Banyan Tree in Bali Island
7 May 2013

Bali’s enormous, mystical Banyan trees are an awesome sight. Do not be surprised if you see one wearing what appears to be a waiter’s checked apron!

Whether traveling in Bali along main highways or through back- country trails, one of the more impressive sights in Bali is to turn a corner and see, a hundred meters or so down the road, a banyan tree dominating the landscape. Less a conventional tree than an enormous, complicated system of trunks and branches supporting lush foliage that can provide a hundred square meters of shade, the banyan, a type of fig, is as much a symbol of tropical Asia as the Douglas Fir denotes the Pacific Coast rainforest.

If the banyan stands beside a busy roadway, you may notice that passing traffic has clipped the aerial roots cascading from the branches into a natural tunnel, one more design flourish on an island that seems to be one giant sculpture. However, if the tree lies near a temple, in a village, or near a dangerous crossroads, you may notice that, inexplicably, it seems to be wearing a black-and-white-checked waiter’s apron. The ‘apron” is, in fact, a saput poleng, a waistcloth signifying divinity which is also placed on stone statues of Hindu gods. Since the visually arresting, shade-providing banyan is considered the spiritual heart of a Balinese village, it is accorded much the same respect as a deity.

Often, a pelangkiran, an ornately carved wooden receptacle for offerings, will be placed in front of the tree. Traders en route to the market will place an offering in the pelangkiran to ensure good business that day, while public transport drivers routinely stop their overcrowded, ill-maintained vehicles to pray for a safe journey, an understandable precaution considering the state of Balinese roads and attitude of most drivers.

Poleng-clad banyan trees are not the only natural objects of devotion in Bali. Large stones, waterfalls, caves and others extraordinary features of the landscape are believed to possess mystic powers that can be tapped and used to provide protection and peace of mind in everyday life. This belief, known as animism, predates the arrival of Hinduism on Bali Island. The widespread adoption of Hinduism beginning in the fourth century AD did not result in the abandonment of animistic practices as much as their incorporation into the foreign religion, complementing the fundamental Hindu philosophic belief of paying special respect to nature.

In modern practice, Bali Hinduism prescribes numerous rituals devoted to crops, wildlife, and natural objects. Ritual occasions in the six-month Bali Hindu religious calendar include Tumpek Kandang for livestock and Tumpek Wariga for essential plants such as rice and coconut trees. Balinese custom also mandates that certain prayers be performed before harvesting rice, or cutting bamboo or coconut trees.

In Tenganan, east Bali, an area noted for firm adherence to Adat or traditional custom, the age and type of tree that may be harvested is strictly regulated. In addition, anyone who fells a tree is also required to plant a suitable replacement. Ostensibly, performing rituals and following usage guidelines avoids offending the spirits who many Balinese believe take shelter in trees and other natural objects. In practice, of course, ritual control of tree felling is simply a form of sustainable exploitation of natural resources.

In Bali Hinduism, this system of religious morality /environmental consciousness is called In Hita Karana, a philosophy aimed at creating harmonious relationships between man and God, man and society, and man and the environment. During recent years much attention has been paid to Tri Hita Karana as Bali struggles to adapt to the influences of international tourism, consumer culture, and mass media. With increasing numbers of young Balinese striving to understand the astoundingly rich philosophical foundation of their religion, there is growing awareness that preservation of natural resources is a religious obligation. Like the banyan tree, whose spreading branches drop tendrils to the earth which thicken into trunks capable of supporting the constantly enlarging structure, the philosophy of Bali Hinduism is expanding to encompass new perspectives and influences.

Recent events notwithstanding, economic prosperity has resulted in more banyan and other imposing trees sporting saput poleng. In many cases, the community has also pooled resources to construct a small temple beside the sacred tree. Most Bali Hindus believe that this renewed emphasis on natural objects is not a step backward into animism but an affirmation of the orthodox Hindu concept that God is an integral part of all things, a concept that finds an echo in Western scientific notions of the interdependence of man and nature.

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