Spirit & Culture at The Palm Tree House

First inhabited around 2,000 BC, Bali’s cultural roots run very deep. The ‘Island of the Gods’ often feels like an endless festival – with more than 20,000 temples on the island and thousands of Gods to worship, there are always ceremonies to remind locals and visitors that life is meant to be celebrated. Bali’s unique traditions and beliefs can be truly fascinating for visitors to the island.

For almost a thousand years, the native Balinese have followed a unique form of Hinduism, now known as Agama Hindu Dharma: a direct descendant of the religion brought to Bali by visiting Hindu gurus. The Balinese religious calendar dictates days of obligation, celebration, feast days and daily rituals. These special days connect every Balinese person to their family, community, ancestors and gods.

The strong link between the Balinese and their religion ensures that the island retains a unique identity among the rest of Southeast Asia. The Balinese people’s adherence to their unique culture means that it has successfully resisted the commercialization and homogenization suffered by many other tourist islands. The Balinese temples, dances, and ceremonies are very much part of the experience of visiting Bali.

When it comes to the Gods that they worship, the Balinese believe in the trimurti of Brahma, Wisnu (Vishnu) and Siwa (Shiva), as well as other minor deities and spirits in the Hindu pantheon. The Balinese believe the gods simply represent individual aspects of one God, whom they call Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa.

For the Balinese, the walls separating the gods, people, and spirits are rather penetrable. The individual, in the Balinese universe, is just one part of a greater whole. Individuals form a “microcosm,” a part of the greater “macrocosm,”  which is encompassed by the Supreme God. The aim is to keep these three in equilibrium. The Balinese believe that they will become vulnerable to illness if these three factors are not in equilibrium.

The Balinese also believe that we are surrounded by both good and evil spirits, which must be shown equal consideration and respect. Every day, the Balinese give hand-made offerings not only to the Gods, but also to the evil spirits. The offerings consist of various small gifts and tokens from flowers and fruit to candy, incense, money or holy water. These beautiful offerings are usually placed or scattered at every doorstep – be it a house, cafe, shop or even a junction in the road.

In Balinese culture the Gods and spirits occupy the top rung in a three-tiered universe. Spirits and gods live in swah, the upper world, humans live in bwah, the middle world, and demons live in bhur, the lower world.

The holiest religious sites are built in places corresponding to swah, like mountains or hills. It’s no coincidence that the holiest temple on the island is located on the slopes of Bali’s highest peak, and indeed the direction of this mountain serves as a geographical marker for holiness in Balinese culture. North and east are similarly associated with swah; Balinese orient their beds so their heads point in those directions.

Balinese carry over this spiritual geography to their attitudes toward the human body. The head corresponds to swah, which is why it’s considered extremely bad manners to touch anybody’s head in Bali. The feet, similarly, correspond to bhur, which is why it’s just as offensive to touch people with your feet in Bali.

The Balinese believe that people are born with three kinds of debt which they must pay down throughout their lives: they owe their lives to God, they owe love and acts of devotion to their living elders and the spirits of their departed ancestors, and they owe a debt of knowledge to the priestly class.

In Balinese culture, the Gods and spirits occupy the top rung in a three-tiered universe. Spirits and gods live in swah, the upper world, humans live in bwah, the middle world, and demons live in bhur, the lower world.

The holiest religious sites are built in places corresponding to swah, like mountains or hills. It’s no coincidence that the holiest temple on the island is located on the slopes of Bali’s highest peak, and indeed the direction of this mountain serves as a geographical marker for holiness in Balinese culture. North and east are similarly associated with swah; Balinese orient their beds so their heads point in those directions.

Balinese carry over this spiritual geography to their attitudes toward the human body. The head corresponds to swah, which is why it’s considered extremely bad manners to touch anybody’s head in Bali. The feet, similarly, correspond to bhur, which is why it’s just as offensive to touch people with your feet in Bali.

The Balinese believe that people are born with three kinds of debt which they must pay down throughout their lives: they owe their lives to God, they owe love and acts of devotion to their living elders and the spirits of their departed ancestors, and they owe a debt of knowledge to the priestly class.

The ceremonies performed by the Balinese throughout their lives are means of payment. By undergoing rites of passage, observing temple anniversaries, and paying respect to elders both living and dead, the average Balinese person pays down their spiritual debt, in the hopes that they will be honoured by the gods and their descendants after they pass on to the next life.

Aside from the sheer mass of temples, the other most striking thing about Balinese culture is the daily offerings. Offerings please the gods and the demons and also provide good karma to those involved in their preparation. Some Balinese people spend all their lives making these offerings.

These simple daily offerings are known as Canang Sari. The phrase Canang Sari is derived from the Balinese words sari means essence and canang means a small palm-leaf basket as the tray. Canang Sari is the symbol of thankfulness to the Hindu god, Ida Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa. It is offered every day as a form of thanking for the peace had given to the world.

Canang sari normally filled with colourful flowers. The colours of the flowers are white, red, yellow, blue or green. Those colours have different meaning and are placed in specific directions. White petals to the east are for Iswara, the god of Nature. Red petals to the south are given for Brahma, symbolizing the power of creation. Mahadeva and the west are represented by yellow petals. And blue or green is the colour for the northern direction and the protective god Vishnu.

Normally, Canang Sari stays for one night after it is being prayed and offered before it is being removed to be replaced with the new one. After all, Hinduism is very concerned with the relationship between humanity and the environment. Whatever comes from nature, it has to be back to nature. Food items, such as candies, crackers and cookies are also often placed beside flower petals so canang sari can as well serve the purpose of feeding stray dogs, monkeys and other animals.

The small offerings are a result of a very long hand-made process: women make the basket, assemble the items in a meaningful placement and dip a jepun flower in holy water to sprinkle the canang in a symbolic fusion of the four elements. The ritual ends with a little prayer spoken as smoke from burning incense carries the essence of the offering to the gods. While most religious customs are made with the intent of gaining God’s favour, Canang Sari are made as an act of everlasting gratitude.

On every Palm Tree House retreat, guests are invited to make their very own Canang Sari offering with our staff who also talk through each element of the offering and its unique meaning. Oftentimes, a Balinese priest is also invited on retreat to perform a ceremony with the guests. Guests are then able to place their offering at the temple and with it, make a wish or send a prayer into the universe or set an intention. It is a beautiful and powerful experience that is very unique to Bali and a wonderful way to add special meaning to the retreat also.

We love that our Palm Tree House retreats are run by an entirely Indonesian team who are proud and knowledgeable about their culture and ways of life. This adds a very special element to the retreat experience and guests love learning more about Balinese traditions, learning a few words of Balinese, or even jumping in the kitchen to learn how to make traditional Sambal! The Balinese ways of life are beautiful and so important in a world that is losing touch with its culture and ancient ways of living. We love sharing these with guests and offering a real insight into the magic and spirit of this very special island.