Land of gods and ghouls: the Hindu connect in a Muslim nation (Postcard from Bali)

November 19th, 2011 - 9:48 am ICT by IANS  

Manmohan Singh Nusa Dua (Bali), Nov 19 (IANS) The stylised figures from Hindu mythology and gnomes, fanged demons and animals, some towering, some not so: exquisitely crafted stone sculptures are as much a part of this Indonesian island - where Balinese Hindus comprise the majority of the island’s population in this Muslim-majority nation - as the famed sun, sand and sea spray.

Interestingly, many of the sculptures are covered in sarongs. Set amid the green fronds, the figures are wearing blue and white checked sarongs, dressed up much like the gods in some parts of India.

From street corners to city squares, from hotel lobbies to sweeping driveways, the sculptures are part of the landscape, making Bali in many senses like an open air culture gallery, with aesthetics the leitmotif of everyday life.

Amongst the most spectacular perhaps is the chariot scene from the Mahabharata, of Krishna and Arjun and horses straining at the mouth. The elaborately recreated scene greets you soon after you drive out of the airport as part of the media entourage of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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The Hindu connect

Traders and missionaries came into the archipelago of Indonesia from India, China, Arabia and Europe, bringing along with them their cultures and religion. Over the centuries, the influences amalgamated and assimilated into the fabric of society.

And nowhere is the Indian connection as evident as in Bali, where the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are integral parts of the folklore and where Hindus are a major part of the population in this Muslim majority country. The guide tells you that she begins her day with the Gayatri Mantra and that today is the day of Saraswati puja. The stylized figures of the gods and goddesses, the dance dramas drawn from the epics and the small offerings at roadsides are further evidence of the civilisational reach.

At quite another level is the giant hoarding of India Incredible with a Kathakali dancer near Nusa Dua, a cluster of hotels, restaurants and shops. Inviting the tourists to come and take a look at India too?

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Suits and sarongs

You know that this is not the place for work when the receptionist informs you that newspapers are unlikely to come in before 10 a.m.

The towering palms, the sandy beaches and the gentle sea breeze are invitation to drop the stresses of everyday life and just soak in the atmosphere. Alas that is not to be with Bali hosting the ASEAN and the East Asia Summit as well as several heads of state, ministers, officials and their security retinue.

Traffic halts for VIP movement, there is repeated frisking and holiday makers find themselves caught in all the frenzied activity. The suits sit uneasily with the sarongs and beachwear. Hotels have put up signs warning their guests that they might be inconvenienced and their movements curtailed.

And terror still casts a shadow. Bali was subjected to terror attacks in 2002 and 2005, and local recall only too clearly the aftermath.

(Minu Jain can be contacted at minu.jain@ians.in)

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