Bali is a paradise island that is ever welcoming of LGBTQ travellers. Hinduism and the island’s spirituality plays a large part in why this is. Editor-in-Chief of OutThere, Uwern Jong uncovers the LGBTQ themes in Balinese mythology.
Article | 18 June 2018
By Uwern Jong
I’ve come to know Bali as a land of many aliases – and they’re all somewhat spiritual – ‘Island of the Gods’, ‘Land of a Thousand Temples’, ‘Morning of the World’ – a heavenly roll-call of sorts. It’s no real surprise, as I found that nearly every aspect of life on the island is steeped in religious belief.
For centuries, Balinese people have believed in a mystic, invisible force that controls their very existence. It is something that is deeply rooted into the belief system. Even modern life is built around it – once, arriving on Nyepi day (Balinese New Year), I found that instead of the convivial celebrations that most other cultures enjoy to ring in the New Year, the Balinese observe a day of silence, fasting and reflection. But don’t think it’s all pious modesty, they make up for it the following day with an Omed-omedan ceremony – a whole day of mutual kissing.
Over ninety percent of the island’s population practices Hinduism, which is actually what makes Bali such an open-minded and ultimately gay-welcoming place to visit. The religious system here is based on a universal principle of life and consciousness, atma – ‘live and let live’ – and ‘doing good’ karmaphala. The game is all about scoring brownie points for your reincarnation. Balinese people believe that they are living in what mere mortals would consider heaven, and they must do their utmost to maintain their position within it, by being good to people.
The LGBTQ themes in Balinese Hinduism also levels the playing field, with one of the ultimate forms of the divine being Ardhanarishvara, believed to be the apex of masculine and feminine balance, portrayed by a half-man-and-half-woman deity. The frescos of some of its temples also tell some LGBTQ stories, from the god Vishnu who pretended to be female so he could marry the handsome Aravan, to a parable from the Ramayana (that you’ll see performed in Balinese traditional dance) about two women who make love to bear a child without a man. More importantly, Balinese Hinduism also presents LGBTQ heroes in key parts of its sacred narratives. For example, there’s Shikhandi, who was crucial to securing a victory in a great war and is clearly expressed in the text as a ‘man trapped in a woman’s body’.
Such stories don’t just exist in religion, but also in regional folklore. There’s a local Javanese community who are very proud of their version of the Kama Sutra – the Serat Centhini – that details quite graphically sex between two men. There are also some islanders, originally of Sulawesian descent, that believe and recognise that there are actually five genders.
Bali is deeply fascinating and I spent a whole week discovering many different facets to the island, getting under the skin of what really makes it tick. My basecamp at Belmond Jimbaran Puri was the perfect place to explore Bali, and its spellbinding temples, UNESCO protected rice-fields and gorgeous beaches with sublime sunsets – all within easy reach of my perfect, traditionally-chic, luxury bolthole, complete with private walled garden.
I guess what makes Bali so special for me is this real dichotomy. Apart from it being an insanely beautiful paradise island, and a place of unadulterated, luxury hospitality, its residents uniquely preserve its traditions, none of which comes from a discriminatory place. Instead, the lessons it teaches merges social duties and religious obligations with acceptance, love, nature and the environment; and the onus is on its people being a catalyst for greater good.
by Uwern Jong
Photo credit: Martin Perry