals and law; 3) Wariga, astronomy and astrology; 4) Usada, medicine; 5) Itahasa, Ramayana, Mahabharata and Balinese literature; 6) Babad, history and genealogy; 7) Tantri, stories from ancient Indian literature, Balinese stories and scholastic writings; 8) Lelampahan, stories from the performing arts; and 9) Prasi, illustrated lontar derived from the wayang shadow puppet plays.
Professor I Made Titib, rector of the Denpasar State Hindu Dharma Institute, kindly displayed one of his family's treasured lontar (photo at top left). It was last copied onto new leaves in 1920. "This is the Ramayana in old Javanese language," he explained. "This is not Valmiki Ramayana but another version written by Bhatti Maharishi. I can read and recite it, but to be understood by the common man it has to be translated into the local Balinese language. Our Ramayana ends after Rama is victorious and takes over the kingdom of Ayodhya. Once Ravana is killed, it is the end of Indonesian Ramayana. Rama's sons, Luv and Kush and their story is not there." As with many Balinese I encountered, he was very interested in obtaining the fuller version of the Ramayana as well as other scriptures not present in Bali, such as the Rig Veda.

The Digitization Project

Dr. Catra works in a big hall belonging to the cultural division of the Governor of Bali. The air is filled with the strong smell of various chemicals and traditional Balinese herbal oils being used to clean and preserve the ancient lontar. "This collection of lontars," Catra explains, "is in the possession of the government of Bali as it is a national heritage."
The lontar currently being photographed was entitled "How to Become a Rishi," giving directions on how those aspiring to be priests are to be purified. The bundle had been cleaned with alcohol and lemon grass oil. If necessary, the leaves would be rubbed again with ink made from lamp black to darken the writing, as when they were first made. Two leaves are photographed at a time, and 500 photos are taken each day--a decent pace for this kind of work. The title, size, number of leaves, camera resolution and other cataloging information is assembled with the photo files and transmitted to the Internet Archive in San Francisco where it goes on line. As of September 21, 2011, over half of the 3,000 lontars have been photographed and archived.

Relationship to Saiva Agamas

Hinduism Today itself recently completed a very similar digitization project, photographing the palm-leaf collection of the French Institute of Pondicherry. That collection contains bundles on many of the same topics as found in the Bali lontar, with the addition of Saiva Agamas.
"The lontars are mainly based on the Siva teachings," Dr. Catra said, "but I am not aware whether they are connected to Saiva Agamas. We have the concept of Siva, Sadasiva and Paramasiva, but no one has come to Bali from South India to study the lontar."
That philosophical approach is very much in line with the Saiva Agamas. With both collections now available online, scholars have an entirely new means to research the connection. Already we know that the Kawi script is closely related to the Grantha script of the Agamas, and the kingdoms which spread Hinduism to Indonesia were South Indian.
Bali's digitization project has the same motivation as in Pondicherry: preservation of the texts contained in the lontar before the leaves disintegrate through age, insects and other hazards.
The skill to prepare and scribe lontar continues to exist in Bali, unlike in South India were it has died out altogether. I was pleasantly surprised when one of the girl students took my business card and expertly scribed my name on a leaf in just few minutes. A side project being done elsewhere, Catra shared, has perfected a way to print on lontar leaves with a laser printer. He said the results are similar to the scribed leaves, and proof-reading corrections are much easier!
There are Hindus in Bali who can still read the lontar, but their number is decreasing. Even the bundles themselves are not well cared for in all households. The present project has funding only for the government collection and is expected to end in a few more months. If funds become available, Catra said, they could extend the project to include lontar in private hands.


Om Tat Sat


(My humble salutations to Sadguru Sri Sivaya Subramuniyaswami ji, Satguru Bodhianatha Velayanswami ji, Hinduism Today for the collection)

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