A brief look into a Hindu temple celebration on the island of Bali, Indonesia.
“Everybody here is my cousin!” exclaimed the smiling young man with a wide gesture around the increasingly crowded, open-air Hindu temple near a small village on the island of Bali. He was chatting away, practicing his English on me and doing very well; much better than I could in my few words of Indonesian, while we waited for tonight’s ceremony to begin. He introduced his small son and daughter and a few more of his relations, all dressed in their most colorful sarongs and (for the men) white caps. Next, he explained that this was a celebration of knowledge. The children had been studying about the local festivals and now we would celebrate what they had learned.
Colors filled the temple space. Against the ancient-appearing gray stones, everyone was dressed in pink, purple, green, gold, white, and orange. They were a bouquet of tropical blooms. Added to the people were the offerings of flowers and fruit placed on a low table in the front of the temple courtyard, and on each family’s individual altar. More pinks and reds and greens and purple!
It was a very hot evening for a westerner who had just arrived in Bali. Everyone but me knelt or sat on the broken stones of the roofless temple flooring. The stones radiated leftover heat from a normal tropical day, and I felt that I would only be able to breathe if I stood up. So I stood and took pictures and waited for something to happen.
More people came in, carrying their offerings. Maybe that was all that did happen, I thought to myself, dabbing at my soaked face with a shred of wet kleenex.
Then drums began, accompanied by loud, enthusiastic clanging as of pots and pans banging together. The sound was coming from outside the courtyard walls.
“Is that gamelan?” I asked the friend I was traveling with. She had spent the last three years teaching music in Indonesia, and was fluent in the language as well as in playing these instruments.
“Yep. Let’s go see.”
The tiny gamelan orchestra was on a covered platform in the courtyard of the temple. It consisted of old men on drums, young men on brass pots and boys playing cymbals gaily decorated with red pom-poms. The volume was tremendous, like being at a rock concert, but there was an illusion of more air out here, so I stayed. As I listened, watching a two year old bob around to the beat, I began to hear these noises as music. It’s like learning that “terima kasih” means “thank you” in this new place.
Children ran back and forth, up and down the stone steps and under the arch into the temple, followed by dogs and called-to by their mothers. A few of the hundreds of chickens which roamed the village braved the edges of the courtyard, pecking at fallen flowers or tidbits of banana.
Inside, something was beginning. We went back to our places, and I tried kneeling, awkward in my borrowed sarong. More waiting.
"Photo?" I asked the four little girls sitting next to me, holding up my camera. Giggles and excited chattering exploded from them. Then each girl became grave and dignified, making sure there was a flower behind an ear, and that their beautiful temple clothes were on display. This was the first photo--after that the bunch of them mugged it up, crowding together and leaning over each other's shoulders, grinning for the next few shots.
Not far away, priests dressed in white were going to each offering, sprinkling it with water from a bowl they carried. They dipped a flower into the bowl and shook it over the fruit. The best part of this was that they also sprinkled the people sitting by each offering. My new young friends showed me how to hold up my hands and bow my head while the priests came by, and helped me with the prayers afterward. I kept wondering if I had understood correctly about what we were celebrating--I never did find out what the children had learned.
Finally, everyone passed around the fruit and began to eat. I tried rambutan and snakeskin fruit; both were tangy and delicious and sweet. The rambutan were my favorite because of their bright red, spiky skins. Inside, they felt like a slimy little orange and were hard to hold onto! Best of all, though, they contained moisture, which I had been losing in gallons all evening and now really needed. My little neighbors showed me how to open the fruit and how not to eat the seeds.
We got up at last and said good-by. As we walked back to the village, I felt that I had somehow gained a whole temple-full of new friends. I mean, cousins.