Straddling the equator in an azure expanse of ocean 3000 miles east of India, on the restless backbone of a volcanic belt, lie hundreds of islands. They form a land-bridge of sorts between India and Australia, emerald-green, beautiful, bewitching and fascinating, a region where a succession of dynasties and civilizations have left their impact. Aborigine, Hindu, Malay, Polynesian, Islamic, European. With names that conjure up such romance and mystery, enchantment and beauty: Java, Sumatra, Celebes, Borneo, Bali.
It is this last one, Bali, that I was privileged to visit recently. I have long wanted to go to Bali, ever since my father traveled there, almost three decades ago, and came back raving about this lovely little island with its soaring volcanoes and silent, dark lakes, the fertile, sun-splashed rice fields and the lush forests alive with the sounds of gibbering monkeys, the famous beaches and beautiful women. But what attracted him the most were the temples that graced every part of the island - on the roadsides, by the sea, in rice fields, next to rivers, in caves - many of them little more than simple shrines, adorned with a humble offering of freshly-plucked flowers and a few grains of rice. The people, he said, were gentle and always smiling, following rituals, practices and a way of life that seemed timeless, evergreen. I was smitten.
I will try to keep the verbiage to a minimum, and let my pictures do most of the talking. But first, a little bit of historical context and background, something I cannot resist!
Local lore holds that Bali rests on the back of a turtle which floats on the ocean, protected from above by a perfumed sky filled with beautiful, rare flowers and celestial nymphs. It is a lovely image, this, so serene and harmonious, but the reality, the history of Bali, is one of relentless warfare and revolts, battles and struggles, of fending off and succumbing to attackers, from the neighboring Javanese to the faraway Dutch. The influence of India - including that of the Cholas and Pallavas of South India, drawn to these islands which lay at the crossroads of ancient sea routes, blessed by fair and favorable winds and currents - came via Java, which, for centuries, adopted and adapted the Hindu and Buddhist religions from their homeland. For a significant part of its early history, Bali was part of the kingdoms of Java, and it absorbed a multitude of influences from there: the Mahayana Buddhism of the Sailendra Dynasty of the 7th century, the Saivism of the 9th century, the rituals and practices of the Tantric sects of the 11th century. Later still, it adopted the Javanese religion of the Madjapahit Dynasty: Javanese Hinduism, imbued with streaks of native Indonesian customs and ideas. In the 15th and 16th centuries the Muslim invasion of Java led the cream of that society - rulers, priests, intellectuals - to flee Java for the safe haven of Bali. The religion and philosophy, the art and literature, of Hindu Java, now resided in Bali, where it was preserved, and lives to this day.
It is this tangled web of influences from this turbulent history that has created what goes today by the name of Balinese Hinduism. It combines a medley of aspects, including ancestor worship, animism, fertility gods, witches and devils, a reverence for nature and the elements, and deities of the sun, water, earth and fire, the very essentials of life itself. It is called Hinduism, but is unlike anything I have seen anywhere in India. The gods of Bali are largely invisible, elusive, impalpable, so unlike those of India, where they are displayed with such pride and devotion, pomp and pageantry, in all their myriad forms and manifestations. Balinese festivals are held to entertain and welcome ancestors, to keep evil spirits like demons and witches, at bay. Balinese temples have their own architecture, graceful and charming, with rituals and celebrations that are a world apart from their Indian Hindu counterparts. It is an awe-inspiring and fascinating thing, this process of adaptation of cultures across time and space.
This beautiful, gentle island lives and breathes its Hinduism. It is dotted all over with temples and shrines, little and big. Every Balinese village has at least three temples: the pura puseh, the original community temple, pura desa, the village temple for official celebrations, and pura delam, the cemetery temple of the dead, dedicated to the deities of death and cremation. In addition, there are numerous other temples or pura: private family ones, those for farms and agriculture, the marketplace, the sea and ocean, the hills, lakes, trees and springs.
The streets of Bali were decorated with long, gracefully swaying bamboo poles that were adorned with woven palm-leaf ornaments. These, the people from our hotel told us, were called penyors. We had arrived just a couple of days after the end of the ten-day long festival of Galunggan, for which penyors are erected on every street, in front of all homes and shrines. This uniquely Balinese festival, one of the island's more important ones, celebrates the visit of ancestral spirits to the homes of their descendants, where they are welcomed with sumptuous feasts, prayers and offerings.
Penyors, penyors, everywhere
We hired a car and drove all over Bali. We saw temples everywhere. The traditional Balinese temple is largely open to the elements, with several courtyards that are surrounded by low walls. Elaborately carved ceremonious split gates are a distinctive feature of these temples, along with the ubiquitous fierce demons that guard the entrance. The bigger temples have a high tower that houses the temple drum, as well as sheds for the temple orchestra.
We stopped at Goa Gajah, the Elephant Cave (Gajah is elephant, as in Gajananam, or Ganesha, in the Indian Hindu pantheon), a large hollowed out rock, elaborately carved on the outside, and dating from as far back as the 8th century, from the era of pre-Javanese Bali. Notice the enormous monster with bulging eyes over the entrance to the cave (not the one to the side) that appears to split the rock open with its bare claws.
Next it was on to Gunung Kawi, the Mountain of Poetry, the site of Bali's very own Valley of Kings. Gunung Kawi lies on the banks of the River Pakrisan. All around is picture-postcard Bali - exuburently green lushness everywhere, terraced rice paddies stretching out as far as the eye can see. Quiet, clean-swept streets, roosters and chickens pecking for food along the sides of the streets. Smiling Balinese waving shyly, their faces warm and welcoming. Bright sunshine, blue skies. And in front of all the homes, penyors, and little shrines with an offering of the morning's freshly cooked rice. In steadily rising temperatures and humidity, we started the steep descent down into the depths of a ravine, where the Gunung Kawi shrines are. Every step down was a cruel reminder of the inevitable climb back up, but there was too much beauty all around to really worry about that now.
There were little shops all along the way, selling a delightful assortment of things. Needless to say, I succumbed - fairly effortlessly.
Then we saw this. Sharply etched in the incandescent sunlight, hewn out of solid rock.
This is another relic of ancient Bali, from an age of long-forgotten Balinese kings of the pre-Hindu 11th century. They are called candis, or abodes of Candika, the Goddess of Death. The mythical Balinese giant Kbo Iwa is believed to have carved these from his fingernails! Although the name might suggest otherwise, these candis are thought to be the symbolic abode of the royal family during festivals.
We saw clusters of women laughing, chatting, weaving palm fronds in the warm afternoon air. I have no idea what they were for.
And we saw this lovely young lady.
The climb back up was every bit as bad as I feared. It did not help that my husband, seemingly impervious to the heat, high humidity, hunger, thirst and steepness of the steps, sprinted up as nimbly as a mountain goat, grinning all the way! My only recourse was to plead an urgent necessity to stop and shop.
We had one more place to see before lunch, the sacred pool of Tirtha Empul in Tampaksiring. Legend has it that it was born of the hand of lord Indra, and that it is the spring of the elixir of immortality. Each of the spouts in the pool is supposed to have a special purifying and curative power. Throngs of visitors leave offerings to the spirit of the spring.
There is a large temple complex here, where an elaborate ritual was underway. Dozens of worshippers sat out in the blazing sunlight, heads bowed in prayer, while a priest, his head adorned with an elaborate headdress, conducted the rituals from an covered area. An orchestra provided a melodic counterpoint to the chanting of the priest.
The way out was through a maze of shops, which we navigated successfully - our wallets remained firmly closed, immune to the entreaties of the vendors who followed us around, beguiling us with their sing-song banter.
We could ignore our hunger pangs no longer, and we were told that there was a restaurant high up near the volcanic peaks in the eastern part of Bali, with spectacular views. Up, up we climbed, the vegetation becoming scarcer and sparser. The air grew noticeable cooler and we saw people clad in heavy jackets. It was lovely, a welcome change from the humid heat of the fields and forests below. We drove along a narrow highway, behind a long line of cars, motorbikes and vans that moved at an excruciatingly slow pace behind a large truck that struggled up the steep incline. And here was the amazing thing - not a single person honked, nobody attempted to dart ahead. The procession of vehicles wound its way painfully slowly up the mountain road patiently, placidly. This was not some show put on for tourists, but a genuine display of the serene, relaxed Balinese spirit.
We stopped at at place called Kintamani, which uses its spectacular views of Gunung Batur, Bali's second highest volcano (around 5000 feet high) as a lure and bait for unsuspecting tourists. There is a restaurant there that all visitors are steered to. The restaurant was a huge disappointment. Hoping for a traditional Balinese meal, we got the kind of glop that tourist-trap restaurants around the world believe travelers should eat. In a word, greasy. But the view of Gunung Batur was worth it.
We spent the afternoon driving around Bali, through little village after village, timeless and beautiful. We visited the temple of Tanah Lot by the sea. During high tide, access to the temple is cut off, and the sunset views are said to be spectacular. It was lovely, but the sight of shops at every turn and corner put us off. There was a ritual in progress at the entrance to the temple and we were not allowed in.
We had resisted the beach-y parts of Bali so far, but it would be ridiculous to go to a place that was world-renowned for its beaches, and not go to one! We stopped for drinks at a fancy hotel on Jimbaran beach, and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the day winding to a close. It was the perfect ending to a magical day on an enchanted isle.
(Note: Please click on the photos for an enlarged view of them).
(c) Kamini Dandapani
The book Island of Bali, by Miguel Covarrubias, was an invaluable resource while writing this.