I'm often asked for my short list of things that visitors "must do" during a holiday visit to Bali. In fact, people walk into my office every day seeking such advice. I'm not complaining. It goes with the territory when you're a travel agent.
For guests and friends in search of a concentrated cultural experience likely to provide deeper insights into Bali's very rich local culture it's hard to beat attending an odalan festival. Bali is home to literally thousands of temples and an odalan is the celebration of a temple's anniversary, an event that happens once every 210 days on the Balinese calendar, usually marked by lively night markets, music, dance, elaborate offerings, and ritual prayers.
A Party Where Gods are Guests and You're Invited
Bali is brimming over with temples. Every village has a minimum of three. There are also state temples, regional temples, banjar or village temples, subak temples located in the island's rice terraces, and family sanggah temples. And each of these temples has a birthday or odalan – an event that can run from one to three days during which the Balinese believe patron gods of the temple temporarily descend into the temple compound to await entertainment by the local community in the form of music, dance and lavish offerings of food.
The abundance of temple (pura) everywhere in Bali makes finding an odalan during your Bali holiday a fairly simple affair. The Bali Tourism Authority, local hotels, and tour agents can point you towards a temple celebrating an odalan. Failing that, a Bali calendar - every Balinese home has one – lists major odalan dates and locations.
While you're checking the Balinese calendar, look for the dates with red circles signifying a full moon. If your visit to Bali coincides with a full moon be sure to seek out an odalan falling on that date - there's almost certain to be one.
Every dawning of the full moon is celebrated in Bali by villagers, beautifully dressed in traditional finery, filing through the streets carrying offerings to local village temples. However, when an odalan falls on the same date, visitors are in for a special treat of a massive festival held in the midst of thousands of lesser celebrations at every nearby pura.
Behave: God is Watching You!
The Balinese have always welcomed visitors who show a genuine interest and respect for their culture and religious traditions. Visitors who make the simple gesture of adopting Balinese dress when attending an odalan earn appreciative smiles from fellow worshippers eager to share the spirituality and good fellowship which marks such occasions.
If you're unable to adopt complete Balinese dress then be sure to wear polite western dress (i.e., forget the shorts, t-shirts and tank tops) and add a selendang or waist slash when entering a temple.
A little social deference goes a long way when visiting a Balinese temple. Always let the locals take the lead and, as in the West, seeking even a nod of approval before taking an individual's picture is simple good manners.
A final suggestion: Ask your travel agent to arrange your odalan outing for you. They can supply a knowledgeable, licensed Balinese guide who will explain the many dances and rituals on offer. He'll also be able to show you how to tie your sarong and participate in the blessings of holy water and rice kernels applied to one's forehead and temples available to all worshippers.
On holiday in Bali, attending an odalan during the dawning of a full moon, and receiving the blessings of the island's gods: Once, twice and three times blessed!
This article by J.M. Daniels first appeared in the October issue of Air Paradise International in-flight magazine.
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