Symbol is a sign or a motive that represents an object, a character or an event. It serves the purpose of identification, description or value creation. Traces of symbolism usage can be found in history all the way back to the beginning of a mankind; symbols have always been present in humanity’s life. Symbolism can be seen from different viewpoints, however the most accurate are historical and anthropological ones. This article is going to present more of an anthropological view, as we would like to concentrate on cultural value associated with diversity of traditions. This perspective is much more interesting for tourists coming to Bali. Nowadays, we see symbols mainly as trademarks, but earlier they had rather different function – they helped people to understand the sense of the world. All of the symbols had been, and still are, represented by a piece of art based on expression and visualise our thoughts, feelings and beliefs.

The most important and the most scared symbol on Bali – OM

Balinese culture is extremely interesting and very rich in various symbols. Frankly speaking, everything seems to be a symbol on Bali, everything is symbolic, even the symbols are symbolic. This is the Hindu island absolutely devoted to various types of spirits. Everything here is subordinated to signs and symbols. Let us start with the most important and the most scared one – OM. Actually, this is just one syllable, but by Hindu it is seen as a sound of creation of the universe. The word OM represents the power that creates, preserves and destroys the world. it is made up of the letters which symbolise the Trinity: Brahma- the Creator, symbolised by the letter A; Wisnu- the Preserver of Life, who is represented by the letter U; and Siwa- the Destroyer, for whom stands the letter M. That is spelled as AUM or just OM. As such, it can be found everywhere on numerous temples, entrances on flags; every stanza of every mantra starts with it.

The mandala – meditation symbol

The mandala for foreigners might seem an abstract art, in reality, it is a crucial element of Balinese symbolism. It helps Hindu in meditations and spiritual growth. Mandala is highly complicated and it is not easy to understand. Balinese universe is organised according to fundamental principles including directions, colours and numbers. There are eleven directions, each of which has its own colour, symbol and sound. They are linked to nine gods. All of them are merged to Siwa, who being the higher unity, is always located at the centre. The very middle of mandala represents the end of spiritual journey or the centre of the universe.

The role of animals in Balinese culture

Very important role in Balinese symbolism play animals. Many of them are symbolic. Let look at a goose. It is the only one animal that can live in the sea, on the land and in the air. Therefore, it represents all three levels of the universe and is vital character in Balinese culture. When being killed people have to undergo a special purification ceremony. Ducks and chickens are frequently used in ceremonies. At the first menstruation ceremony a young girls has to kiss them to symbolise her identification with nature. Elephants, for which Bali has never been their natural environment, symbolise strength and magic power. Dogs, especially those of a reddish skin, are believed to be able to cleanse the universe. Some animals become symbols of the gods who ride them for example the eagle-like bird Garuda, that belongs mythically to Wisnu or Nandi, the Siwa bull. Garuda is important bird for all Indonesian, not only on Bali. Garuda is actually a national symbol and it can be found on the flag.

Symbolism of plants

Plants can also be important symbols. The most famous one is betel, that is fourth world stimulant succeeded only by alcohol, tobacco and coffee. This is three- colour plant: leaves are green, areca nut is red and there is also white lime. Colours are symbolic, they stands for: Wisnu – green; Brahma- red and Siwa- white. Remember those gods comprise the Trinity. Rice is a symbol of life and banyan tree with its unusual roots, is very sacred symbol. Leaves are used in various ceremonies.

Other significant elements of symbolism in Bali

As it was mentioned before, colours are crucial in Balinese symbolism. Their importance is not only reflected in representation of gods, but also Balinese define the personal character using colours. A person who wears a white mask symbolises a refined character, red or black one stands for rough one. That can be seen on the faces of shadow puppets. Even food can be served the way colours matters.

Water cleans symbolically, it purifies; that’s why water has always been very important for Balinese. Bali-Hinduism is even called the holy water religion. The king’s association with water manifest both his power and purity.

Numbers plays a significant role in Balinese everyday life. Not all of them, of course, only those which are directly assigned to gods: 3,5,7,9,11.

Another important symbol in Buddhism is the Swastika. That is the oldest religious symbol which is still in existence. Not to state the obvious, but for some of us that is very controversial sign. However, in Hinduism it means the heart and the mind of Buddha. This symbol originated from Asia. In China, for example, it had been used long before Buddha was born ( 563 B.C.). Swastika derived from the words ‘su’ meaning well, ‘asti’ –being, and ‘ka’ –that suffix is used to form an noun. It means being in the of happiness and peace.

Stunning masks

Talking about symbolism on Bali we cannot forget about amazing colourful masks, that can be seen all over the island. Tourists are fascinated by detailed work and so many colours. Visitors often buy them, hang on the walls and thanks to them they can remember their stay on Bali very clearly and precisely. However, for the locals Balinese masks conceal deep spiritual meaning. They arose from animism and are a kind of a medium, home for spirits and transcendental energies. Masks also represents divine beings and energies in a physical forms. They are used in sacred ceremonies, and even have ceremonies that are dedicated to their powers. Those masks are kept only in temples, wrapped in cotton bags just not to be destroyed or, even worse, not to lose their power.

From the moment Hinduism arrived on the island, it affected masks’ design. Their look and function changed. Balinese started to interpret their mythology through dance, music and masks which in such a combination they pay tribute to their divines in local temples and during various ceremonies. Dancers are believed to be ‘the Messenger’ or even a person who represents divine. In such a case the masks absorb the god’s energy that is given to a dancer. That is why, it is crucial to perform a purification ritual before putting a mask. Balinese masks not always play such an important role. Some of them are just simple used for dancing and performing just to represent a given character, a hero.

The eight most important symbols of Buddhism

Buddhists have very peaceful attitude towards life and entire universe. They life a peaceful life, don’t violate written rules, and they believe in prosperity. There are even some symbols that stand for prosperity and well-being. The best known, and very common is lotus flower or Buddhism flower, the symbol of various meanings. It may represent a spiritual purity, enlightenment, Buddhism law, or it may even be a Buddha himself. An umbrella is also an element frequently met on Bali. An umbrella is a symbol of high social status consequently it is a kind of liaison between earth and heaven and it. Two golden fish – one stands for wealth, two –fertility; hence they are a symbol of abundance and fertility, symbol of free form all worldly cares. A shell – symbolises the voice of Buddha and disseminating his teaching, as while blowing the shell you achieve a clear, loud sound.

Summary

Symbolism is very deep and complicated subject, and it is not possible to discuss it within one short article. Symbolism can be found all over the world, in every single field, but for us, the one dealing with beliefs and traditions, is the most interesting. We touch on that subject as according to us while going to Bali it would be nice to learn a bit of their culture, traditions and beliefs just to understand their behaviour a bit better, just to know what to expect, what to look for. Only then we can leave the island really overwhelmed by its internal and external beauty.

About author:

Sebastian

Information technology architect, loving expeditions in the wilderness of Indonesia.

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