Those who appreciate the customs, traditions and the heritage of people from different regions of the world will find Bali a treasure trove. Bali was lightly populated until about 2,000 years ago when the first Hindus landed on its shores. Much of Bali’s peerless culture and beautiful monuments is derived from these original pioneers.
Neighbouring Java assumed control in the 14th century and reigned supreme for 200 years until Bali became independent. Many Javanese fled to Bali in the ensuing years and brought their own customs and traditions which added to what nowadays is labelled the unique Balinese culture. This influence is evident in traditional dances, the wayang style of puppet theatre and even in some famous buildings.
Bali’s eclectic annual festival calendar is a true reflection of Balinese heritage. For most Balinese, Galungan is the most important festival. This 10-day-long event honours dead relatives who it is said return to their old homes. Their families have to be hospitable by praying for the good health of the spirits and hanging offerings from tall poles made out of bamboo.
On the 10th day of Galungan, Kuningan, the spirits go back to their heavenly abodes and this gives the green light for parties and celebrations to begin the next day. When Galungan actually occurs is dictated by the historic Balinese calendar. This has only 210 days in one year and so Galungan is celebrated every seven months according to the Gregorian calendar.
Nyepi is the Balinese New Year and the dates for this are decided by the cycles of the moon. To celebrate Nyepi, Balinese are supposed to be silent, stay in their homes and do nothing except reflect on their lives. Tourists are supposed to say inside their accommodation too and not upset the status quo. The day after Nyepi is known as Ngembak Geni and is when the celebrations begin.
There are a number of rituals that herald the onset of the New Year. The most colourful are the ogoh-ogoh devil statue parades on Nyepi Eve. The other landmark annual events worth timing your Bali holidays to coincide with are the Makepung Buffalo Races, the heats of the Bali Kite Festival at Padanggalak, Sanur Village Festival and Bali Arts Festival.
A number of hotels and restaurants on Bali stage traditional dance performances for the delectation of dinner guests. Laka Leke is on the road from Nyuh Kuning Village to the Ubud Monkey Forest. Dancers and performers enact the kecak fire dance, the frog dance, the joged children’s dance and the kris dance on alternating evenings.
The nightly kecak fire dance shows at Uluwatu Temple are an amazing spectacle. The performances take place at sunset and are a major draw for tourists. Tour companies from right across southern Bali offer this as one of their options. Dancers at Devdan Theatre shows dress in traditional costume and illustrate traditional dance routines.
Museums are another option to learn about Balinese history and heritage. Museum Puri Lukisan in Ubud is a celebration of local painters and wood carvers. It houses works from Batuan and Ubud artists in addition to the modern Sanur-style of artworks. Denpasar’s Bali Museum is packed with the likes of archaeological exhibits, masks, sculptures and old-time musical instruments.