Dance, Trance and the Bali Spirit

Culture | Written By, Ayu Sekar | October 11th, 2017

Balinese ceremonies will always provide a little something. Something visual, something surprising, something out of the ordinary. People come together at their village temple, primarily to pray to their gods, yet at the same time it keeps each community strong and connected.

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It is this regular procession of temple festivals or Odalan, which happen in each temple every 210 days, that keeps Bali strong. Towering offerings, extraordinary processions featuring long lines of identically dressed women each carrying a tall offering on their head as they walk in unison to their temple, dance, prayer and even trance are sights which make Bali famous and sights you will never see anywhere else.

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These are outward signs of this amazing amalgam of a Buddhist-Hindu religion, with touches of more ancient animistic and shamanistic traditions which all work together to form Bali’s rich culture. Many of the old texts come directly from Hindu India, yet even in India they are now lost in the mists of time. Bali has kept many ancient texts, faithfully recorded on fragile lontar leaves and stored carefully, wrapped up and tucked away in deep recesses of the temples.

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Not every ceremony will include trance, although it is more prevalent than we could imagine. Trance is a state into which many Balinese fall easily. It is regarded as possession by spirits and make for a stronger connection with the gods. To us westerners, it seems incredible, amazing, but to the Balinese, it is accepted, almost as commonplace. Yet trance or no trance, there will always be incredible dance performances and prayer, all punctuated by the stirring sounds of gamelan or gong. Ancient gamelan ensembles are brought out for special ceremonies, some played only once or twice a year, on very special occasions.

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Entertainment for the gods is a high priority as their descent to the realm of mere mortals, requires major attention. The best dancers are invited to perform, in full regalia, full makeup and somehow full power – stronger than any cultural show you may see at a hotel or restaurant. It is the real thing.

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While Karangasem is the home of the most arcane ceremonies, extraordinary occurrences happen all over the island, even surprisingly, in Kuta. Behind the tourist façade of shops and bars, discos, beach boys and late night rampages through the darkened streets, the hedonistic life, cannot dampen Bali’s culture which remains surprisingly strong, although probably in Kuta, you would need to be invited to witness the amazing spectacles.

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In Ubud, ceremonies are surprisingly, more open to those interested. Most anyone appropriately dressed will be welcomed or at least tolerated at a temple ceremony, although, for many, a dance performance is enough.

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Ceremonies keep the people of Bali grounded and alive to their traditions and while many a young man, or businesslike woman may seem quite modern on the outside, deep within, beats the heart of a true Balinese, who can accept with great equanimity, the duality of their fast changing world.

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Ayu Sekar

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