Sound is closely tied to the Balinese concept of creating a paradise for the senses.
By Maya Kerthyasa
In Bali, it is believed that the first thing God created was sound. From there, the Universe unfurled. This is acknowledged through the sacred chant “om” – the original vibration, the sound of the world. So it should come as no surprise, then, that music in its various forms plays a pivotal role in Balinese spiritual life. It opens dimensions, raises energies and helps mortal prayers ascend to the heavens; it accompanies rituals and social gatherings; it summons Gods and disperses demons.
There are many facets to the union of music and the spiritual realm in Bali. A concept known as panca gita groups together the five fundamental sounds of Balinese cultural life – the heavy thunk of the wooden kul-kul drum, the sacred ringing of the ceremonial genta bell, the deep vibrations of the gong, and the human-generated hymns and mantras that fill the airwaves of the island’s temple courtyards. These are divine sounds – channeling tools used to elevate the purpose of every ritual and influence the kala, or space, they pass through. The clashing din created by the beleganjur orchestras that accompany most cremation processions helps expel negative forces, simultaneously stirring and energising the men lifting the funeral tower. Other rites-of-passage rituals, such as weddings and tooth-filing ceremonies, are soundtracked by the gentle, sophisticated gendér metallophone. The hollow bamboo keys of the tinklik, or rindik, meanwhile, are used to create a sense of harmony in non-religious, everyday settings. So, every note, instrument and rhythm is like a code to a new and enhanced state of being – a form of sound healing that’s been around since before the term even existed.
Bali’s temples are the best places to observe mystical music at its most refined. During a ceremony, or odalan, when the Gods and Goddesses are summoned and blessed, the kul-kul at the entrance of the complex is struck to a slow, rhythmic beat that signifies their descent to the world of man. Inside, a gamelan ensemble plays festive atmospheric music. And in the most sacred inner sanctum of the court, the jeroan, where the prayers and rituals take place, kakawin hymns are sung in the tradition known as kidung; priests ring their bells and mantras are chanted. A symphony of holy vibrations is born, allowing every visitor to rise into a higher state of consciousness, and detach themselves from the material temptations of the world outside the temple’s walls. The ears are flooded with positive energy in the same way the eyes are met with spectacularly woven and coloured offerings. The nose is stimulated by the aroma of smoke and fresh flowers, holy water cleanses the tongue, and the skin is refreshed and caressed through an energy-clearing ritual known as mecaru. The entire space is transformed into a paradise for the senses, a place where one’s mind is purified and the heart is calmed.
This idea of a paradise for the senses relates back to the Balinese concept of dualism. We all commit unholy acts to a certain degree. Our senses are regularly bombarded with pollution, stimulants, man-made poisons that we often can’t avoid. So, in order to get closer to the fundamental power of the Universe, Balinese Hindus immerse themselves in beauty. They are cleansed through acts of worship fuelled by the characters and traits of their divine idols, bounteous offerings sourced from nature, and the fundamental thing that started it all – sound.