If your eyes are open in Bali, Indonesia, you’ll see black and white checked fabric just about everywhere.
On my first vacation there with my son and his family, I spotted it at a roadside pottery shop on the way from the airport. What is this doing here? I asked myself. After all, in the USA, we associate gingham with rustic decorating, coverlets for jam jars, clothes for small children, and great-grandma’s tablecloth.
It didn’t take long to start noticing black and white checks wherever I went. But the Insight Guide I’d studied and brought along gave me no insight, and as I wondered what the fabric meant, a verse played in my mind to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women.”
Well, you’ll see it wrapped around temple gods.
You’ll see it along the sides of roads.
You’ll see it at fancy hotels and stores.
You’ll see it at homes rich and poor.
After four more extended visits—my son’s family now lives there—I’m beginning to understand its religious and cultural significance. Friends are surprised when I tell them that Bali has its own religion. Unlike Indonesia’s other 17,000, majority-Muslim islands, most of Bali’s 4.3 million citizens practice a unique mix of Hinduism, Buddhism, and ancestral worship punctuated by elaborate festivals and rituals.
Bali could be the only national entity with a trademark textile design. Unlike America’s patriotic stars and stripes, the black and white checks have a deep spiritual meaning. They symbolize the Balinese philosophy of Rwa Bhineda, balance and harmony, not unlike Chinese yin and yang. The contrasting squares signify that there is no day without night, no joy without sorrow, no good without bad, no right without wrong, no order without chaos.
It makes all the more sense that this small island in the middle of the 735,000-square-mile Indonesian archipelago is a world-renowned center for serious chilling out, whether at its beaches, resorts, or countryside. And it doesn’t hurt that the cuisine is divine and the lush landscapes are replete with beautiful terraced rice fields, forests, jungles, and attractions like tea plantations and butterfly parks.
Rwa Bhineda promotes tolerance and the appreciation for opposites and differences. I’ve learned that it’s customary to teach Balinese children not to suffer for too long, for there will always be joy. But they’re also taught not to celebrate too enthusiastically, because after joy might come sadness, and they must learn to embrace the balance.
Poleng is sold in bolts at local textile shops, but I wouldn’t buy a few meters and make a dress for myself—it’s the garb of priests at ceremonies and street musicians who perform on festival days. Security officers wear poleng headbands and sarongs because their job is to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong, orderly and chaotic.
Every shrine contains a prasada offering to a god or spirit. One quickly learns to be careful not to step on and desecrate the offerings, especially the baskets on sidewalks containing flowers, candy, chips, cigarettes, and incense. In the early morning, you can sometimes watch traditionally dressed women move from shrine to shrine, placing fresh prasada and lighting the incense.
The beauty and nobility of the national color scheme and its patterns is palpable at temple ceremonies, such as the 30-year anniversary of Pura Dalem Warung temple I experienced in Canggu. “Offerings were made to nature in thanks for the air we breathe that makes possible life on earth,” a participant named Kadek explained to me. Poleng was in its glory as the faithful of Canggu celebrated the balance of life and death, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to appreciate the event’s ballet-like choreography and clamorous revelry.