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Ngayah a Path of Devotion

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The Balinese, through the execution of various forms of upacara (ceremonies), do so by active voluntarism; participating and contributing – a common Balinese term known as Ngayah. Though it takes up much of their time, money and energy, they are nonetheless pleased to carry it out.

The Balinese way of life and Hinduism are both intertwined. Hindu belief underlines four means of devotion known as Catur Marga (the Four Paths). The four paths are; Bakti Marga, a way of worshipping through prayer, by the worship itself, or through holy mantra recitations; Karma Marga, exertion without expecting profit or reward; Jnana Marga, learning and applying knowledge for social benefit; and Raja Marga, the path of an ascetic life.

The “path” most notably preferred by the Balinese Hindu is Bakti and Karma Yoga. In the Balinese calendar there is a holy day in every week. Known as “The Island of a Thousand Temples”, Bali boasts at least three major temples in each of its village’s island-wide, with each temple having a different ceremony schedule based on its specific days of significance according to the 210-day pawukon or other corresponding cycles in the Balinese calendar. The ceremony repeats roughly every seven months and involves the whole village in active participation, with each individual having a role to play.

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Just how do they execute all these considerably intricate ceremonies periodically? This is a question that many people, particularly visitors, are anxious to find out.

A ceremony within a village is handled by one or more joint banjars, a banjar being a smaller community of hundreds of ‘family heads’ or Kepala Keluarga (KK) under the village based in the area. All banjar members’ participation in the works is obligatory. Meetings are attended to set the plans and manage the work, then distribute the tasks and carry them out. Thus, this sort of communal project is collectively known in the local tongue as Ngayah.

Men and women play different parts. The men usually prepare the “framework and infrastructure” while the women are more focused on the elements of the ceremony. The preparations take three days or more. In times gone by, ngayah was to be carried out everyday, after the people had finished their agrarian work and attending the rice fields. Nowadays, as most of the people live a modern life working office hours, the days for Ngayah have been adjusted. Sundays now are generally chosen because almost all people have the time to join in.

The women arrive at the temples in kamen wraps and kebaya, the traditional female attire. They bring along with them knives to cut and form young coconut and banana leaves – the basic materials that make up most of the offerings. Men come with bigger knives, usually the multipurpose butcher knife-like belakas and smaller temutik for splitting and shaping bamboo and wood – pervasive materials for traditional structures. Some of them prepare the traditional meals for the ceremony and for the consumption of the people who come for ngayah. They prepare chicken, duck and pig, as well as mixing the seasoning and spices together.

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In these scenes, it is the men who cook. No wonder, that some say Balinese men make such great chefs. These activities usually go on from morning until afternoon. At around eight in the morning, some of the girls help distribute coffee, tea and snacks. After a series of preparations in the midday, they have lunch together around the temple. The work is continued until the wrap up in the afternoon. “Many hands make light work.”

Amidst all these goings-on, the people will chat. They talk about their children, neighbours, yesterday’s news, the current headlines and even the political scene and choice in the next election. Jokes, laughter and pranks ease them through the work. This close ambience tightens the relationship among the banjar members. Many hidden problems are also disclosed during these informal situations.

This is an ancient model that still lives on in Bali. Ngayah is not only the mere preparation of a ceremony but also part of the carrying out of the ceremony itself. On the big day, select women and girls perform holy dances in the temple and men in the banjar’s troupe play the gamelan. Working together in temple maintenance and other village infrastructure activities are all part of the sense of ngayah.

Village members show their care and sense of belonging by this active participation. Sincere exertion, without expecting return. Doing the best in devotion, they believe, is more valuable than any recompense.

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