Stumbling upon worship in Bali
It's a tricky balance to strike: how to experience raw culture while travelling without causing intrusion. But what code of ethics applies when you're suddenly surrounded by it?
A few months ago I visited the Tirta Empul temple in Northern Bali, Indonesia. The Hindu temple is famous for its holy water; local Hindus flock to the bath for ritual purification and have for generations. The fresh water spring which fills the pool was discovered during the Warmadewa dynasty (10-14th centuries).
While photographing the ritual, snapping my camera like a mad woman, a commotion of bells and brass instruments caught my attention. Turning to see what all of the noise was about, my jaw dropped. I saw a parade of hundreds in traditional dress, men in all white and women in rich colours with baskets balanced on their heads. The ceremony began so suddenly, it was as if this crowd had teleported to the temple.
I later learned they were about to celebrate the Galungan holiday, a time on the Balinese Hindu calendar when gods and ancestral spirits visit Bali. On this day, good triumphs over evil.
Though I was in awe, I also wondered whether my obvious tourist identity would be considered intrusive. After all, there were hardly any bystanders, other than the two other people I was travelling with. I bit my nail, overwhelmed. 'Can we... should we... be here?,' I asked myself. However, several approving nods and gracious grins soon ruled out those thoughts. Mothers asked if I would photograph their children; an elderly man insisted I get blessed.
It was an eye-opening hour steeped in culture, ritual and prayer. It left me without words; it's a story best told with photos.
The ceremony of prayer ended with blessings from elders. Peppered throughout the crowd were men with bowls of water and rice. Those in prayer cupped their hands high to receive sprinkles of holy water. They finished the benediction by sticking rice to their foreheads — a symbol of rejuvenation balance and the restoration of peace on the island of Bali.