High spirits in Bali
Girls from villages around Ubud in Bali prepare to perform dances unique to the island, and that rest at the heart of its cultural identity. (Pete Seaward)
At the edge of a vivid green rice paddy, a farmer offers a share of his breakfast to unseen spirits. He arranges slices of banana and a handful of rice on a tray woven from palm fronds, burning a stick of incense to mingle his prayers for a rich harvest with the fragrant smoke that now drifts across the slopes. Rays of sunlight emerge between trees heavy with coffee beans and golden coconuts, carving through a cloud of mist that rests like a soft pillow on the valley below.
Cockerels appear from patches of dense tropical foliage to make their abrupt announcement of the arrival of dawn. Layers of sound fold one over another, the low beat of a dragonfly's wings joined by the calling of crickets, the clucking of a mother hen with her chicks, and the thrum of a motorcycle passing in the distance.
This close to the equator, life abounds. Hedgerows overflow with mangosteen, pineapple and papaya. Flocks of brilliant white egrets settle on the terraces of the rice fields, hungrily watching for fish in the clear waters that trickle through.
Another sound adds to the symphony of this landscape awakening from its slumber: the rhythmic sweeping of brooms in the courtyards of nearby dwellings. Parents and grandparents trim cascades of bougainvillea and frangipani, brushing away the fallen blooms, as children in crisp uniforms head off to school carrying simple twig brushes and sharp sickles to tidy the playgrounds.
Today as most days, offerings are being placed in the doorways of the houses and ornate family temples, at ground level to ward off demonic spirits and higher up to welcome the sun. Ritual is intricately woven into everyday life here. 'The people show such respect,' says Mr Agung Rai, a guide and ambassador of sorts for the district surrounding the town of Ubud, the geographical and cultural heart of Bali.
Agung Rai was born to a family of farmers who can trace their history back to the 14th century. In the 1970s he invited some of the first backpackers passing through Bali to stay in his family's simple one-room ancestral home, and to learn of the island's unique traditions. He invested in a motorbike to carry them around, sold them a few paintings and started down the road that would one day see him create a gallery, a boutique hotel and a beautiful museum of art in Ubud. He has travelled to Europe to buy and bring home Balinese paintings and weavings collected during the time of Dutch colonial influence over Indonesia - in the 19th and early 20th century - and has set up schools for local children to learn traditional forms of dance, music and painting.
In the most humble detail, he sees wonder. 'It's not just clean here, it's artistic. Look, a living sculpture, the controller of the village,' he says as he points to a gruff dog watching us from a gatepost. Dogs are said to have an instinctive ability to detect the demonic spirits that are so significant to Balinese beliefs, their barks being welcomed at night as they chase negative forces away.
As we head back out into the paddy fields, he lights a clove-scented cigarette and points to the shadowy, still-active volcano that shares its name with him - Gunung Agung, the tallest, most sacred mountain on Bali, from which rivers are said to flow and the volcanic soil gains its rich fertility. He smiles as we encounter what he terms 'a Balinese tractor': another farmer, this time attempting to guide two small chestnut-brown cows and a plough through freshly harvested land, knee-deep in mud and water.
Abundant rice harvests are common on Bali, and reveal the benefits of pulling together. For at least a millennium organisations of rice farmers have existed, today known as subaks and often led by the farmer whose plot is at the lowest point on a terrace of rice paddies. His job is to make sure that water is distributed equally between every village and plot of land in the area. The members of the subak meet in their own temple to arrange repairs to the maze of irrigation channels that sustain them, and to plan when to start weeding, ploughing, planting, harvesting or even allowing flocks of ducks in their fields. 'It is very rare to see conflict. The temple helps to unify the members,' says Agung Rai. 'They believe that god is their witness and they cannot lie.'