Travel: Revel in the mystical magic of Bali
Kamini Dandapani visits the Bali beyond the beaches
Straddling the equator in an azure expanse of ocean 3,000 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 and bewitching.
A region where a succession of dynasties and civilisations Aborigine, Hindu, Malay, Polynesian, Islamic, European have left their impact. With names that conjure up romance, mystery and enchantment: Java, Sumatra, Celebes, Borneo, Bali.
It is this last one, Bali, that I was privileged to visit recently. I have wanted to go to Bali, ever since my father travelled there, almost three decades ago, and came back raving about this lovely little island with soaring volcanoes; dark lakes; sun-splashed rice fields; lush forests alive with the sounds of monkeys; famous beaches and beautiful women.
But what attracted him 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. The people, he said, were gentle and always smiling, following rituals and a way of life that seemed timeless. I was smitten.
Image: A pura desa is a village temple for official celebrations. Every Balinese village has one
Photographs: Kamini Dadapani
A medley of cultures
Local lore holds that Bali rests on the back of a turtle that floats on the ocean. It is a lovely image. But the reality, the history of Bali, is one of relentless warfare and revolts, of fending off and succumbing to attackers.
The influence of India came via Java, which, for centuries, adopted and adapted the Hindu and Buddhist religions. In the 15th and 16th centuries the Muslim invasion of Java led the cream of that society to flee to Bali. The religion and philosophy, the art and literature of Hindu Java now resided in Bali, where it lives to this day.
It is this tangled web of influences that created Balinese Hinduism, a medley of ancestor worship, animism, fertility gods, witches and devils, a reverence for nature and the elements. It is called Hinduism, but is unlike anything I have seen in India.
Bali lives and breathes its Hinduism. It is dotted all over with temples and shrines. 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 dedicated to the deities of death and cremation. In addition, there are numerous other temples or pura: for families, agriculture, marketplace, sea and ocean, hills, lakes, trees and springs.
Image: Gunung Kawi is an 11th century temple in Tampaksiring. The shrines are carved into the cliff.
We arrived in Bali in November. Intent on avoiding the overly-touristy beach areas, we stayed in Ubud, a village nestled among rice paddies in the heart of Bali. It was supposed to be a charming, unspoiled little town, the artistic and cultural centre of Bali. Ubud was that, yes, but overwhelmingly, the impression was one of a big shopping trap for foreigners eager to take home a piece of exotic Bali.
The streets were crammed with shops, all selling what looked like mass-produced stuff. But it was all done with such charm that even one (ie, me) determined not to succumb would.
The streets were decorated with long, gracefully swaying bamboo poles adorned with woven palm-leaf ornaments. These, we were told, were penyors. We had arrived just a couple of days after the end of the 10-day-long festival of Galunggan, for which penyors are erected in front of all homes and shrines. This uniquely Balinese festival celebrates the visit of ancestral spirits to the homes of their descendants, where they are welcomed with sumptuous feasts, prayers and offerings.
We drove all over Bali. We saw temples everywhere. The traditional Balinese temple is largely open to the elements, with several courtyards. 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, a large hollowed out rock, elaborately carved on the outside and dating back to the 8th century pre-Javanese Bali.
Image: There are shops in almost every corner of Bali.
A walk to remember
Next it was on to Gunung Kawi, the Mountain of Poetry. Gunung Kawi lies on the banks of the River Pakrisan. All around is picture-postcard Bali. Terraced rice paddies stretching out as far as the eye can see. Quiet, clean-swept streets. Smiling Balinese waving shyly. Bright sunshine, blue skies. In steadily rising temperatures and humidity, we started the steep descent into the ravine where the Gunung Kawi shrines are. Every step was a cruel reminder of the inevitable climb back up, but there was too much beauty all around to really worry about that.
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 curative powers.
There is a large temple complex here, where an elaborate ritual was underway. Dozens of worshippers sat in the blazing sunlight, while a priest, his head adorned with an elaborate headdress, conducted the rituals from a 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 vendors who followed us around, beguiling us with their sing-song banter.
Temple in the sea
We could ignore our hunger pangs no longer, and were told that there was a restaurant with spectacular views near the volcanic peaks in the eastern part of Bali. Up, up we climbed, the vegetation becoming scarcer and sparser, the air cooler. We drove along a narrow highway, behind a long line of vehicles 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 or attempted to dart ahead. A genuine display of the serene, relaxed Balinese spirit.
We stopped at a place called Kintamani, which uses its stunning views of Gunung Batur, Bali's second highest volcano, as a lure for unsuspecting tourists. The restaurant here was a huge disappointment. Hoping for a traditional Balinese meal, we got the kind of glop that tourist-trap restaurants around the world believe travellers should eat. But the view was worth it.
We spent the afternoon driving 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 corner put us off.
We had resisted the beaches so far, but it would be ridiculous to not visit one. We stopped for drinks at a hotel on Jimbaran beach, and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the day winding to a close. It was the perfect ending.
The book Island of Bali, by Miguel Covarrubias, was an invaluable resource while writing this feature.
Image: Temples dot the roads and fields of Bali.