Travel

Beautiful Bali

 

Bali was the name of a monkey king in The Ramayana… Much as I tried, I could not find links between the beautiful green island of volcanic descent and this king who was killed by Rama’s arrow as he battled his own brother… His tale was that of a man who was unforgiving by nature.

Bali has a different story. It is a story of peace, of happiness and of an open mind. It is a story of lush greenery and mighty cliffs sculpted by flinging seas, which add to the sense of wonder one has towards natural creations.

Much like the British and European adventurers of the nineteenth century who tried to attribute every architectural wonder of the East to Western involvement even before they had found a way to sail to the Asian zones, I had gone to Bali looking for a history of Indian conquests. There had been an attack on Indonesia by Rajendra Chola during the Srivijaya empire in 1025 CE, where he won and married a Srivijayan princess. But that one skirmish was not the reason why the majority of Balinese are Hindus and their culture is deeply entrenched in Indian mythology.

The Indian religious and cultural influence dates back to the 1st century, when traders roamed a borderless world as the concept of national borders or patriotism had not seeped narrow trenches into the human psyche. So, their religion is very different from what is practiced in most of India today to my knowledge. Of course, India is so huge and has so much variety that despite spending a large part of my life in the country, I know very little of it.

Bali for me was an island waiting to unfold. We landed at night in a country new to me. I had never been to Indonesia.

The next morning, we decided to go to explore a volcano. I had read Bali was made by volcanic eruptions largely and hosted a couple of active volcanoes. I wanted to see the fire and brine or volcanic ashes whatever was visible and to that intent planned to start with a trip to Kintamani, one of the villages that line the caldera of Mount Batur. Batur is supposed to be an active volcano. I had stayed on a dormant volcano earlier in Mauii, Hawaii… An active volcano, to my imagination, was like going into Mordor in Lord of the Rings .


img_0011One of the things one never figures out about Bali are the distances. We were located in Nusa Dua. It took forever to reach the volcano.
On the way, our driver insisted we visit the Tirta Empul, a Hindu Balinese water temple, dating back to 962 CE. This is a temple dedicated to Vishnu ( God of preservation)…. however, we could see no statue of Vishnu in the prayer area. I say area because, in Balinese Hinduism, they do not have a central hall housing a statue as they do in Hindu temples in India and in other parts of the world. What they do have are altars with a throne. Around the throne are statues of Hindu Gods. The throne is meant for their God, Achintya, the formless one. He cannot be seen or felt and has no form but can manifest himself as different Hindu Gods, like Shiva(God of Destruction), Vishnu and many others. The temples are therefore all dedicated to different forms taken by the formless one, Achintya.

We had to wear sarongs to enter the temple. The sarongs were given at the temple door against a small donation. The most interesting thing about this temple was the mountain spring that bubbled in the central courtyard surrounded by prayer altars. It had green vegetation underwater and this water was carried by ducts to a common pool where all the believers bathed. The water spouted out of thirty img_0004showers into a huge pool, which accommodated the bathers from all walks, religions and countries that came to purify themselves in the holy spring.

The rooftop of some of the altars had colorful Garudas on them. The temple was backed by a hill that had a huge bungalow on it. This was built in 1954 for President Sukarno’s visit. Currently, it is used as a state guesthouse for VIPs, our driver added.

From Tirta Empul, we went to the Batur volcano. The road that takes you to the volcano viewing area is part of the caldera of Batur. All we could do was to view the volcano from the edge. We could not walk there. We could not see any fire. There was a cloud cover and it was raining. It was a bit Mordorish, except that rather than being horrific, it was scenic. There was a lake around the mountain and there was a patch of black soil where the ground had been affected by the lava flow. But most of it was green and the mountain had villages around its foothill.img_0012

The driver took us to a local restaurant for lunch, where the food was over- priced, oily and smelly. The ambience was dirty with flies buzzing around and unclean tables and bathrooms but the view overlooking the volcano was fabulous. We paid US$21 for an awful lunch. By what I heard from friends, they had similar experiences while dining in this area. Ideally, one should take a packed lunch while venturing to Kintamani.

On the way back, we saw beautiful, green terraces of rice fields. We were looking for the Bali museum, but in the wrong place, Ubud. Ubud is the artistic and hilly area in Bali. The museum was located a few hours away in Denpasar. It had lot of untitled and unexplained artifacts dating from the Neolithic time onwards and a beautiful building. The building dates to 1931. The museum was the result of the colonial Dutch attempt at recording Indonesian history. There were some interesting pieces, including a neolithic stone sarcophagus, on display. We read  about the artifacts by googling  the history of Bali. There were no guides, except some old hawkers who sold toys and souvenirs to visitors and knew not much about anything except that the museum had been opened in the early twenties under Dutch patronage.

At the end of the first day, we were disappointed with everything except our dinner at a restaurant at Bali Collection, a souvenir shopping area in Bali. The local food was excellent. We had barbecued fish called pepas and different chicken preparations which were sumptuous and satisfying.

The second day, we decided would be a day we visited only beaches and temples… and that is when the beauty and grandeur of Bali began to unfold on us.

We started on the public beach of Nusa Dua, not the smooth hotel beaches covered in white sand but the hard beach where the tan of the ground feels hard… is it an out pouring of a volcano or just rock? In the sea side, we spotted not only small fishes and variety of shell life but we also found crab claws…the crab was hiding and all we could see were it’s claws. The cliffs, on top of which were extensive gardens and a helipad, had caves that were made up of purple rocks! It was fascinating. In the middle of the park on the cliff, there was a huge statue of Krishna(a form assumed by Vishnu) and Arjun(A prince in Mahabharata,the longest epic poem in the world) and a king size Gita( a treatise on Indian philosophy recited by Krishna for Arjun in the Mahabharata). These were in keeping with the Balinese Hindu mythological statues that seemed to dot all of Bali. I have never seen such a gathering of statues anywhere in India or in any other part of the world outside of a museum or a garden. We left the beach as the tide started to rise and cover the areas with crabs, fishes and the caves and started our exploration of the temples…img_0027

It took us a couple of hours of car ride to reach the temple of Tanah Lot, the sea temple, which dates back to the sixteenth century. It is dedicated to the water god, Varuna. The temple is really scenic, a dark silhouette against a thrashing turquoise sea with foamy waves beating the rocks below. We could not go close to the temple as the tide was up. We saw the seawater rise and cover the walkway within a short time. But, I am not sure I wanted to enter the temple at all…. For me, the beauty of the creation was spellbinding. I could have sat on the cliffs and gazed at the fantastic shoreline and the  rocky temple all day. The temples in Bali all seemed to be an extension of the rocks and nature around them. A short distance from this temple within the same garden- cliff complex is the temple of Batu Bolong, literally meaning ‘hole in the rock’. img_0028And the temple is perched on a cliff with a hole!

Visiting the temples was a fantastic uplifting experience, even though visitors are not allowed to enter the altar and prayer areas.

The breath-taking view had us all spellbound!

Lunchtime…we ate at a mall in Burger King…though our driver again recommend a restaurant outside the next temple! We did not want to risk it on his recommendation again after experiencing his recommended restaurant in Kintamani.

img_0038We started on our journey to the famed Uluwatu Temple after lunch. By the time we reached Uluwatu,it was close to evening. This is an eleventh century temple dedicated to Acintya in his Rudra(a rigvedic deity associated with hunt and storm) form and is supposed to be perched, according to legend, on a petrified ship of a goddess. The seas around Uluwatu do seem rather stormy and picturesque.

There is a warning about monkeys in this temple. But they do not get at you if you do not bother them. There was a contest among some tourists and a monkey but that was because the tourists tried to growl at the monkeys when they saw them seated on the roof of a car!

What I noticed most of all was the breath-taking beauty again… of the cliffs and the water and the img_0044temple perched high on a cliff. This time we did go up to the temple. We could not enter the altar(a  priest was performing prayers there) but no regrets…the view made up for everything…

Bali had won me over with its foaming waves and cliffs… I look forward to another trip to this land of courtesy, kindness, harmony and beauty…

I have tried to capture what Bali means to me in a few lines….

 

img_0023Tempered by fire and smoke,

The molten lava fiercely flowed,

Ravaged by lightening, rain and storm,

Till cool sea waves assuaged it to form

A lush, lustrous gem of green,

 Vibrant with life and clean.

  The sea still clings

  And thrashes itself and flings

As the land with abundance fills

And with eternal quiet and happiness sings.

 

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A Happy New Year

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A New Year’s Hope

Each morning, I am drawn
To the dawning of a new dawn.
Songs of hope and happiness ring
And each ray a line of joy sings.

Each new year, I watch for the morning star,
And wish on it for a wonderful, fresh start.
Lyrics of harmony on each lip,
Dreams of peace and plenty give.

This is my fervent hope.
Every heart find a home.
Every child find enough food
And a wonderful world that schools
To realise their dreams,
Creating vibrant streams
Of thought that freely flows
Towards enlightening souls…
Beyond borders and lines,
Bonds drawn by mankind.

To welcome the new, let us all rise
And with these dreams take flight…

Oh Calcutta!

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The Calcutta I Love

I have never lived in Calcutta but I love the city.

What I love about Calcutta is not the places to visit but the spirit of the city. I love it’s people, it’s history, it’s antiquity, it’s culture, it’s flavors, fabulous cuisines and it’s multi-culturalism. People are passionate about what they feel and do. Life feels vibrant!

The first time I visited Calcutta was in the late 1970s. I was a teenager, had just completed my grade ten, and was on the way to a sleepy village in Assam, Rajapra, with my parents who were visiting the village to help set up medical care. Calcutta was a direct contrast to Rajapara in certain senses.

Rajapara was like a beautiful green gem beside a lake which yielded the tastiest Chitol ( Indian featherback) fish I have had in my life! It was a tiny village a few hours drive from Guwahati. I remember how darkness descended suddenly in Rajapara the first evening. We had just arrived. It was daylight and then it was pitch black. You could see the stars glimmering like diamonds in the night sky. My eyes had grown up with city lights in New Delhi and here, there was no electricity. There was no dusk in Rajapara. Day and night…a sudden transition! The sudden onset of darkness scared and surprised me. I started to cry.

Calcutta never instilled a sense of surprise or fear in me. The only strange and likeable thing, I found was that everybody used my mother-tongue, Bengali. Women were also more respected than in Delhi, where I was growing up. I liked that too. Of course, I do not know if that is more an East Indian thing. In Rajapara, I remember women played a pivotal role in the village and were involved in the decision making. I remember one funny thing. Married women were not allowed to ride elephants. So, I could take a tour of the village on an elephant but my mother couldnot. My father preferred to keep off the ride as he is always apprehensive of animals and their reactions.

In Calcutta, the most unique ride we had was in the tram. It chugs along slowly and you can pretty much get on and get off as you please. My father loved the tram ride. It reminded him of his university life in Calcutta in the 1950s and 60s. What I found unique about buses and trams in Calcutta was not just the way they accomodated women, children and old people and catered to their needs but also the political and cultural discussions among passengers who didnot know each other and would probably never meet again.

My father also spoke highly of the Esplanade. He compared it to the speaker’s corner in Hyde Park, London. I had not been to London as yet and, to me, Esplanade seemed like an overcrowded field. In retrospect, I think he was referring to the spirit of the places. Hyde Park and Esplanade both have an interesting ambience of antiquity. The last time we were in Calcutta in December 2014, I remember there was a political rally in Esplanade. That was the day we decided to visit our favorite landmark in Calcutta near that area, the Victoria Memorial. Our friends and relatives advised us against it but we went ahead. Not only was the traffic very well managed but there were no disruptions or delays faced by us. The only thing that we did experience was that the museum and the grounds were more crowded than usual but, it was a well-organised crowd.

Victoria Memorial, I feel, is one of the most emblamatic places in Calcutta. It has the old and new merged in it’s essence. The exhibits are really antique and fabulous, including the manuscripts on the first floor but the crowds are new and vibrant. The gardens surrounding the museum are beautifully laid out and very well maintained still. I have been there thrice in the last three years, twice in February and once in December, and each time I was impressed by the vibrancy of the flowers, the people and the museum.

The Victoria Memorial is about a century old and was paid for by the Indian princes and members of the British Raj. It was proposed by Lord Curzon as a memorial to the dead Queen Victoria. Despite the freedom movement in India which was aiming at independence and nationhood by Indians, people did pay their respects to the monarch as a ruler and a historical figure by coughing up generous amounts of cash to build the museum. The contribution by the monied people of India at that point is a unique characteristic of what builds great civilizations. They could think in terms of mankind and not of boundaries that are being drawn all the time in the name of nation, culture and religion.

A visit to Victoria memorial calls for a lunch at either Peter Cat or Mocambo. Every time I think of Peter Cat, I dream of their scrumptious Chelo kebab. They serve chicken and lamb kebabs with butter rice and a poached egg. It is the most mouth-watering dish I have ever eaten in my life. When I think of it, my mouth starts salivating automatically and I experience throws of hunger pangs! Last year, we visited Peter Cat on New Year’s eve at lunch time. There was a huge queue. My hungry sons agreed to wait two hours for lunch… An unheard of occurrence in any other restaurant in the world! And when the Chelo kebabs came, it was like manna from heaven…Peter Cat with it’s lurid red interiors has an ambience of the nineteen sixties, when it came into being. Interestingly, it was named after a cat that prowled the Lords’ cricket grounds in London from 1952 to 1964 and Calcutta is cricket crazy!

Mocambo is famous for it’s bhetki fish( sea bass) steak. The bhetki is domicile of the Bay of Bengal and is plattered into fantastic recipes in Bengal. Mocambo has adopted local foods and given them a twist of the multicultural society of Calcutta. The restuarant started in 1956 and featured European managers and crooners. Now, what remains are the fabulous recipes, a mixture of Bengali and western food. Calcutta is historically known to have hosted not just the British but also the Armenian, Dutch and French among it’s vast plethora of conquistadors with their specific areas of interest.

Calcutta came into existence as a city when the East India company began to use it as their trade outpost. Earlier, it existed as three villages till it was united into one city for trade purposes. The name of the legendary Job Charnock who lived and worked for the East India Company in the 1600s comes into ones mind when one thinks of Calcutta. However, in 2003, his name was wiped off as the founder of Calcutta by a High Court ruling and Calcutta was respelled as Kolkata.

I have never been able to figure out the need for a compulsive national identity. My identity lies in being a human being, and hopefully a good one. Even if they spell Calcutta as Kolkata, the flavour of the city continues multicultural.

Calcutta was the home to many illustrious nobel laureates, like CV Raman, Mother Teresa and Amartya Sen. I visited the home of one in Jorasankho, Rabindranath Tagore. My mother-in-law who was with us and is an avid admirer of Tagore’s songs and poetry, sang his lyrics sitting in his courtyard. It was really a very inspiring experience. This was where he wrote in his early years and Santiniketan University was the product of his later years.

There are so many places to visit in Calcutta that despite making half-a-dozen trips, I have a vast number of things that I would still love to see. This time at last my sons had a glimpse of the famous Hooghly river on the way to Botanical Gardens to see a Banyan tree that is more than 250 years old and has lived through the rise of Calcutta. The river Hooghly is a tributary of Ganges in it’s lower reaches. We crossed on the famed Hooghly bridge. This is something I had wanted to do with my sons for many years. I was sad to see the disrepair the utilities in the Botanical Garden have fallen to. The bathroom was disgusting and unusable.

It is also heart wrenching to see the way some live as one approaches the Tagore mansion in Jorasankho. The poor in this area live in tiny tenements on the drains. They do not seem sad about it. I wonder if they lived in the same squalid state in Tagore’s times. Looking at the dirt and the tiny hovels, I can figure out why many would react badly to Calcutta, or for that matter, to any city in India. Perhaps, over the years, having lived in a diverse variety of cultures and countries, I find the calm acceptance of poverty and filth by people who are wealthy a little alarming. It is great to have. But, it is a happier experience to be able to give and to make ones surroundings clean and pleasant.

Despite the sombre notes of the city, I love the happiness and optimism one sees among the rich and poor in the city. Everybody has a smile for you. I would go as far as to say that it is one of my favorite cities in the world!