Delicately carved wooden statues in realistic proportions embellish people’s houses, floral designs are intricately sculpted on temple figurines, and sturdy yet delicate rock-hewn statues stand at major roundabouts and intersections. It is in Bali where statues hold a more significant role in people’s lives than merely pleasing the eyes.
Balinese Hinduism – a very different form of Hinduism than the one practiced in India – emphasizes on satisfying the gods and spirits through aesthetic rituals. Hence the ever-present deity statues. The world-renowned Balinese artistic finesse, despite current commercialization to some extent, is a long tradition dating back to the time when Hinduism was predominant in Indonesia. As the religion flourished, so too did the local craftsmanship which resulted in some of Indonesia’s greatest monuments, the temples of Borobudur and Prambanan.
However in the 13th century a new religion arrived in the archipelago, arising from the northern tip of the island of Sumatra. Within the next few centuries Islam spread rapidly throughout the region, until it reached Java and and forced many Hindus – including royal families – to flee to the nearby island of Bali.
Those who remained in Java retreated to isolated places deep in the forest or on mountain slopes, far enough from the coastal regions where new Islamic kingdoms thrived. A theory argues that when the Hindu royal families fled Java, they took their finest sculptors along with them. Hence the lack of finesse at Hindu temples constructed during the decline of the religion in Java, like Candi Sukuh.
Today Bali is a stronghold of Hinduism in Indonesia, with more than 90% of the locals adhering to the religion. Despite its relatively small size – smaller than the island of Corsica and the state of Delaware – Bali is one of the main tourism growth engines of Indonesia, and in many cases is more well-known than Indonesia itself.
It is often dubbed the ‘Island of the Gods’ for its veneration of almost everything. From volcanoes to cliffs, lakes to beaches, and rice fields to rivers. Balinese believe that gods and spirits reside in those places, among others, hence the rich and varying cultural scenes throughout the island – it’s a trait that draws me back again and again.