A refresher course
Bali revisited. After a l-o-n-g interval. But surprisingly, i found little change of any note. Bali now felt and looked the same as the Bali of my memory - a well hawked , well packaged, well presented " Last Paradise on Earth ". Tourism, the major industry of the little island, has recouped , even increased, after that momentary lull following the ghastly bombing incident. A monument in the busy Jalan Legian called The Ground Zero Monument, in memory of the bomb victims, is now a "place of interest" too !
This time around, we did not touch any tour brochures, but decided to make our own plans. And move at our own pace. It was much more relaxing, especially since the heat and humidity of peak summer was merciless and life sapping. Even the beach proved to be stifling and still.
( The typical Balinese split-meru gateway. Besakih.)
The only "must see" on list was Pura Besakih in Karangasem Regency, the holiest temple in Bali. Over a thousand years old and a World Heritage Site. Named after the Guardian Dragon of the Mount, Basuki ( the Vasuki serpent of our mythology). The grand annual festival of Batara Turun Kabeh ( Descent of All Gods from Heaven to Temple) celebrated between 24 March and 24 April, was just over when we visited ( on 26th april) and the temple complex was still resplendent with the awesome decorations, made of coloured cooked rice flour ( below) and beautifully woven palm leaves. The gaily coloured holy parasols and buntings ( called penjor ) still fluttered above the stone images of Gauardian bhootaganas, who were all still attired in the sacred sarongs of black and white checks with a red sash. A few late comers were still participating in the rituals. The temple, in ordinary times, does not wear this look. So this was an unforeseen bonus which thrilled me no end.
But in any case, Pura Besakih is a stunning temple complex, nestling in the slope of the holy volacanic mountain Gunung Agung, about 3000 ft. above sea level. It is called The Mother Temple, not because it is dedicated to a goddess,but because it is the mother of all Balinese temples ( about 11000 in all, at a modest estimate). The principal shrine called Penataran Agung is dedicated to Dewa Siwa, and attendant shrines to Dewa Wisnu ,Dewa Prajapoti ( Brahma) and scores of minors deities ( lords of the three worlds - Tribuwanapatis) and Ascended Ancestors. Balinese hinduism is a mix of the Indian Hinduism of 2000 years ago, Malay Animism and Mahayana Buddhism. Caste system is still observed but there is no fifth category. There is only one god, called Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa who plays different roles under different names, the top ranked roles being Trisakthi or Brahma, Wisnu and Siwa. In Besakih, though, the Siwa temple itself is called a Trisakthi , a composite of Mahadewa ( formless), Sadasiwa( part male- part female) and Pramasiwa ( resident god)
The life of a Balinese revolves around temples , samskaras of "Panca Yadna "( repayment of rna or debt to Dewa, Rishi, Pitru, Manusya and Bhoota )ancestor-worship and the Pawukon calender, so full of worship dates. Every village must have three temples called Pura Puseh, Pura Desa and Pura Dalem to the three manifestations, each with distinct architecture . And then there are the minor temples and house hold shrines, all of which are propitiated without fail twice a day with offerings in beautiful little woven trays. All fine arts are related to worship.
One interesting thing observed. Temples, whether 1000 year old or built in mid 20th. century, look similar and in the same state of preservation. This is because God's houses, much like people's houses are repaired, renewed and rebuilt as and when necessary, with no great importance attached to age or antiquity of the structures. The Batuan Temple, said to be 800 years old looks as though built last year, all shiny gilt work and new stucco decorations. Another curiosity is that temples are not single unit closed structures but a complex of courtyards and open pavilions. The deity in the sanctum sanctorum is never seen, always locked up , brought out only on certain holy day , when the god visits earth. Daily worship is offered to a the padmapeeta coloumn with three (empty)alters at the top. Holy water( theertha) and ricegrains ( akshata) are dispensed by the priests chanting mantras derived from sanskrit. Anyone can offer worship. At Tampak Siring they were observing the Vanaspathi day, a thanksgiving for all vegetation. I offered worship too and took the priest's blessing ( below)
Three new additions we had not seen before; all three MASSIVE ! The Bajra Sandi Monument in Denpasar. The Garuda Wisnu Kencana park in Bukit Peninsula and The Discovery Esplanade in Kuta. The first one is a National Monument housing 33 Dioramas detailing the history of Bali ,with a tall tower from the top of which one can have panoramic views of the city. The magnificent building is shaped like the ceremonial bell ( Bajra) used by the high priests, with the base symbolising the mythical turtle which supports the world.
The second one, a private enterprise, is a still incomplete theme park with ambitious plans. The central piece is to be a 145 meter tall gold plated sculpture of Wisnu riding on Garuda. At present we can only see a 23 meter bust of a handsome Wisnu, an 18 meter head of a flamboyant Garuda and two colossal hands of Wisnu in graceful mudra installed in three separate plazas cut out of tall limestone hills. But the cafes, souvenir shops and amphitheatre are ready and working. Needless to add, visitors are thronging.
The third one is a super glitzy mega mall with designer label showrooms, the biggest in the whole of Bali, right on the Beach.
Kuta, Legian, Seminyak and Sanur continue to be crowded tourist haunts, crawling with budget class Aussies - who , incidentally, are credited to have introduced sleaze into The Paradise. Celuk, Mas,Ubud and Batubulan continue to be industrious beehives of artistic activity and relatively free of synthetic "culture". But to savour true Balinese nature and spirit, one has to move to the little villages around Gianyar,Tabanan,Kusamba etc. The terrain is lovely, eden-like. People are stately,dignified , with just enough warmth to make one comfortable, but never getting effusive or familiar. I was surprised to learn that the language does not have words for "please" and "thank you" and only in modern times have some expressions derived from the national language come into use !
Upon the advise of our driver, we visited the home of an artist family near Batuan, in which everyone painted ! The head of the family patiently showed us the wherewithal of his craft. Small brushes made by pounding the edges of bamboo slivers. Toothpicks used for finer lines. Variations in hue derived by diluting paints in a variety of mediums. "Pencils" made of burnt twigs for basic sketches. Balinese painting is known for minute and ornate details; it takes one week of excruciating work to finish one A4 size picture. But they do it cheerfully. For, as the man said, " if not happy doing, picture not happy to see."
We had decided to forego, without regret, the "done" tourist trails of Sunset in Uluwatu, photo-op in Taman Ayun, watersports in Jimbaran, workshop- hopping in Batubulan, going "eeeeooowww" in Bat Caves and taking a Dinner+Dance shindig. But one thing we did not want to forgo : the ever entrancing Kecak performance. So we bought tickets for a show in a pricey theatre . i was taken aback to see what a mish mash it turned out to be. There are many varieties of performing arts in Bali like Legong , Baris, Topeng, Wayang, Barong, Kecak, Kebyar, Janger etc each with its own unique idioms. But now, it looks like someone up there in the culture department decided it best to give visitors a fast -food salad- bar , so that they will have a taste of everything. Good intention, but the show was a montage with no true character.
Daughter and I had good time exploring the flea markets. Always interesting. But goods are no longer uniquely Bali. A lot of Maori art styles have been borrowed, so also Indian kitsch. But it was quite heartening to see Gandhi on T.Shirts and his sayings on Wall hangings.
If its Amitabh Bacchan in Egypt, it is Shahrukh Khan in Bali. Both names have become words of greeting. As we were out and about in Bali, we were constantly hailed with the words : " Hulloooo India ! Shahrukh Khan ! Namastey ! " It made no sense at all. But i have to admit, it was endearing !
( All Photographs by my daughter)
Balinese High Priest with helper. My sketch.