Bali was a much-anticipated stop on our tour. Friendly people, gorgeous beaches, room to relax - these were all worth looking forward to. But like many of our stops, I didn’t anticipate the intriguing role religion would play during our time there. I confess that I did not do much research on Bali or Indonesia in general before we departed. For example, I didn’t know that Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims on the planet. Bali, however, did not appear to be an island of Islam. Hinduism is the primarily religion there, and once we arrived it was impossible not to notice the temples that dotted the land - and the sea.
Balinese Hindu shrines were everywhere, too: at the entrance to restaurants, in front of homes, around the corner of your next turn. There are probably more shrines in Bali than churches in Rome. But even more ubiquitous are the offerings: small squares of woven palm leaves holding mainly flowers but also food, candy, coins and incense. Balinese people line the streets with these offerings, with one (or a pile of them) in front of every doorstep and shrine. The offerings are a part of daily Balinese life and for five days they were also a part of ours - every morning a fresh packet of flowers and incense was placed outside our door.
Balinese Hinduism and the island’s natural beauty came together in a striking way at the only temple we visited during our stay: Pura Tanah Lot. This is Bali’s most famous and photographed temple, and rightfully so. A towering rock just twenty meters offshore, the temple is only accessible by foot at low tide, and even then the surf pounds the rocks nearby. Though much of the temple built there isn’t carved from the natural rock, it’s still an impressive architectural feat, and remains one of the most important sea temples for the Balinese.
We visited this temple on one of the most important holidays for Balinese Hindus, called Galugan Day, when they take time to honor their creator and ancestral spirits. This is also a day when they believe the ancestral spirits return to Earth and so offerings must be prepared for them. We saw many Balinese dressed in the traditional garb that day, carrying boxes and baskets of offerings across the small channel to the temple, but non-Balinese Hindus weren’t permitted inside. I settled for a blessing from their priest, which consisted of a sprinkling of water, white rice pressed to my forehead, and a small yellow flower tucked over my left ear. We hung around for a bit, watching the waves and people mingle on the coast until we saw a sign for a "Holy Snake" nailed into the rock onshore. This brought me back to the Roman ruins in Rabat, where snakes were also thought to be holy and healing. The snake in Bali, though, was thought to protect the temple from evil spirits (and could be seen by tourists for a price). As far as I could see, evil couldn’t exist in such a beautiful place - gorgeous seaside cliffs have that effect. A raging surf probably doesn’t hurt either.