Old ways survive in Bali despite mass tourism, but for how long?

Indonesian island with its unique religion and culture is preparing for Nyepi, the day when everything shuts.

Balinese dancers in traditional costumes in front of ogoh-ogoh effigies. The giant statues represent evil spirits
Giant effigies are paraded through the streets ahead of the Nyepi festival [File: Firdia Lisnawati/AP Photo]

Bali, Indonesia – At dawn, as the first shards of light dance over the rice fields in the seaside village of Seseh on Bali’s west coast, Putu and her husband Made, who like many Indonesians go by one name only, spend an hour reciting prayers and distributing small palm leaf baskets containing offerings to ensure the health of the coming harvest.

Later in the day, their 11-year-old daughter will attend a class for “sanghyang dedari”, a sacred trance dance for girls that is designed to counteract negative supernatural forces.

Meanwhile, her two older brothers will hone their skills on wooden xylophones and hand drums as part of a traditional “gamelan” orchestra in preparation for a ceremony celebrating the completion of a new Hindu temple, one of more than 10,000 on the island.

In the coming weeks, Made and his children will help their neighbours create giant “ogoh-ogoh” dolls, representations of evil mythological creatures fashioned from wood, bamboo, paper and styrofoam, that will be paraded through the streets and set alight the night before Nyepi, the Balinese Hindu new year.

Taking place this year on March 11, Nyepi, or the “day of silence”, will see every light on the island turned off, transport come to a halt and the airport close. Everyone, Balinese or not, will stay at home to give evil spirits the impression there is nothing to be found on the island.

“Every day I lay offerings, attend a ceremony or go to a temple,” Putu told Al Jazeera. “I do this because I am Hindu, because I believe. My children do the same and when they have children, they will do the same also.”

A close up of traditional Balinese offerings. There are small palm leaf baskets containing flowers and petals
Balinese place small palm leaf baskets containing offerings around their homes, fields, temples and buildings every day [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

The Balinese anomaly

Putu’s hopes for the future are shared with the vast majority of Balinese, an island where a hybrid Hindu-Buddhist religion based on ancestor worship and animism dating back to the first century has survived and even thrived in the face of mass tourism.

By 1930, tourist numbers reached several hundred per year. Last year, 5.2 million foreigners along with 9.4 million domestic holidaymakers visited Bali, according to government data, and the island is developing at breakneck speed to cater to the demand.

The negative effects of such tremendous growth are illustrated in the murals of Balinese artist Slinat, who marries the iconic photographs of Balinese dancers with contemporary emblems like gas masks and dollar bills.

“These old photos were the first images used to promote tourism in Bali and convey that it is an exotic place. They kick-started tourism in Bali,” Slinat told Al Jazeera. “But then we had too much tourism and it ruined the exoticness of Bali. So I created this parody to express how much things have changed here since those photos were taken.”

Nevertheless, Balinese traditional culture and religion have remained resilient in the face of the tourist onslaught, which is something of an anomaly compared with other tourist hot spots around the world.

“When local people entertain tourists, they adapt [to] tourists’ needs, attitudes and values and ultimately start to follow them. By following tourists’ lifestyle, young people bring changes in the material goods,” was the finding of a study on the impact of tourism on culture that was published in 2016 in the Journal of Tourism, Hospitality and Sports.

The study said the Pokhara-Ghandruk community in Nepal was a textbook example, where “the traditional fashion, behaviour and lifestyle of young Gurungs have been severely affected by tourism … [who] disobey their elders’ Kinship titles”. It said Indonesia was an exception – a country where “to attract distant tourists, children nurture local customs to create a strong and authentic base of cultural components without disrupting ancestors’ values”.

Empty Bali airport during Nyepi. Tow security guards in traditional black and white checked sarongs are keeping watch
There are no flights in or out of Bali’s international airport on Nyepi day and tourists must stay in their hotels [File: Fikri Yusuf/Antara Foto via Reuters]

A lecturer in traditional architecture at Warmadewa University in Bali, I Nyoman Gede Maha Putra explains the roots of that approach.

“Colonial government policies dating back to the 1930s that promote how the Balinese should be Balinese, including school curriculums, production of traditional foods and beverages and unsparing investments in religious buildings have played a key role in preserving culture and religion on the so-called Island of the Gods,” he said, adding that construction codes formalised in the 1970s that required no new building to be no taller than a coconut tree had helped maintain “a sense of the place” on the island.

“Soon, all our young people will start making ogoh-ogoh paper statues for Nyepi. No one will be left out. They will enjoy the process, they will enjoy the parades, and feel proud when the tourists see what they’ve made. And our daily ceremonies will continue because we believe very strongly that our ancestors’ ghosts live around us and our ceremonies are the only way we can communicate with them,” Maha Putra said.

A facade

Others say it is the adaptability of Balinese culture that has made it resilient.

“Balinese culture is not static,” I Ketut Putra Erawan, a lecturer in political science at Bali’s Udayana University,  told Al Jazeera. “Time and time again it has shown it has the power to reinvent itself through the problems and opportunities we face; things like tourism, social media, individualism, capitalism and mass culture. It finds new ways to make itself relevant to young people in new times.”

But these new shapes and expressions are not as solid as those of the past, he cautions.

“Today we are flooded with so much information and misinformation, and what that tends to do is promote the skin of the culture, the outside element of the culture, things like consumerism and fashion, but not the core of the culture,” Erawan said. “Many people prioritise the wrong things in their cultural expressions. They are much more interested in dressing like Balinese and telling everyone on social media they are Balinese instead of obtaining the high level of knowledge needed to understand our complex culture and religion.”

Rio Helmi, an Indonesian photographer whose work focuses on the interaction between Indigenous peoples and their environment, agrees.

He fears time is working against Balinese culture.

“As to the strength of the culture, I think there is some truth to that,” he told Al Jazeera. “But a lot of it is about identity rather than involvement in the deeper side of the culture and its values. What I am seeing now feels more like form over function. People always repeat the phrase ‘tri hita karana’ – maintaining a good relationship between man and God, man and nature, man and the environment – but often it feels like a slogan, a bandage to cover up bad things like people building on sacred land. We have to be careful about making generalisations as there are still many people who live traditionally. But the power of money is everywhere.”

Women in traditional clothing walk along the street in a ceremony. They are balancing offerings of fruit and flowers shaped into a tower.on their heads. They are wearing white lace tops and orange sarons.
Ceremonies take place every day in Bali, including in popular tourist locations [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Today, multi-storey hotels and condominiums many times taller than coconut trees are popping up across the island’s traditional rice fields. However the biggest display of the disparity between form and function, Helmi says, will be on display during the ogah-ogah procession in Ubud, the spiritual heart of Bali that has expanded from a sleepy cultural village into a bustling tourist hotspot, where there will be loudspeakers, souvenir vendors and bandstands.

“It will be a real show put on for tourists, whereas in the villages the events will be about introspection, the sense of the year coming to an end and chasing the demons out. It is their moment, their culture. It is not a show,” Helmi said.

Source: Al Jazeera