Odalan at Bangli

As we were leaving the temple at Pura Kehen, I heard once again the unmistakable sound of gongs in the distance. Drawn to the sound, I headed off up the street and found myself at the entrance to a private family compound. Women were arriving with offerings balanced on their heads - clearly some kind of ceremony or festival was going on. One of the women beckoned me to come in, and I discovered the true Bali we had been searching for.

A gamelan was set up in a bale in the courtyard of the compound, and playing mesmerizing music, which sounded very old - not the flash gong kebyar of the famous modern gamelans, but real, old village music. The instruments also looked very old - the reyong was built into a very simple wooden frame with no decoration, and the jegog was unlike any I'd seen before - basically two bell-pots in another simple wooden frame. The players played with the ubiquitous kreteks (crackling, and wonderfully fragrant clove cigarettes) dangling from the corners of their mouths. In the back, a circle of ceng-ceng (cymbal) players crashed out a steady rhythm. It dawned on me that, unable to afford a real sitting gamelan, the group had simply used the instruments from their marching gamelan, had set the reyong and ponggang pots in a simple frame, and had created a sitting gamelan! Whatever, it sounded amazing. I ran back to the minivan to fetch the others, who were wondering where I had got to!.

Back at the compound, the whole group was welcomed, and were beckoned up a couple of steps and into the temple area of the family compound. Every family has their own temple as part of the living compound, where the family shrines are located. Also in the temple area was a raised bale where a priest sat, chanting from the sacred Hindu scriptures. Offerings were being piled high beside him.

All the time, more and more offerings were being brought in and piled up next to the priest. Evidently this was an odalan or temple-cleansing ceremony, that must be performed about every year. They also seemed to be consecrating ground for a new shrine to be built in one corner of the temple compound.

In front of the bale where the priest sat were a set of shrines, decorated for the occasion with brightly colored umbrellas and flags. Clouds of incense smoke filled the air. More offerings were piled up on and around the shrines.

We felt incredibly privileged to be invited into this family's home to share in this important ceremony. I got the impression that they had not had much contact with Westerners - they spoke no English - and their sincere willingness to welcome us into their ceremony was touching. It probably helped that we were still wearing our sarongs as we had just come out of the Pura Kehen temple. It was an incredible scene, we felt like we had landed in a National Geographic episode, with the incense smoke, the chanting of the priest, the gamelan, and the amazing sights around us. This was the Bali we had come looking for.

This lady insisted that we take her picture. We sent her a copy when we got back home. I wonder what she would think if she knew she was now on the Internet. I was busy filming all this too, so we have plenty of video to go along with these photos.

Here is the priest chanting and saying blessings over the offerings. Hindu-Bali must be one of the most incomprehensible religions to an outsider. There is so much incredibly complex ritual, and only the priests seem to really understand it. Above the priest's head is pinned a white cloth on which are drawn mystical symbols - arrows and stars, and unidentifiable objects. He chants and flicks rice and holy water, and rings his little bell, from morning till night.

From time to time he would strap on this black tunic. Nobody else seemed to be taking much notice of him - they would just continue to bring in more and more offerings.

Back at the gamelan bale the gamelan was still going strong. The guy in the pink shirt was the drummer and leader of the gamelan. He was delighted to be filmed, and even took the kretek out of his mouth to show us his handsome smile! The guys with the white tunics and headbands were playing ceng-cengs - cymbals, played in interlocking patterns. The striped vertical poles at the back are the gong poles carrying the large gongs.

For a bunch of gamelan players from the US, it was fascinating to just stand and listen to the music. When they took a break we explained to them that we played gamelan music ourselves back at home. They laughed and couldn't believe it, but when we showed them the photos of our gamelan, they were very impressed and invited me to sit with them and play! It was an amazing experience to be actually playing with a real Balinese gamelan, even though I could barely remember their piece!

In any case, we had only played a few cycles when the lady of the house came back and told the gamelan to get back to work! Obviously my feeble efforts were not appreciated by the priest and the ceremonies were being interrupted by my terrible playing! This is me unceremoniously leaving my post at the reyong. It was a fascinating visit, one of the highlights of our whole trip. Back at the minivan, Dewa was waiting patiently...

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Photos: Astrid, Martin and Julia Randall
All content copyright (c) 2002, Astrid, Martin and Julia Randall