Friday’s Faces & Places –Ubud, Bali

Ubud Village women en route to celebration
Ubud Village women en route to celebration

Wouldn’t it be interesting to climb into a time machine and voyage back far enough in time to understand just how certain cultural legacies began. I mean, what event prompted the Vikings to begin sacrificing their own warriors to their gods? Who was the first man (or hey, woman) to sit down by a rock of obsidian and begin chiseling away to make the first arrow sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel? What prompted the first yogi to stand on his head or stick a foot behind his neck? Who was the first guy to say, hey, I’m not wearing this robe anymore, I’m going to invent me…hmmm…I’ll call them trousers.

On Bali, volcanoes are the spiritual center of the island. So much so that local people signal direction by whether they’re going toward the volcano or away—as opposed to, say, east or west. The volcano Gunung Agung is the most sacred place on Bali. We don’t know why, but we can understand why something as physical as a volcano and as powerfully destructive could conceivably need appeasing by mere humans.

The Balinese are a deeply spiritual people and devote a good portion of every day to religious concerns. The main religion on Bali is a revised version of Hinduism mixed with a heavy dose of animism. The religion tries to create a balance in the universe by bringing out the best in their gods, and the many spirits. Their gods are a union of the main Hindu gods with various ancient animistic gods.

You might think with all the tourism, the younger generation might begin to move away from their religion. But that does not seem to be the case on Bali. On any given day, you will see a whole village dressed for one celebration or another, perhaps the birthday of one of the over 20,000 temples on Bali. And everyone in the village—young children, teenagers, grandparents—is dressed up for the occasion and marching down the street on their way to one temple or another.

Temple God Guarding the entrance
Temple God Guarding the entrance

One of the things I’d like to go back in time to discover how the custom began is the reason why Balinese are so happy, proud even, to have their photograph taken by a tourist. Maybe it’s because the first photographers to visit Bali somehow created an air of positivity, or artistry, regarding having your photo taken. Or maybe they consider it a privilege to be a part of someone’s art. Or something like that.

I don’t want to sound sexist on any level, but another thing I’d like to see how it began is the reason why women on Bali started wearing the skin-tight, lace blouses they now wear during ceremonies, instead of wearing nothing above their sarongs. In many shops on Bali, you can find postcards of old photos in black and white depicting women at a well fetching water, or standing by a carved-stone altar, wearing only a sarong and no top. By the way, the word “sarong” comes from this very part of the world. Both men and women still wear them. In the heat and humidity, it seems the ideal piece of clothing for both genders. But, things change. And isn’t that the point. Why and when do they change? Say 500 years from now, someone might be writing a post on her blog and wondering just why and who was the first guy to decide to use corn for fuel. Of course, all she’ll have to do is Google it, but you and I are going to need that time machine.

The ladies in this photo are dressed up for Galungan, an auspicious occasion and one of Bali’s major festivals, ten days of celebration, and villages decorated in bamboo and palm fronds.


  1. Great post. Reminds me of the time I lived in Bali. and you’re right – the younger generation still live their spirituality, its beautiful. Debbie


  2. Debbie,
    You lived in Bali? When was that? If it was a while ago, you may not like the way it has changed? I love it still, but if I had the power to change change, I would change it back.


    • A few years back. I already didnt like what had changed. Hard to know where to begin to comment.
      That’s why I loved your rice fields post. the Balinese have such deep feelings for something most people take for granted, like rice.
      you had somewhere a post about words.
      “paddy” as in ‘paddy fields” – rice fields – comes from indonesian word padi, meaning rice growing.

      words make a culture.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You are so right. Words do make a culture. Many times I will look up (google!) the etymology of some word, just to see where it came from, like sarong. Or shtik. Or algebra. Paddy seems a much more seductive term, seems more personal somehow than “field.”
        As for the changes in Bali…progress and commerce seem to have both positive and negative sides. You can still get away from all the tourism and hustle by renting a place outside the main towns. But sooner or later, you’re going to need eggs and Heineken, and you’ll find yourself in a giant supermarket wondering if you want that jar of peanut butter, instead of at the tiny warong for rambutans. The change I dislike most in Bali is that now they force you to wear a helmet when riding your motorbike. I’m really going to hate it when they no longer allow a family of 5 to ride on one bike. I never get tired of seeing that.

        Liked by 1 person

      • hi again, i’m replying to your reply, but it might appear out of synch on the page!
        yes..”paddy” or ‘paid’ is exactly so seductive because it is so PERSONAL. it invokes a direct relationship with the growing rice, which in Bali is sacred and honoured, by the worship of the Goddess. it’s much more than “just a field”.
        motorbikes with families of five – I used to see that in rural – and not so rural – Guangdong some years back. now its all cars cars cars, rarely even a bicycle to see.
        Some towns do remain partial to the use of bicycles though – but for the life of me i can’t think of which ones right now!
        Westerners rarely think about the impact on local indigenous cultures in their hunger to devour something spiritual, something beautiful, something by the sea or country in places like Bali. But the influence is deep and complex.
        It never ceases to amaze me how the Balinese remain so beautifully friendly, and how they integrate the spiritual into the every every day, so it just seems like having a cup of tea. which can also be a mediations 🙂
        when i lived there there was also a lot of conflict between the local balinese and other indonesians, esp from Java. the balinese tended to blame the javanese for the robberies, theft, and crimes and beggars etc that plague touristy places like Kuta. whether that’s true or not, I don’t know.

        I love the etymology of words.
        “ketchup” was another one that i discovered was indonesian or balinese – two distinct languages – that simply meant sauce!


  3. I always wonder who was the first person to ever ride an elephant or a horse. You know it had to be someone totally insane or drunk on moonshine to even try it.

    The culture of Bali does seem to be holding its own against mass tourism. I feel like I saw that exact lady in the top photo.


    • Jeff
      Ha! Yeah, who would look at an elephant and say, damn I’d like to climb up there and just ride over to Mok’s yurt. And how did they catch that first horse? You’re right, probably crazy AND toasted on brew and shrooms. And what about making that first brew…how did that happen? Someone left some potatoes in the pantry too long, they got rotten, and then someone decided to drink the rotten potatoes as vodka?

      Wouldn’t it be funny if you perused your photos and did come up with a photo of that same woman? It wouldn’t be too miraculous, because they all get dressed up so often, and hang in the same place…their own village/town.

      I wanted to ask you…is your theme a WP premium? I like the concept of clicking the photo to open the story. And the place to put a logo in the header. I like my theme, but it’s one continuous scroll.


  4. HEY Jude,
    Thanks much for stopping by. I’m not sure why I included that particular shot of the temple, when I have so many others that I could have inserted. Maybe because it was such a drastic difference from the image of the ladies? Looking at it again now, I think I would have preferred a bit more depth of field, but maybe that would have been just too busy. Anyway, I’m glad you liked it.


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