High spirits in Bali
Bali is made up of communities within communities, and communities overlaying other communities. Houses tend to be passed through families rather than sold, rice fields are shared with those who need them the most, the religions of others are respected, and it's a matter of deep-held belief that visitors should be greeted with warmth. Families, clans, villagers, royalty, fishermen and rice farmers - most are guided by a trust in karma and a set of ancient rituals followed in the many thousands of temples spread across this island, which is barely 90 miles long.
Dewi Sri is the Balinese Hindu goddess of fertility and prosperity, and it is to her that the rice farmers so carefully present offerings in the simple bamboo shrines at the edge of each field, just as we had witnessed earlier. The deity's figure is identified with the rice spirit that had been worshipped by the original people of Bali, before Indian traders brought the Hinduism that became widespread in the 7th century. Waves of Hindu migrants and rulers arrived in Bali in the centuries that followed, determinedly escaping the spread of Islam through Java and the surrounding islands. While 93 per cent of Bali's population is officially Hindu, the version of the religion practised here is like no other. Influences of Buddhism and Confucianism can be found - again relics of waves of migration traceable to lands as distant as northern India and China - and the animistic beliefs of the indigenous Balinese remain a guiding influence for much of daily life.
Demonic spirits are said to lurk all around, with landmarks and prominent natural objects their favoured hiding places - crossroads, graveyards, rivers, large rocks, particular trees. From a marketplace to a school to the grounds of a luxury resort, shrines are built so offerings can be left to keep these spirits content.
One of Bali's grandest temples lies just 10 minutes from the chaotic streets of Ubud. The jungle itself appears to have given birth to the Pura Samuan Tiga, a sprawl of monumental gateways, staircases, and pavilions for joyous dance performances, sacrificial cockfights and the solemn placement of offerings. The temple dates from the 11th century, was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1917, and has always been known as a place of religious unity - the marriage of Buddhist Balinese king Udayana and Hindu Javanese princess Mahendradatta are woven into the legend of its origins. Guardian spirits are represented by fearsome sandstone statues, wild eyed, teeth exposed, clad in thick coats of moss and lichen. A great banyan tree looms over the temple, its long tendrils grasping at the soil below; this is 'the king of the king of all trees,' says Agung Rai, and a formidable home for the spirits that live within.
Clapping and singing echo across the central courtyard, as a teacher leads a group of doll-like eight- and nine-yearold girls in a dance lesson. Sashes are pulled, arms gently twisted, eyes encouraged to flick dramatically left then right. Intense concentration swaps for giggles as one of the girls stumbles a fraction while trying to keep time with the heart-clutching melody of the song.
Anna, Citra, Riska, Meri and Tari live in villages spread across the Ubud district and gather to practise their dance moves three times a week. Their teacher, Ni Luh Mas Sriyati, was born into a line of performing artists and musicians. She started learning to dance at the age of eight and by 10 had ventured on a month long tour of Australia. 'In Bali we have a special culture,' she says. 'In many of our ceremonies, dancing is still connected with prayer. We feel that if we do not learn how to dance, life is not complete.'