Island of the gods
Even today, there is a certain magic about Bali. The longer one stays on the island, the more one is impressed by the many exquisite sights and the scores of talented and charming people one encounters. All the tourist hype aside, Bali truly is exceptional.
The island of Bali indeed presents a modern paradox - an ancient, traditional society that is still incredibly alive and vital. While the basic conservatism of the Balinese has enabled them to preserve many of their past achievements, it has never hindered the acceptance of new and innovative elements, whether home-grown or foreign.
How are we to account for the island's fabled cultural wealth? A fortuitous congruence of circumstances - accidents, really, of geography and history, seems responsible.
First and foremost, Bali is extraordinarily blessed by Nature. Lying within a narrow band of the tropics where wet and dry seasons fall roughly into balance - providing both adequate rainfall and long periods of sunshine - the island's soils, topography and water resources are all remarkably well suited to human habitation. As a result, Bali has been civilized since very early times.
This is also the only island in "inner Indonesia" that has enjoyed centuries of more or less uninterrupted cultural continuity. While other traditional states in the region suffered major disruptions due to Islamization and Dutch colonization, Bali was isolated, left to go her own way.
As a result, this is the only area of Indonesia that remains "Hindu" today - retaining elements of the great fusion of indigenous and Indian cultures which took place over a thousand years ago. When Bali was finally colonized by the Dutch, at the turn of this century, the European invaders were so fascinated by what they found here that a concerted effort was made to preserve and foster the island's traditional culture.
Balinese society remains strong and vital, moreover, because it promotes family and communal values. This is indeed the key - a self-strengthening system in which religion, custom and art combine with age-old childrearing techniques and deeply-entrenched village institutions to produce an exceptionally well-integrated society. Feelings of alienation from parents and peers, so common now in the West are rare in Bali.
Children are carried everywhere until they are at least three months old, held at all times in the warm, protective embrace of family, friends and neighbors. Elaborate rituals are performed at frequent intervals to ensure their well-being. Every aspect of village life is organized to the nth degree - the individual's rights and responsibilities within the community being carefully defined by tradition.
Despite all this, it should be noted that traditional Bali was far from perfect. For the majority of Balinese peasants, it was in fact a world wracked by warfare, disease, pestilence and famine. In this century, moreover, Bali was continuously plagued by political violence, over-population and poverty.
Bali's unique culture should in fact be viewed as a response to difficult, uncertain conditions. Its strong village institutions served as bulwarks against the ever-present threat of disaster; their inherent flexibility was a guarantee of survival in the face of often overwhelming odds.
rapid changes now occurring on the island must be seen from this historical
perspective. Certainly there are problems, some perhaps as serious as
those faced in earlier times. But the Balinese are eternal optimists,
fervently believing that their "Island of the Gods" enjoys
a very special place indeed in the grander scheme of things.
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