Book Reviews

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Secrets of Bali:

New Light on the Morning of the World

by Jonathan Copeland with Ni Wayan Murni

2010, 312 pp., 110 line drawings, 1 map, glossary, bibliography, index, 21.5 x 14 cm., softcover.

ISBN-13: 978-974-524-118-3 $30.00
(E-book edition $11.99)

Book review by William Dalton

(Bali Advertiser ‘Toko Buku’ column, 11 August, 2010)

Incredibly, ancient Balinese cultural traditions remain intact today alongside 21st century modernity and a highly developed tourist industry. Yet few visitors ever begin to really understand the colorful pageantry and the origins of the ritual practices that surround them virtually everywhere they travel on the island.
   Unpretentious and easily readable in its approach, Secrets of Bali is the key to this understanding. For succinct and wide ranging information about Balinese life, religion, festivals and offerings, architecture, music, dance, textiles, dress, carvings and paintings, manuscripts, food and much more, this is the book to which the visitor or the student can turn for answers which explain both traditional culture and the ever changing realities of contemporary life.
   A close reading will reveal a great number of facts that are little known to even long-term residents of Bali, whether it be such fascinating trivia as Walter Spies introducing Balinese artists to picture frames, the earliest surviving photographs of Bali were taken between 1862 and 1868, or that food prepared using a mortar and pestle tastes noticeably better than grinding the ingredients with a blender.
   The “secrets” revealed are not just about Bali but about the island’s historical and cultural significance in the larger universe of Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Did you know that Sembiran in northern Bali was visited by Indian traders as early as 210 B.C., that the first English colony founded anywhere was on the tiny island of Run in the Bandas, that there is no depiction of rice on Borobudur, and that wealthy homes in 18th century Batavia had cells to incarcerate Balinese slaves if they were disobedient?
   Most readers are also probably unaware that a major sect of Balinese Hinduism is based on the Hare Krishna philosophy, how dark complexions evolved in tropical regions, the Pejeng drum is the largest bronze drum ever found, the first Christian missionary to Bali was murdered, many Balinese temples in on the west coast have shrines dedicated to Muslim ancestors and that 11% of Bali’s population are migrants.
   A few misconceptions and misinterpretations are also exploded. For example, the sea is not seen as evil and unclean, an assertion found in much of the popular and even academic literature on Bali. Purification ceremonies regularly take place in the sea, ritual objects and a person’s ashes are taken to the ocean for purification, and the sea is the source of holy water.
   The quality of the book’s index enables the reader to readily access information. Indonesian and Balinese words in italics indicate the page number where the subject is discussed and there’s also a nine-page glossary that gives even more thorough definitions. Topics not found in the index can be found in the contents pages. If you wanted to find out about tumpek (certain days dedicated to respect for objects) or the origin and choreography of the Kebyar Duduk dance, both the index and the glossary provide information.
   Educated at the University College London, Jonathon Copeland spent 25 years practicing law while traveling extensively in Bali where he researched and photographed all aspects of the culture. His formal university training is undoubtedly the source of his deep knowledge of the classics of Western literature and philosophy and of modern psychology which is so evident in the text. His many years as a lawyer taught him how to explain complex subjects easily.
   Co-author Ni Wayan Murni, born in Penestanan, is a well-known personality on the Bali scene and a pioneer of Balinese tourism. In 1974 Murni opened Ubud’s first real restaurant, Murni’s Warung, and also established the town’s first proper gallery of antique ethnic artifacts. On numerous occasions Murni took the author to places and religious ceremonies where he was the only non-Balinese.
   In many ways, the book is also a cultural and social history of mankind and the planet as seen through the microcosm of the tiny island of Bali, constantly drawing parallels and comparisons with other cultures. The author consistently explains phenomena—from the Big Bang to the Bali Bomb—as it fits in the larger global context. Thus when the author discusses of Balinese history we get to learn about Chinese and Indian seafaring empires and 16th century Portugal; when he explains the Balinese calendar we learn about ancient Egypt and Rome.
   Copeland takes us back to the beginnings of human life in Indonesia as he discusses Java Man and even devotes three pages on the discovery in 2003 of “island dwarves” (the Hobbits) who died out 12,000 years ago. The book is full of small essays like how Bali got its name, a chapter on the core beliefs of Bali Hinduism, and the dramatic story of Danish trader Mads Lange, the White Raja of Bali.
   The last chapter, Summing Up, lays out the differences between Western and Asian cultures, the first step in avoiding misunderstandings, and the myriad ways in which the Balinese perceive and reason differently than Westerners.
   Encyclopedic in its coverage, the product of prodigious research, difficult subjects from the sublime to the arcane are simply explained in this well written and up to date work. Secrets of Bali is a valuable and authoritative reference source as well as an entertaining read for the visitor, scholar and Bali aficionado.

[Read another review from the Bali Advertiser] [Read a review from ASEASUK News] [Read a review from Tropical Life Magazine] [Read a review from Hello Bali Magazine] [Read a review from The South China Morning Post] [Read a review from Bali & Beyond] [Read a review from The Bali Times] [Read a review from The Jakarta Post] [Read about the remarkable life of co-author Murni] [More Orchid Press Reviews]