A local king, educated at Harvard, maps out a middle route between modern progress and traditional culture for this tourist mecca
“We must find an amalgam between old and new. And thanks to our own traditions and their revival, we can find the wisdom and strength to do so”
Bali must offer them Bali—not a museum, nor a resort they could find anywhere in the world
Once a year it is quiet, truly quiet, on Bali. The streets of this famed Indonesian island are empty. The snack bars along the beach are closed; the souvenir stands in Kuta are locked behind shutters. Everyone stays indoors. Even the mosques turn off their blaring speakers and call the pious to prayer at a whisper.
This is Nyepi, the Day of Silence, when Bali’s primarily Hindu population begins the New Year in quiet reflection. Each year, the silence grows stronger. Hotel owners used to complain that it wasn’t fair to tourists, but they’ve since given up and now try to make the best of the situation. One brochure even describes Nyepi on Bali as the ultimate contemplative vacation.
For the past several years, the airlines that serve the island have accepted that Denpasar is closed that day. At first glance, this would appear to be the “invention of tradition” but it’s really about a new emphasis on old ritual. After all, religion and tradition have never disappeared. The Hindu religion arrived on Bali 2,000 years ago from India. But while it is true that rituals performed on Bali have been different from those practised in India since time immemorial, Nyepi has always been there. Unlike in India, New Year has never been a day of noisy celebration here. The Balinese make their noise the evening before, when they use bamboo canons to drive the angry spirits from the island, to the delight of tourists. But Nyepi itself is a day of reflection.
The silence has certainly intensified in recent years—it’s like a gentle act of resistance on the part of Bali’s 3.5 million friendly and tolerant inhabitants—resistance against the unavoidable bustle, against progress, messes, noise, globalization and mass tourism. The people of Bali are hospitable, make no mistake, but no one will deprive them of this one day to withdraw completely.
This beautiful island lives off of tourism, which took a hit from the terrorist bombings in 2002 and 2005, leading to increased poverty among the Balinese. As a result, the government officials and Chamber of Commerce leaders are busily trying to attract attention at tourism conventions around the world, using images of idyllic setting suns, green rice terraces and welcoming smiles. Not far from the first disco bomb site, not far from the modest monument to the 202 dead is a new adrenaline bungee-trampoline attraction. Tourists are slowly returning: Last year, more than 1.5 million people visited the island.
But the key question is too-seldom asked: How can this island maintain its authentic character while hosting hundreds of thousands of tourists on holiday from Australia, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Germany, the Netherlands, the U.S., Canada, England and Russia? It is a question that is equally relevant in other places. But in Asia, Bali is the first to be tested, now that cheap flights are making the island far more accessible to travelers, and as Asia is generating its own fast-growing middle class that wants a shot at bungee jumping on Bali.
Anak Agung Gde Agung, 58, is by birth a king, among other things. He is king of Gianyar, a small Balinese city where he lives in a lovely old Buddhist stupa (shrine) with a veranda where—in days gone by—servants once perched behind the armchairs waving fans. Some 10 years ago, I spoke to the former king—his father—who, in perfect old-fashioned Dutch, described Indonesia’s fight for independence from the Netherlands and his student days in the Dutch cities of Leiden and Utrecht. The former king—who died in 1999—wrote a voluminous history of Bali. But while he grumbled about the busy road that ran beside the stupa, robbing the veranda of its former quiet, he never got to the key questions about balancing traditional identity with modern progress.
Anak Agung Gde Agung has picked up where his father left off. He spent years studying in the U.S. (Harvard University, and the Fletcher School of International Relations at Tufts University). Shortly after the fall of President Suharto in 1998, he briefly served as his country’s social affairs minister. But after his father’s death, his inheritance—Bali—began to gnaw at him. He stepped down as minister, took on a few board memberships, but focused on further study. Not haphazardly, but systematically. He approached 10 prominent anthropologists and requested that they mentor him, and then when everything was in place, he put his findings into a dissertation. Although he had already earned a PhD in the U.S., his work earned him a doctorate summa cum laude from Leiden University.
His study Bali: Endangered Paradise? is a work full of statistical data and quantitative analysis about the Balinese people, their traditions, customs and rituals. Also included are analyses about the island’s natural habitat, agriculture, irrigation, urbanization. The book showcases his research on farmers, who make a killing selling their rice fields to developers, then move to the city, where they lose their money and their direction.
This isn’t just the account of the problem, however, but a search for the solution. Not in outright anti-globalization, which Anak Agung doesn’t really support. He feels anti-globalists too often emphasize what’s wrong and fail to provide new perspectives on how to increase the standard of living without uprooting people and their culture. He sought a cross between the dynamic modern economy and the familiar traditional culture, and he thinks he has found it.
Anak Agung calls his solution “Tri Hita Karana,” which he describes (in English; his generation no longer speaks Dutch) like an ardently enthusiastic Einstein who has discovered an anthropological e=mc2 formula. Tri Hita Karana is a term from the Balinese Hindu faith. Tri is “three,” Hita means something like “happiness” and Karana stands for “sources.” Loosely translated: the three sources of happiness.
He notes, “A close study of the Balinese Hindu culture reveals it has its own inherent shock absorber that assimilates the shock waves of globalization and manages to achieve a new balance. And it is crucial that this type of shock absorber is ingrained in your culture, because things get really tough if you need to seek external aids and integrate them during a crisis. Consider the Indians in America during the 19th century. They didn’t have it and their struggle became a lost cause, ultimately leading to a marginal and uprooted existence in depressing reservations.”
Tri Hita Karana comes from one of the Hindu holy books and advises seeking happiness in the here and hereafter through a harmonious relationship with God, with fellow humans and with nature. These three dimensions are seen extensively in Balinese Hindu rituals, offering a system of general values and practises to help followers achieve good fortune, peace and happiness through harmonious interactions among the spiritual, social and natural environments.
Anak Agung examined this religious system by layers and his findings read much like a handbook for sustainable development, including a conscious approach to mass tourism. “All of Balinese culture is still saturated with behaviour codes geared towards conservation and restraint,” he says. “ We can take it further. You must understand, I am not saying we should be rigid or close ourselves off from the world, but we must find an amalgam between old and new. And thanks to our own traditions and their revival, we can find the wisdom and strength to do so.”
He points to Bali villagers’ still-intact sense of commitment to their neighbours, the way people unquestioningly help one another and the daily community activities related to rituals for the gods and the dead. This is a place where attachment to tradition remains an everyday reality.
It all sounds lofty and beautiful until you sit in a hotel overlooking the spectacular Agung River and see polluted water flowing by and then hear a commentator screaming in the background because the Manchester United soccer club just scored. And when you take a walk, you notice how another rice field is making way for what looks like a fusion restaurant concept. It’s hard to imagine how the magic words Tri Hita Karana will help much in these cases.
“It’s true,” Anak Agung admits, “the Agung River is polluted and there are too many hotels. But this river is also a holy river in our Hindu tradition. People know that and there’s a good reason why you see people go to the temples day in, day out to make their offering. No one has the courage to put a stop to projects along the river because the developers have excellent relations with the ruling elite. Moreover, Hinduism has a certain tendency towards resignation and simply letting things take their course. But at the same time, with our trusted rituals near at hand, we can easily make clear that there’s been enough building along this river. In fact, for now we need to completely put a halt to deforestation and clearing sites for building on Bali. We need to take a breather to sort out what we really want and don’t want.
“Agriculture,” he continues, “must simply never disappear from Bali because the entire community and village culture—the banyar and the desa—will lose their anchor if it falls away. If I explain this based on our own Hindu convictions, everyone understands it and it is so self-evident that it shouldn’t require any further discussion. Up to now, everything has crept along so no one has really noticed. But once we really sit up and take notice, I have no doubt Tri Hita Karana will speak to everyone’s instincts.”
In his study, Anak Agung even goes so far as to state that his concept is applicable to many other areas in the world. His method of what he calls “quantitative multi-variable regression” helps identify the weak and strong sides of every culture. Moreover, he points to how you can even tackle environmental problems using a cultural approach. Finally, he writes: “The best way to put an end to the threats associated with globalization is to use cultural beacons. After all, only culture touches authentic values and enables us to make choices based on our true self-interest. Only then can you control the process of change and put self-determination into practise.”
It is true that after decades of tourism and Western influence, the Balinese have managed to keep their cultural world intact. So far, their ancient villages survive as cradles of culture. Even on the noisy main street of Kuta, filled with tattooed Westerners in all shapes and sizes buying cheap trinkets and drinking beer, you see Balinese men driving scooters, their wives dressed in traditional clothing riding side-saddle on the back. Every day, they make their way to one of the many temples carrying offering plates to do spiritual rituals. But will this continue?
Anak Agung answers, “This is precisely the key. We must develop steps to restore our Balinese traditions and our religion. After all, tourists are only a by-product of our need to return to our own traditional and religious customs. In future, foreign tourists should not be coming to Bali to listen to jazz music or see rock concerts, nor to attend car races or top golf tournaments. Those are all things they can enjoy elsewhere. Bali must offer them Bali—not a museum, nor an uprooted resort, but Bali.”
Ben Knapen is former editor of NRC Handelsblad, one of the Netherlands’ leading newspapers.