Jawarharlal Nehru called Bali “the morning of the world.” Flower-filled offerings are continually renewed; the air is scented with incense and sings with the notes of ceremonial bells and ancient gamelan orchestras. For the Balinese, life’s most meaningful journeys take us through veils of illusion to discover Alangö, a word that means much more than beauty. It begins with Ongkara, the sound that contains all sounds, and rwabhineda, the inseparable opposites of fire and water, life and death, male and female, colors and emotions.
As Nehru saw, the Balinese world is filled with Alangö. Colors, music, words and fragrances connect the inner world of the self (bhuana alit, the microcosm) to the outer world (bhuana agung, the macrocosm). These connections are expressed in myriad forms: in flower offerings that serve as cosmological maps; in rituals of purification, concentrating the mind on the sound of a single bell, and in the shimmering melodic cycles created by gamelan orchestras.
The journey into Alangö takes many forms, from personal quests to the living theatre of villages testing the potency of their sacred masks in spiritual combat, and the controlled flickering of a dancer’s eyes as she becomes a Cendrawasih, the bird of paradise. Alangö is also present in the lifelong labor of farmers as they shape their terraced ricefields to resemble faceted jewels, and give thanks to the Goddesses of the Lake, the Earth and the Rice Mother.
In the Balinese world time, like music, moves in cyclical patterns. Every 210 days, the celebration of Galungan marks the time allotted for the growth of a single rice crop, and bamboo poles holding offerings grown in the fields are placed at the entrance to every house, as invitations to join the family and their ancestors for ten days of feasting. At longer intervals, villages come together to bring offerings of thanks and prayers to the gods at their temples, which culminate on the slopes of the highest volcano, Mount Agung at the mother temple of Besakih. Following the Balinese calendar, which keeps track of the span of time in many dimensions, from one day weeks to the kalpas (ages of the world), the human journey to master and transcend our raw emotions is celebrated in the grandest of all temple festivals, held once a century at Besakih.