I remember the first time I heard it in 2010. I had lived in a Balinese family compound for years but had been back to the United States to work on my PhD. On the morning after my return to Bali for next-stage research, I was jolted awake at exactly 6 a.m. by an enormous crack and the sound of something unexpected: a Sanskrit prayer accompanied by Balinese gamelan music.
Through my window, I spotted a newly mounted loudspeaker across the street, propped high on the community meeting hall and aimed right at me. The recording it blared was of poor quality and so cacophonous, and for a moment I questioned what Indonesian island I was on. Had I been on the neighboring island of Java, I would have expected to hear the Azan, or Islamic call to prayer. After all—and many do not know this—Indonesia is home to approximately 225 million Muslims, making it the largest Muslim population in the world. I had heard the Azan many times in my decade of study in the archipelago, but, here on the Hindu island of Bali, broadcasts of a daily prayer into the soundscape was something extraordinary and new to me.
I ran out to the kitchen. As usual, the matriarch of the compound was there preparing the day’s cooking. “Selamat pagi! Apa suara itu?” (“Good morning! What is that sound?”) I asked. I pointed to the sky to convey my focus on the sonic world. She handed me a rice cake and explained that it was the Puja Tri Sandhya, a daily prayer that the village community hall now projected three times a day at 6 a.m., 12 p.m., and 6 p.m. I thanked her, opened the banana leaf-covered cake, and listened to the remainder of the broadcast. Over coffee I pondered what I had just heard. Why had Balinese Hindus, who make up over eighty percent of the population of Bali, created their own call to prayer? Was it a reaction to the Islamic Azan—to religious tensions in the archipelago? How did people feel about this new practice, and what meaning did these broadcasts hold for Balinese Hindus?
I began asking these questions that very day in the village of Mas, where for years I have worked with a community of predominantly Brahman families. This priestly class is revered for their knowledge of Balinese religion and ritual. I study shadow theater music and ritual with Ida Bagus Anom Suryawan, a dancer, mask maker, and puppeteer, and he told me that, prior to the 1950s, the Balinese did not designate their religion as Hinduism or have a standardized prayer. The recitation of mantra (prayers) was a practice reserved for priests. Suryawan explained that if I wished to understand where this Balinese call to prayer came from, I should investigate the development of Balinese Hinduism following Indonesian independence.
After digging through mounds of scholarly literature on post-independence religious politics, I soon learned that at the time of independence from the Dutch in 1945, religion became an important topic of debate within Indonesian society. Islamic parties wanted the country to become a purely Muslim nation, while others fought to maintain religious diversity, given large populations of Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians across some 6,000 inhabited islands.
To manage the problem, Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, created a new set of constitutional laws called the Pancasila. The first of the Pancasila principles, “belief in one supreme god,” mandated that all citizens not only declare a religion but also belong to one that was monotheistic. While this new law was meant to ensure that Indonesia would remain pluralistic and religiously diverse, belief systems with animistic or polytheistic ideologies, like that of the Balinese, were considered unacceptable and illegitimate. The Balinese and many other minority religions were subsequently forced to convert to one of the acceptable religions or reform their beliefs to resemble one of the major monotheistic systems.
This presented a problem for many Balinese who at the time of independence practiced Agama Tirtha (“religion of holy water”), a belief system devoted to the worship of ancestors and a panoply of deities who ensured prosperity and fertile rice fields. To legitimize their religion and conform to the new monotheistic mandates, they claimed they were followers of Hinduism and subsumed their pantheon of gods and spirits under one monotheistic deity: Sanghyang Widhi Wasa (“The One High God”). Enforcing the reform of religions wishing to designate as Hindu was the Parisada Hindu Dharma Indonesia (PHDI), the unified organization of Hinduism in Indonesia. Under the guidance of PHDI, the Balinese belief system underwent a number of additional reforms, including systematizing doctrines and simplifying rituals, often influenced by the acceptable models of Islam and Christianity.
Given the predominance of Islam in the region, the question arose whether or not the Balinese had a daily prayer. In an effort to legitimize and promote conformity, the PHDI also chose a daily prayer for the Balinese: the Puja Tri Sandhya, a version of the daily prayer that traditionally had only been recited by priests.
Following these reforms, the Balinese belief system was renamed Agama Hindu Bali, or “Balinese Hinduism” and in the late 1950s was accepted by the Indonesian government as a legitimate religion. The next step in this reformation was to educate the Balinese in the ways of the new nation and their new religious practices as Balinese Hindus. This meant adopting the Puja Tri Sandhya in various stages until one day it grew into a normal facet of the religion. One of the first initiatives was to make the Puja Tri Sandhya a daily prayer for school children. What better way to introduce a whole society to a new mode of religious practice than to teach it to children? Nearly sixty years later, few members of Balinese society can remember a time when the Puja Tri Sandhya was not a normal aspect of their religiosity.
The next stage in the adoption of the Puja Tri Sandhya occurred in the 1970s, when Balinese radio stations like RRI (Radio Republik Indonesia) began to broadcast the prayer. A recording was made of the mantra accompanied by a priest’s bell (genta) and gender wayang (music for the shadow puppet play), which continues to be the version most often broadcast today. The religious importance of the prayer continued to grow, and in 1992, the memorization and recitation of the Puja Tri Sandhya became part of local village contests. To amplify the recitation segment of these, the Balinese communities equipped their meeting halls with loudspeakers. These same loudspeakers, along with many more since installed, are now used for daily broadcasts.
As of 2001 , many, but not all, Balinese community halls sound the Puja Tri Sandhya at 6 a.m., 12 p.m., and 6 p.m. However, the degree to which the practice is taken seriously varies significantly among the Balinese. While some do take a moment to pause for reflection, many continue to go about their business. For others, acknowledgement of the Tri Sandhya predates post-independence religious reforms and recognizes traditional beliefs connecting time and spirits. For example, 6 a.m., 12 p.m., and 6 p.m. are considered “transition times” of the day (sandyawela or sandyakala), when it is believed that certain low spirits are most active. Therefore, these times are the most dangerous during which to travel or to walk through an intersection, so many Balinese will wait in their homes until the Puja Tri Sandhya has passed.
Traditional Balinese identity is also asserted through the sounds accompanying the Puja Tri Sandhya, as the bell and gender wayang music are sacred sonic symbols heard in the inner-most courtyard of a Balinese temple ceremony. These sounds add religious legitimacy to the prayer and transport the listener to the sacred space of the temple.
In addition to projecting the Puja Tri Sandhya, television stations such as Bali TV have begun to show a Puja Tri Sandhya video very similar to national TV broadcasts of the Islamic call to prayer. At the appropriate times (the Azan is broadcast at five different times every day), public programming on national and local television stations is interrupted to show videos of the Azan or Puja Tri Sandhya. These videos bear a striking resemblance to one another. Both present beautiful scenery from the Indonesian countryside, depict the beauty of Muslim or Hindu life, and display the words of the prayer, either in Arabic or Sanskrit with Indonesian translation.
See the similarities for yourself:
When I first experienced these videos, I wondered whether broadcasts of the Puja Tri Sandhya were a sign of religious tensions and competition, especially considering reports of increasing Islamization and the threat this might pose to Balinese Hinduism; however, I quickly reinterpreted them as a sign of national religious uniformity and a celebration of diversity. This shift in perspective was prompted through research into Indonesia’s national motto, “Bhineka Tunggal Ika” (“Unity in Diversity”). These words were adopted following independence, and the Indonesian public continues to celebrate them in various ways—the television and radio broadcasts of different religious prayers being one of them. This became even clearer to me when I found out that Christian communities throughout the archipelago were also broadcasting their own prayer called the Angelus.
Given that a majority of people on Bali were Hindu, I had never heard the Angelus. To learn more about this Catholic devotional prayer which commemorates the Incarnation of Christ, I traveled to the predominantly Christian island of Flores. The Angelus has been important to Roman Catholics for centuries and one can hear it sounded in Christian communities around the world. Christians in Indonesia have adopted the practice, projecting the Angelus from loudspeakers affixed to churches at 6 a.m., 12 p.m., and 6 p.m. While it is possible that Balinese Hindus may have been influenced by Christians in sounding their call at the same times, this cannot be substantiated.
It has been years since that first time I woke to the sound of the Puja Tri Sandhya. I am no longer surprised or jolted awake by the broadcasts and have begun to follow and interpret them in very similar ways to the Balinese—as a reminder to pause and take a moment for spirituality and gratitude, as a warning to wait a few minutes before leaving the compound to avoid low spirits on the road, and as an important way of knowing the time throughout the day. With each sounding, I am reminded of the myriad ways in which the call takes on religious, political, and local meanings. It is at once a call to spiritual reflection, national pride, and an assertion of Balinese identity and religious legitimacy.
When considered collectively, the Islamic Azan, Puja Tri Sandhya, and Christian Angelus can be viewed as cohesive mechanisms that unite the religiously diverse society of Indonesia. Their daily broadcasts are an example of how sound is used to assert both local identity and national unity, whereby sonic symbols celebrate religious pluralism and Bhineka Tunggal Ika—unity in diversity.
Meghan Hynson is an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Monmouth University, where she directs the university gamelan and teaches courses in global and popular music, music education, and Western music history. Her research focuses on the performing arts of Indonesia, specifically examining developments in Balinese shadow theater music (gender wayang) and the use of West Javanese bamboo angklung instruments in Indonesian music education and cultural diplomacy.