by Diana Darling

Did you know that there’s no expression in Balinese for ‘no smoking’? There are surely many people who are grateful that there’s nowhere to smoke anymore. But this is a part of traditional Balinese culture that’s gravely under threat.

In the olden days—say, when nobody noticed if you led a cow down the main street of Ubud—people smoked everywhere: waiting around in temples or at the bank, in hospital rooms and government offices, in cars and on planes. When you arrived in Bali and walked out onto the tarmac, the first scent in the hot damp air was famously the smoke of kretek, Indonesia’s fat clove cigarette, hanging between the lips of the guy fuelling the plane.

Smoking is religious, sort of. Through the concept of buana agung buana alit—in which the microcosm reflects the macrocosm—Balinese Hinduism teaches us that the gods require incense and human beings require cigarettes. Smoke indicates the presence of spiritual or intellectual activity. It gives a signal for calm. Its aroma, perfumed with botanical resins, is an invitation to collect one’s thoughts and pay attention to matters at hand.

My husband, who was born in Ubud in 1945, remembers that when he was a small child his mother would make cigarettes for sale, much as Balinese housewives today make little canang offerings for the market. The papers would be of either corn husk or ambu (the young leaves of the sugar palm), which she would cut into shape and scrape thin. Then she added tobacco, crushed cloves, and the scented root called aka rsi. She rolled them and tied them with string. Corn husk cigarettes had a fat end; ambu cigarettes were slimmer and straight.

Cigarettes and betelnut (with wads of tobacco) are traditionally offered to guests on religious occasions. No gamelan orchestra, masked dancer, or trance healer can work without them. If there has been a death in a family or some other big ceremonial event at home, the men of the community are obliged to keep watch through the night, a sacred duty which requires gambling and a lot of smoking.

Things have changed. Today at ceremonies, people’s hands are busy with electronic devices, and no one is paying attention to what’s going on around them. The cigarettes young people smoke today smell like industrial waste. And there’s the bit about health.

Bali’s tourism, too, plays a role in the decline of smoking. Nice tourists hate it. They flap their theatre programs and glare at you if you dare to light up. They howl if you smoke in an air-conditioned restaurant. Even open-air spaces are off-limits, given the new fashion for resort architecture in bamboo and thatch. These days, the only place left to smoke is with the kids in front of Circle K.