Another Day Unfolds in Bali.

There is a calm urgency about my mornings in Bali. I’m keen to arrive at the beach a little before 6 am, drawn by the dawn but also by the anticipation of catching a sighting of Mt Agung on the horizon. When Guning Agung is in hiding, I admit I’m disappointed, and move along with my day a little more quickly.

Gunung Agung

I head along the beach pathway in the direction of the cake lady’s stall, situated on the brick wall at Pantai Sindhu. You have to be early to buy her freshly made Dadar Gulung. All her special cakes have been snapped up by 7am. She is round and sweet, just like her cakes and greets me with Selamat Datang if I’ve been away for a while. If it’s her day off or if she has ceremony, I wander down the road to the Sindhu market to buy cakes there, along with a hand of bananas or a few mangoes. Indonesian cakes are light and sweet, and incorporate three main ingredients- sticky rice, coconut and coconut palm sugar, and come in an endless array of shapes, colours and textures. They are boiled, steamed, baked or fried, often enclosing a secret ooze of bean or palm syrup and are small enough to wolf down in two bites. I’m very fond of green cakes, a colour extracted from the Pandanus leaf and striped jelly cakes made from agar-agar.

Today’s surprise package from a new lady at Pasar Sindhu. A triangular parcel, made from banana leaf, filled with a sweet mixture of black long grain sticky rice, boiled jaja, shredded fresh coconut and a generous drizzle of coconut palm sugar syrup. I did not share this wonderful concoction with anyone.

Yesterday’s Pasar Sindhu was alive and more frantic than usual. By 6 am, motorbikes and trucks had filled the small carpark entrance. Something was going on and I had to find out. The rows were crowded with vendors of cakes, ceremonial nic nacs, chicken stalls and flowers: I could sense excitement and frenzy, that buzz that permeates markets before a big festivity, akin to the mad rush in Melbourne markets before Easter or Christmas. I sought out my friend Ketut: she runs a little kitchen ware stall at Pasar Sindhu and is a goldmine of information. Today, she informed me, was Tumpek Wayang. 

Ketut’s shop, Sindhu Market.
Ceremonial Baskets, Sindhu Market

When Ketut mentioned Wayang, or puppets, I almost ran home to my books and internet, keen to find out more about the day and the ceremonies that would follow. Along the footpath and business doorways of Jalan Danau Tamblingan, I almost tripped over the elabourate displays of Canang Sari. Today’s floral offerings were completely different, much bigger than the usual little baskets, with rectangular bedding of palm leaves and another jagged edged leaf, as well as flowers. Each business had the same leafy arrangement- another mystery to uncode.

Tumpek Wayang, occurring every six months, is a festival when puppeteers perform purification rites to purify their bodies both physically and mentally. It is also a day of the performing arts, when offerings may be made to musical instruments and dance equipment. On this day, puppeteers (Dalang) throughout the island will present offerings to their shadow puppets (wayang kulit) with the intention of honouring the Lord Iswara. The puppets are taken out of their cases to be blessed by their owners and placed as if an actual performance is being held. This ceremony is staged at the different temples, and is called Sapuh Leger. In short, this is the day of puppeters and the puppets themselves.

I have profound memories of the puppeteers and Balinese shadow plays, Wayang Kulit, of old Bali. On our first trip to Bali in 1978, travelling then with two young children, aged 8 and 7, we set out at dusk on a horse and cart into the countryside to see this famous shadow play. The night was dark: no street lighting or electric lighting of any kind lit the streets or houses back then. The village was lit by kerosene lamps. On that occasion, we were the only Westerners in the village. Fortunately we were met by the local schoolteacher. He spoke English and kindly offered us some tea and green cakes – my love of Indonesian cakes began on that day. The Wayang Kulit stage was raised and broad, covered in a long stretched white sheet and back-lit by a flickering lamp. The exotic sounds of the gamelan orchestra tinkled through the night, as hundreds of villagers sat below the stage in the dark and watched in awe. We took our place in the audience as the puppets performed the Ramayana, a show that lasts for 6 hours or more, as we soon found out. At some point we realised that we needed to exit gracefully: carrying our sleepy children, we managed to find a horse and cart to take us back to our palm thatched losmen.

Today’s Tumpek Wayang celebrations were in full swing by mid afternoon.  As the amplified voice of the puppet master, exaggerated and theatrical, emanated loudly from the nearby temple, I wondered whether the voice I heard was that of a real working Dalang or a recording: there aren’t so many working Dalangs in Bali these days, ( in 1990 there were around 2-300 Dalangs but only 30 working Dalangs ¹) not because of any demise in tradition, but because the role of Dalang is a demanding one, requiring skill in story telling, improvisation, comedy, linguistic skill, religion, singing, music, orchestra direction, puppet making as well as stamina. 

As food stalls began to line the streets, groups slowly gathered, dressed in white and gold, the colours of purity, and walked towards the temple for the ceremony, due to start at 4.30 pm.

Most days go like this in Bali. After 40 years of visiting, I’m still trying to fathom the mysteries and joys of Balinese Hinduism. Sunrise to sunset and the time in between may bring an afternoon ceremony, a seaside cremation, or a purification ritual. Read the signs and keep your senses alert to gongs, bells and gamelan, then ask the locals about the day’s events. If you wish to join in, or visit any temple or ceremony, you’ll need the right outfit- a top with sleeves, a traditional printed cotton sarong and a scarf tied around the waist. While Balinese women tend to wear a lace kabaya, it is acceptable for westerners to wear any other sleeved shirt or T-shirt. Balinese men go for the double sarong on ceremonial days and look extremely dashing. Western men need only learn to tie their sarong in the appropriate way, worn over shorts. 

¹ For further reading on Balinese ceremony and culture, see Bali, Sekala &Niskala, Essays on Religion, Ritual and Art. Fred B. Eiseman, Jr. Tuttle Publishing 1990. A remarkable book and a must for lovers of Balinese culture.

Balinese Memukur. Water Purification Ceremony by the Sea

The sound of gamelan moves closer, an exotic percussion that is repetitive and hypnotic, as we wake from our afternoon slumber and follow the procession down to the sea. Another Balinese ceremony is about to take place.

White dressing for the last funeral stage, Memukur. Sanur, Bali.

The Balinese will often tell you that they won’t be around for a few days as they have a ceremony to attend. Religious and family ceremonies are an important part of the fabric of Balinese life. Hindu ritual and observance is strictly upheld, despite the massive level of tourism in southern Bali. Balinese often return to their family village in the country for these events: they are always in touch with the ever shifting Hindu calendar. I’m forever asking questions, trying to fathom the significance of each new ceremony that I come across.

Gamelan orchestra, Sanur.

Memukur is a traditional Balinese ceremony for the passed away spirit. The purpose of this ceremony is to purify the spirit to send it off into reincarnation. It must be purified by water so it may return to heaven to begin the process of reincarnation. According to tradition, the deceased returns to human life in the form of the next born family member after these rituals. White is the colour worn during Memukur, with bright sashes and golden sarongs for the women, and white shirts and traditional dark sarongs for the men. The carefully tied udeng is worn as a hat on these occasions.

Ceremonial dress, men wearing the udeng.

The assembled group wait patiently for the priest to arrive, who performs the water purification ceremony. This is not a sad occasion yet the gathered are quiet and respectful. Some of the younger boys in the gamelan band joke quietly together: young women occasionally glance at their mobile phones.

Waiting, waiting.

A collective sigh can be heard as the elderly priest arrives in a black car and slowly moves to the raised platform to perform the purification rites.

The purification ritual begins. Sanur beach, Bali

The gamelan orchestra begins again, with increasing percussion from gongs and hammered xylophones and background wind instruments.

Gamelan orchestra, Bali
Gamelan, sanur beach, memukur ceremony

The Balinese don’t mind foreigners witnessing these ceremonies. Some points of etiquette need to be observed.

  • Do not walk in front of people when they are praying.
  • Do not use flash or point your camera at the priest’s face.
  • Never sit higher than the priest, the offerings and/or people praying.
  • During cremation ceremonies, never get in the way of attendees. Stand at a respectable distance, somewhere along the sides or in the background.
  • The bikini clad and shirtless should stay well away.

    It’s not unusual for the assembled to be happy at this final stage of a funeral process.