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“If you haven’t been to Ubud, then you haven’t been to Bali,” says the bespectacled middle-aged woman sitting next to me on the flight from Jakarta. She’s my aunt. Half- awake, I watch Mount Merapi poke its nose through the clouds, snorting steam at the rising sun. “Ubud is to Bali what Yogyakarta is to Java, the cultural heart of the island,” she says.

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As I catch a taxi, I call up my cross-cultural expert in Jakarta, Ali Syarief. He gives me a number and tells me Ubud might look like a town, but it is really 14 villages, each run by its own committee. “If it’s party time you want, Ubud is strictly a no-go zone,” he says.

Instead, we might chance on a Barong ritual, a dance-drama with tales of battles between the mythical witch Rangda (representing evil) and Barong the lion or dragon (representing good).

“The performers fall into a trance, and attempt to stab themselves with sharp knives,” he tells me.

The billboards, advertising rafting, Safari World and fine silver never really fade during the hour and a half it takes to drive the 25 kilometers from Ngurah Rai airport to Ubud. The driver points out where we can buy batik, silver and even where to turn off to the volcano. We jump out of the taxi when we see eco-shops.

The manager of our family-run homestay makes us Balinese coffee and proudly shows us his fighting cocks.

A Balinese temple is a pura, and unlike the towering indoor Indian Hindu temples, the Hindu temples of Bali are designed as open-air places of worship within enclosed walls, compounds connected with intricately decorated gates. Some temples are associated with the family house compound (also called banjar in Bali), others are associated with rice fields and still others with key geographical sites.

Temples are tolerated, but portable aunts don’t thrive on the finer points of chickens with spurs. This aunt split from my bags and disappeared in a market at the corner of Jalan Monkey Forest and Jalan Raya Ubud, a double-story warren of stalls bursting at the seams with wood carvings, batik shirts, sarongs and all manner of other souvenirs aimed specifically at tourists, and built above and around a fresh food pit.

Ritualized states of self-control (or lack thereof) are a notable feature of religious expression among the people, who for this reason have become famous for their graceful and decorous behavior. What is really going on in Ubud that isn’t sanctioned by the Tourism Board and aired in glossy magazines? I call the number that Ali gave me.

A man in his mid-40s turns up at my homestay in traditional dress. “You are very lucky,” says I Made Sana, my cultural guide. “Today’s temple festival is once a year. Its auspicious, praying for this time and leading into the new moon cycle.”

Twenty minutes later, on the back of a motorbike having passed through streets where every second shop sells wood carvings, I am in a clearing in the forest. Nearby, in a deep valley, farmers are going about the cultivation of rice; a dwarf is cutting this year’s harvest.

We are at a pura mraje pati (a Balinese cemetery), small headstones surrounded by bamboo fences holding back the forest. A woman pours fresh Balinese coffee on a grave. Another offers sweets wrapped in banana leaves. This ritual of making offerings to the recently deceased (coffee, rice, snacks) is a way of cleansing any impurities, so that the people from Tegallalang village can enter their temple without any repercussions from their pantheon of gods and goddesses.

Sana tells me memungung is an offering to the spirit of the dead, and to the dead they are offering milk, coffee, cakes, sweets and even cigarettes.

They are chanting “Sam Ba Yung,” a special prayer for the dead. “Please wake up and eat our offerings,” they say. It’s a soft kind of joyful mourning, with a touch of the macabre. The village head, Wayang, explains the significance of this ritual.

Sana says, “Whenever someone in Bali dies and we cannot cremate them immediately, we have the funeral ceremony, asking permission from the gods to keep them safe, and bring back the five elements of the human being before they are cremated. Earth, liquid, heat or light and the universe are integral parts of Shiva symmetry.”

The graves are temporary. After a year or so of resting in the ground, relatives will dig up the bodies and cremate the bones in an open-air ceremony.

The men are singing now, inviting the dead to have a light snack or meal that lies at the base of the headstone. A lady nearby, who speaks English, asks me if I am single. I say yes. She says her friend, a widow, who is making offerings to her deceased husband, is single too.

I head for Sana and safety. He explains that his wife’s aunt will be cremated in between 6 and 12 month’s time. He adds that a committee of cremation was set up by the government to reduce the number of cremation days in Bali. “First,” says Sana, “it makes cremation cheaper. Second, it means we don’t have bodies burning every day of the year.”

We leave the cemetery for a cockfight, which is allowed in Bali during ceremonies. It’s the day of the Kajeng Kliwong, a vicious sport, where cocks wear sharp spurs and fight to the death. I arrive for the last fight of the day in a large stadium, which is more like an open-air market with a gambling pit. The fight is over in two minutes. One owner scoops up a bloodied rooster. Another looks at slices, blood and feathers. “The proceeds go toward building infrastructure,” Sana says.

A quick stop at Sana’s house. “The women at my home have a ceremony in my household every day,” he says. “At the new moon, the village makes a procession to protect us for the new month. We have other festivals, too, that are every seven months. It depends on the temples and size.”

He shows me the tree that shades his house, dripping in mangoes. “I bought the plant for 1,000 rupiah when my daughter turned 4 and went to kindergarten,” he says. Sitting on Sana’s shelves, are examples of his woodwork, from dolphins, to large wooden phallus carvings, which are popular items at the market.

His father is making the Hindu offerings, fruit, flowers, rice, on banana leaf squares, you see almost everywhere. His wife makes them, too, and sells them at the market, keeping a tradition alive.

“Many of the Balinese work in hotels and other places, and don’t have time to make these things,” Sana says. He’s talking about canang, or thanks to the gods. Saeban is a small offering of thanks for a meal.

He wraps a few sarongs around me and a headscarf, so that I blend in with the local Balinese. Now we are ready to enjoy one of Ubud’s amazing festivals, the celebration of the sixth new moon. The intention today is to chase out the bad spirits before tomorrow’s new moon.

I had caught Sana on one of the most important days of the Hindu calendar, but that doesn’t stop him from picking me up and inviting me to his village’s festivities. We arrive in time for the procession and before the monsters parade on the streets, following the four cardinal directions, north, east, south and west. Ahead lurches Barong, the good spirit, hard at work protecting us from the evil Rangda.

The ceremony continues at the Temple of the Dead. Statues of earthly delights look down, tempting the flesh, pendulous breasts of one ornate statue representing evil. This temple is where, in the past, Ubud’s kings were cremated. Its spirits are being mischievous, and for the life of me I can’t get one photo in focus.

At the west junction, the priests set up shop. The music is a constant tribal drum beat. Bamboo instruments emit eerie tunes. A knife flashes and slashes at the throat of a baby pig. The gods now appeased by sacrifice, upbeat and more festive music starts playing from speakers. Rising notes of mourning come from women who recite prayers throughout the evening.

We head back to Sana’s village temple. There we all sit down, spilling outside of the temple and saying our final prayers, hopefully purging any last evil spirits as the new moon arrives.

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10 thoughts on “Ubud Undercover: Where Bali Comes to Life

  1. Reblogged this on ubudadventure and commented:
    This is a story about me, Jungle Man, written by my friends! It first appeared in the Jakarta Globe. Enjoy!

    Oh, if you need a good tour guide in Ubud, please text me , I also have two rooms I offer for couch surfers, first night free, next night 100 000 Rupiah.

    Mobile: +62 (0) 81339172441

  2. Everything about Bali is amazing! Once you get there, you’ll find out the best harmony of nature and its culture

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