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Sanja Burns – Water Flows From the Mountain to the Sea

Stories 2022 Shortlist

By July 7, 2022Stories 2022

Based in

Photographed in

Bali is often referred to as ‘Australia’s backyard’, and even more patronisingly, as ‘Australia’s playground’. The transition from a holiday destination to an offshore part of Australia most visibly took place in the aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombing and is well captured in this newspaper headline: “Carnage Hits Australia’s Holiday Island – Terror Hits Home”. In reality, Bali is a pleasure periphery for Australians; a place which is far enough from home psychologically to behave in ways that are different from normalised behaviour at home. This is evident in the relatively recent display of egregious acts but also in less explicit manifestations of bad behaviours, stemming from the ‘white saviour’ complex. The impact these attitudes have in Bali do not go unnoticed; the Balinese do not make a fuss about it, in part for practical reasons, and in part due to the belief that the good and the bad (evil) must coexist. The life of any Balinese is devoted to maintaining a balance between these two forces. As we enter a ‘post-COVID’ world and the plane loads start arriving again, I fondly present a different idea of Bali where birth, death, weddings, ceremony, sneaky cock fights, salt harvesting or simple ‘omongkosong’ at the local warung, in other words life, unfold against the backdrop of black sand beaches void of half-naked bodies and suntan lotion aroma. Bali is often presented for tourist consumption through an oversaturated, colourful lens, overwhelmingly calling into use, our sense of vision. The Balinese refer to the tangible, or able to be perceived by the senses, as ‘sekala’. Contrasting sekala is ‘niskala’; the intangible; the occult, which must be given the same importance as the seen. And so, my story is an invitation to the viewer to see beyond the distraction of the conspicuous, and seek out the feelings that universally connect us.

Man is a tiny part of the overall Hindu-Balinese universe but contains its structure in microcosm. Man is a scale model of the universe which also has three parts – the upper world of God, the middle world of humans, and the underworld. The three divisions of man are head, body and feet. The head is holy, the seat of the soul.

Orientation in Bali begins with the sacred mountain, Gunung Agung…Gunung (Mount) Agung is the dwelling place of Hindu gods. Toward the mountain is called ‘kaja’. Antipodal to ‘kaja’ is ‘kelod’, seaward, toward the lower elevations and away from the holy mountain. Kelod is “down”, less sacred than ‘kaja’ and even impure…To understand orientation on Bali, one must make what may at first seem to be a very fine distinction between “direction and “place”. Since ‘kelod’, towards the sea, is the direction away from the seat of purity, the assumption is sometimes made that the sea is the least acred place of all. This is an error. – Bali, Sekala & Niskala, Fred B. Eiseman, Jr.

Bali and Java are separated by Bali Strait a 2.5km wide body of water which can be crossed by a ferry. The islands were joined until the end of the last ice age when the rising sea water covered the land connection. The islands share a part of the tectonic plate called Sunda shelf. Javanese are often found in Bali on construction sites where they live and work as labourers. In the evening they stroll to the beach to clean and socialise.

Many visitors to Bali do not realise that even cockfights are in a way offerings. Since gambling became illegal, cockfights have theoretically become extinct. Big emphasis on theoretically. Cockfights often happen at temple ceremonies because the evil spirits are appeased by the blood of the lower being being spilled on the ground. Betting is not officially supposed to take place.

Formerly a villa resort, owned by Tommy Suharto, a playboy who has come to symbolise the excesses of Indonesia’s ruling class during his father’s 32 year reign. 6 hectares of prime beach front.

A procession to the sea or to a holy spring in which village gods in their pratimas (small statues) are carried to the source of water to be ceremonially sprinkled with holy water. Melasti is the purification of the village and it occurs just before Nyepi, the Balinese New Year’s Day also known as the day of silence.

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