Religion is not a Spectator Sport: Lessons in Nusa Penida
Words by Rachel Trevarthen
Bali. Mentioning you are going there to most well-travelled Australians elicits the kind of interested response you’d expect from saying you were visiting a termite mound community for the weekend. It doesn’t have the grungy glamour of Berlin, the exotic sound of Borneo, or the respectable mystique of South America. It’s close (to Australia) and it’s visited by swarms of us. Although it may indeed be the well-trodden path, this quick dismissal is mostly unwarranted and begets that media coverage and conventional perceptions rarely capture anywhere truthfully.
“Bali- it doesn’t have the grungy glamour of Berlin, the exotic sound of Borneo…”
I had been to Bali three years prior, where my short but invigorating trip mostly involved hanging upside down in headstand seeking enlightenment through yoga or speeding through jungles on motorbike with a chaotic but well-meaning travel romance. But there was something unshakable about it that didn’t leave me thinking “trashy, tourist trap.”
“But there was something unshakeable about it…”
In Ubud, a place crawling with us tourists, ceremony and offering rituals went on as if the tourists didn’t exist. I wanted to return. Partly to stand in the face of the clichés and stereotypes made of the island and also I wanted to know more about the mysterious Indo-Hindu religion.
I managed to get my wish upon return, but it was not to be on Bali directly. Instead it was on Nusa Penida, a small island 12 km from the Balinese mainland. Known as the black magic island, Nusa Penida is very sacred in that area, so much so that every Balinese hopes to make pilgrimage there at least once in their lifetime. Nusa Penidans practice a similar form of Animistic Hinduism and they speak an ancient dialect of Balinese no longer heard anywhere else.
“Nusa Penida… Known as the black magic island…”
On the island, three temples are particularly sacred. First is the impressive Karangsari Cave, dug into the limestone mountain and stretching through to its far end. The Puncak Mundi temple on the so named highest hill is another. The third is the temple at Pet, on the island’s northern coast, coincidentally where we happened to be staying, whilst volunteering for Friends of the National Park Foundation (FNFP).
It was on Pet, on our very first night, where we got our first lesson of Nusa Penidan life. We were encouraged to join the ceremony by the owner of our homestay. He insisted it would be a great event to see and something not to miss.
We knew, but didn’t fully appreciate right then, that Nusa Penida was very much a “yes” culture and his insistence was not genuine. Although I knew that we couldn’t really just go, a burning curiosity welled inside me. Maybe we could just go and see.
“…A burning curiosity welled inside me…”
So with a fellow traveller, we set off rather timidly with our sarongs and covered shoulders thinking modest clothing was all one needed to venture into sacred temple grounds. Upon arrival, we received more encouragement from some local men, who tied our scarves around our wastes and waved us in saying ‘Go go, no problem.’ This made us tentatively step into the temple grounds.
“Some were holding incense or carrying fruit offerings…”
However, by tying my friend’s scarf around her waist, our well-meaning local had left her shoulders bare as she only had a singlet top on. My intuition told me this was not right, but the men insisted. As we entered, groups of men looked at us and said nothing although their disapproval was palpable. The temple was full of people, most of who seemed to be in varying stages of a long, drawn out process. Some were sitting in groups or lying in the ground, while others were holding incense or carrying fruit offerings, waiting to enter the interior.
I sensed we weren’t to be there. About 10 minutes went by until an older man came up to us. “No welcome. No welcome in temple,” he said. I felt so ashamed. We had pushed it until we had to hear it. For a yes culture like that to say no, It meant we hadn’t just overstepped the mark; we had leapfrogged. In that moment I fully accepted what I already knew but had buried in my own selfish curiosities.
Religion is not a spectator sport. Nor is culture. It you don’t understand it or you’re not properly invited, you shouldn’t be there. No matter what any well-meaning local says. Nusa Penidans live and breathe their religion. Daily life is influenced and run by a continual stream of messages from spirits, good or bad, seen and unseen.
They haven’t sold their religion to spectators like busier parts of Bali have and this was a sharp, poignant beginning to our education on Nusa Penida, one that was to grow and flourish despite such beginnings.
For more amazing works by Rachel (and part two of this story!) head to her website.