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 .
One 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 showers 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.
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…
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’. And 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.
We 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 temple 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….
Tempered 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.