Outside, the greenery was all enveloping as curved figurines, holding pots in their hands, poured water for us to wash our feet. A flight of steps took us down the gardens as we saw several smaller shrines dotting the landscape. “Did you see the Buddha?” asked a guide while pointing at a carved face in the rocks, partially covered by moss. The 11th century site, called Lwa Gajah was not discovered until the 1950s and was believed to be a sanctuary of a Buddhist monk. The River Petanu flowing around the lush village, created a picture postcard of paddy fields sloping towards us. Climbing up the steps, we stopped by at many mystical shrines as several rocks suddenly turn out to be carved with faces and smiles.
The sea beckoned again and we headed towards Pura Uluwatu, a temple of the Balinese, perched on a cliff that dates back to the 10th century. Standing guard against the evils that are said to ravage the island, the shrine is one of the sacred directional temples of the Balinese. “Ulu means head and watu means rock,” said my driver as we got off at the shrine located at the top of the rock, referring to the cliff that stands almost 200 feet above the Indian Ocean. “Wear the sarong, it will protect you from the evil spirits and watch out for the monkeys,” added my driver. The canopy of trees surrounded us as we climbed up the steps. The monkeys stopped us on our way up with their pitiful faces urging us to feed them. These creatures also seemed to have developed a penchant for sunglasses and grabbed them off another tourist. Our brief walk led us to a nondescript cluster of temples, silently stacked away on the mountains, but powerful enough to ward off the spirits.
An active volcano and a monkey chant
We moved towards Ubud making our way to the active volcano, Mount Batur and the crescent shaped crater lake. Amidst the black soil of the mountains and the emerald blue lake, was a tiny train of travellers making their way up the crater, some of them stopping by the temple, Pura Ulun Danu Batur, dedicated to the Goddess of water, Dewi Danu. We were content to look at the mountains from our vantage point before wandering off into rustic Bali. The villagers seemed to be at leisure, indulging themselves with some local games and Balinese cuisine.
Much has been waxed eloquent about the tryst between the setting sun and the oceans against the backdrop of the rocky island that houses one of the most ancient temples, Pura Tanah Lot, our final destination for the day. The 15th century shrine, dedicated to Balinese spirits of the seas, built under the direction of a priest is believed to be guarded by snakes. We reached just in time to see the sky change colours and then in a flash, the ball of crimson dissolved into the oceans leaving tinges of pink and purple across the sky. I lingered around for a while. The lashing of waves against the rocks sounded almost like another ritual. But my day didn’t end yet.
Lights were lit up as we sat in an open air auditorium to watch the vibrant kecak or fire dance. Scenes familiar from Ramayana take on an Indonesian hue as the chorus, filled with men, starts with a loud chanting of “Chak Chak”, referred to as the monkey chant. The characters from the epic came alive on stage as the scenes grew dramatic and intense. The tempo of the chant rose and fell, echoing in the air or dropping into a whisper while the performers swayed their arms, creating an effect of war between Rama’s monkey army and Ravana’s asuras. The performance ended on a rather fiery note.
The kecak itself has its roots in exorcism as it concludes with a dancer on horseback who suddenly jumped into a ball of fire in a state of trance. The audience gasped and the chorus reached a crescendo when the stage was lit in a fire of passion and smoke finally took over. It was not just a performance, but a ritual.
As we drove back in the darkness, silence reigned. Elsewhere, along the beaches of Kuta, the night life just began as a performer played with fire. Bali, I realise, is a country filled with a fiery passion. Be it culture or adventure, Bali would leave you in awe. It is the energy and vivaciousness of life here that you carry back home as you leave its shores.
This was first published in the March 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.