OYOP: The Spirit of Ubud, Bali
Ubud, Bali is just one of those places that sticks with you. I didn’t see it at first. I first saw narrow streets jam packed with scooters and cars. I heard loud noises of dogs barking and roosters crowing. I met vendors ready to hassle and haggle in the streets with the many tourists like me into exhaustion. Mostly, I felt myself suddenly thrown back into “backpacking mode” after two months of easy living in Hawaii and Japan.
Whatever the feeling was upon arrival in Ubud, it didnt last long. The spirit of the Balinese people slowly crawled inside of me until it grabbed a hold of my heartstrings from which it will likely never leave. It is in the way that locals take special time and care each morning to set out offerings of fresh flowers, food, and incense and sprinkle it with holy water in front of their homes and temples. It is in the way that they bypass small talk and immediately start to ask questions about yourself or your country to make you more like family. And it is in the way a quick question about a Balinese mask turns into a deep conversation on how the power of patience is like water washing over a rock cliff in the sea.We spent 8 days in the small town of Ubud, and I could have stayed much longer. We practiced yoga twice daily at one of the local studios that attracts some of the best teachers worldwide because yogis love Bali. We visited the Monkey Forest Temple and spent the day roaming with and observing dozens of Balinese long-tailed macaque monkeys. We soaked in the beauty of the hundreds of Hindu temples and browsed the astonishing number of highly skilled crafts of woodwork, silver, bone carvings, and fabrics. Besides enjoying these uniquely Balinese experiences, we also had quite a few other memorable moments in our short time in Ubud.
Balinese Music & Dance
Every night in Ubud, multiple performances take place at local temples featuring the devoted and spiritual practices of the traditional Balinese music and dance. The shows, though in part are put on so frequently just for the attendance of tourists, successfully keep alive the ancient traditions and storytelling of Hindu gods and goddesses through music, chanting, masks, and complicated dances that involve long-practiced intricate movements of every body part from the eyes to the toes. The shows take place outdoors underneath the night sky, and they are put on by different communities within Ubud.
We attended two shows. The Lelong Dance was our first introduction to the enchanting Balienese gamelan music, an orchestra of chimes, drums, strings, and a woodwind flute, the suling, played continuously by one man practicing circular breathing for nearly the entire show. The accompanying dance was brilliant, a series of subtle yet complicated engaging movements perfectly in line with the music.
The Kecak Fire & Trance Dance show featured nearly one hundred men sitting cross-legged around a statue lit with candles chanting continuously as dancers dressed in elaborate costumes played out a story of Hindu gods and goddesses. The lack of ego and the greatness of spirit radiated in the dozens of men chanting and swaying with each other, and at times, laying on each other’s laps or moving their arms up and down in waves.
The entire performance was put on by nearly all of the adults in one of the communities in Ubud. At the end of the show, one man galloped on a straw horse around a fire of burning coconut shells. With bare feet, he kicked the flames and sent shining embers of fire to dance around in the black night. He repeated this until the fire was out, his feet were black, and I was hopeful that these cultural traditions and customs that make Bali so special are never lost or dwindled down to a paragraph in cultural texts as has happened in so many other cultural traditions around the globe.
A Royal Family Cremation
In the Balinese culture, following the death of a family member, the body is buried in a cemetery but is later cremated along with many others in a cremation ceremony. We thought there may be a chance that we could attend one of these regularly occurring ceremonies. We never guessed, however, that instead we would witness the much more rare, elaborate cremation ceremony of a royal family member.
The entire ceremony is a celebration of the life of the deceased and is carried on much like a festival. Hundreds of people gather at the temple where the final cremation will take place. Vendors sell food and drink, and sarongs to visitors who are allowed to attend but are asked to respectfully wear a sarong around the waist and legs, as is also expected in visiting other temples.
There was first a funeral procession, in which the coffin was carried throughout the streets of town in a decorative tower-like structure several stories high to indicate the importance of the deceased, in this case, a 90-year old princess of the royal family. The tower was set on a bamboo stretcher and carried by dozens of men on foot, while dozens more carried a large ornate bull structure to be used in the cremation. The entire procession was followed by community members and a gamelan orchestra, and ended at the temple.Once the procession reached the temple, what followed was a long, captivating process of lifting the bull structure onto the platform on which it would be burned. Meanwhile, women left beautiful offerings of flowers, coconuts, and other plants and food around the bull to be burned with the body.
It was during this ceremony that the magic of Ubud really set in for me. It was impossible not to be fully present in the moment, watching the community come together to celebrate the life of this one person in such a powerful and beautiful way. The crowd, the music, the way everyone worked together to carry these beautifully crafted and arduously heavy structures, was such an inspiring sight for me. It is when the entire community comes together and each member shows dedication, creativity, and passion that for me, creates the most beauty to be seen in any town or city around the world. Once the setup was completed, the coffin was removed from the tower, and the family marched it in circles around the bull to confuse the spirit from knowing its way back to earth. The body, wrapped in white silk, was then placed into the body of the bull structure. Finally, the crowd died down, the orchestra left, and with no words or music or really any warning, the bull was set to flames. It was an hours-long process, and yet, it felt so sudden that the bull was up in flames, and what remained was only ashes and the memory of one life commemorated in such a touching and spiritual way.
One of the best parts about Ubud is that you can scoot your way out of Ubud into another area in a matter of minutes. A traveler I met back in South America compared the traffic in Southeast Asia to the ocean. He said the scooters are like the giant schools of tiny fish moving together, the cars are the bigger fish, and the buses are giant sharks to be avoided at all costs. He also said that regardless of how daunted I might be, I would inevitably end up on a scooter. I thought, “ehh, I’d rather not be the smallest fish in an ocean full of sharks.” It turns out I was wrong. We rented a scooter several times in Ubud, and the thrill of scooting in the wind and the freedom of riding around Bali were indescribable fun.
On our scooter adventures, we visited important ancient temples outside of town. We saw the paradise of the less crowded areas outside of Ubud, where the rice fields are immense, the jungle is lush, and the flowers are the brightest hues of pink and yellow and blue. We casually made friends with a world renowned 8th generation mask maker, who invited us in his workshop and talked to us for hours about his craft, his culture, his spirituality, and his life.I couldn’t have asked for more in our time in Ubud. Everyone we got to know, from our yoga teachers to our homestay host to the lady we bought chocolate ice drinks from every afternoon, acted as though we’d been in Ubud for years, even though they see travelers like us come, fall in love, and leave suddenly all of the time. It seems no matter who comes and goes, the spirit of Bali remains. And that whoever is in Ubud at any moment is at that time, part of the family and the community and the spirit of Bali.