ANURAG MALLICK experiences Bali’s rich culture and cuisine while uncovering fascinating legends that shape the unique island in Indonesia
At a busy intersection northeast of the Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali, it was surprising to see ornate mythological statues of what seemed like Krishna and Arjuna in a chariot. However, unlike the calm exposition of the Bhagwad Gita, the towering colossal figure seemed not en- gaged in holy discourse but had a more warlike posture. Our guide Made corrected us and said it was not Arjuna but Ghatotkacha!
Built in 1993, the sculpture depicts the battle between Bhima’s son and Karna in the Kurukshetra war from the epic Mahabharata. Perceived as loyal, intelligent and powerful, Ghatotkacha is revered by the Balinese and is a key figure in wayang kulit (traditional shadow puppetry) of Indonesia. As a flying knight responsible for air defense of the Pandavas, Ghatotkacha is supposed to provide safety and spiritual protection to all outbound and inbound flights from Bali.
While Indonesia is largely Muslim, most of the four million population on the island of Bali are primarily Hindus, with temples, traditions and folklore reminiscent of India. Interestingly, Hinduism was brought to the island by Sage Markandeya, the child saint who conquered death and wrote the Markandeya Purana. The story goes that he came from India with an entourage of 800 followers via Borneo, Sumatra, to Mount Demalung in Java. Plagued by disease, the group finally came to Bali and rest- ed on the southern slopes of Gunung Agung — the highest mountain on the island.
Here, Sage Markandeya established the Pura Besakih Temple, till date the largest and the holiest temple in Bali. Here, he consecrated the panchadhatu or five metals for the deity. Built on the slope of an active volcano, the temple miraculously survived the last eruption in 1963 with lava flow missing the shrine by metres.
Meal with a view
We checked into our hotel in the tourist hotspot of Kuta and drove to the cultural park, Garuda Wisnu Kencana (GWK). The sprawling campus was covered with immaculate gardens, large statues, perform- ance halls and a souvenir store. But we were headed for Jendela Bali, a restaurant with a panoramic view. Perched on a hillside overlooking the city, we could see the lofty Mount Agung wreathed in clouds. It is believed to be an embodiment of Mount Meru, the central axis of the universe.
The three-course continental meal of salad, chicken spaghetti and dessert was punctuated with animated conversations on mythology — of Sage Kashyapa, his wives Kadru and Vinata, the eternal enmity between eagles and serpents, the churn- ing of the cosmic ocean, and how Garuda ended up being Lord Vishnu’s vahana (vehicle), and eventually a symbol of Indonesia’s national carrier.
GWK is a great place to watch Balinese dancers and the famed kecak dance captured so beautifully in movies like Samsara and The Fall. However, we were off to watch the real thing at the Uluwatu Temple nearby. After being warned about the monkeys at the entrance, we watched the sunset by the cliffs before being ushered to our seats in the crowded amphitheatre. About 60 or so bare-chested performers squatted on the ground in meditative repose. They had sandal paste smeared on their temples and a red flower tucked behind the ear.
And then, all of a sudden, they broke into chants of ‘chak chak chak’, their intonations forming unbelievable cadences. As the clouds turned purple in the horizon, two ladies waltzed in. We browsed the pamphlet and learnt that the performance was a retelling of the Ramayana — the part where Sita is abducted by Ravana and Rama brings her back with the help of the vanara sena (monkey army). We watched in awe Jatayu’s valiant fight, Hanuman posing for selfies and fooling around with the audience be- fore setting fire to Lanka using balls of hay, which were kicked around with reckless abandon, drawing gasps from the crowd.
The next morning, we drove 25 km north of Denpasar to the highlands of Ubud, stop- ping to look at master craftsmen of silver jewellery, stone sculptures and batik. The lanes were overflowing with stunning wood- en door and window frames, Buddha idols. At Sari Amerta, we watched local artisans use molten wax to create complex patterns on fabric. Little wonder that the UNESCO had designated Indonesian batik as a ‘masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity’.
At the Desa Batuan Temple in Ubud, our guide Made helped us grab sarongs in the outer courtyard before he explained the nuances of Balinese temple architecture. Guardian deities or fierce gatekeepers were clad in checkered black and white garments, which represents the concept of rwa bineda — maintaining the balance between opposing forces.
It’s for the same reason the entrance gates are split or cleaved in two, with the left and right halves denoting balance and harmony. Most puras (temples) have an aling aling or screen wall immediately after the entrance to fend off negative spirits. As per the local belief, spirits cannot turn left or right, but travel only in straight lines, and are bounced off as they cannot go around the protective wall.
A priest played the gamelan while locals offered prayers. Made explained that there are four types of temples: pura desa or public temples that are very large, smaller village temples, family temples where ancestor spirits are worshipped, and functional temples built as per your profession. Farmers build a shrine of Devi Sri or the goddess of the fields/grain while fishermen consecrate Deva Varuna. Every day on the streets of Bali, locals make ritual household offerings or canang sari — a small palm-leaf bas- ket with flowers, rice, tobacco and lime symbolizing Shiva, betel nut denoting Vishnu, and Brahma symbolized by gambier.
In Ubud, just past the Sacred Monkey Forest, we continued to the Pura Gnuung Lebah or the ‘temple on the small hill’. It is said that Sage Markandeya came from Gunung Agung following the course of the Patanu river till he arrived at a campuhan or ‘sacred confluence’ with the Pakerisan river.
Here he sat down in meditation. Many local people suffering from skin diseases and other ailments came to see this holy man. Markandeya chanted some mantras and asked them to jump into the river. As soon as they did so, miraculously their dis- ease was cured. The people rejoiced and shouted “Ubad ubad” (medicine, medicine). That’s how the place was named Ubud!
After a quick stop at the Ubud Royal Palace and Saraswati Temple on the main avenue (Jalan Raya) lined with shops and eateries, a 15-minute walk past paddy fields brought us to Sari Organik. The view of jade green paddy fields all around and the delicious organic meal made the effort worthwhile.
The Balinese nasi campur — a rice meal with fried tofu, cucumber, spinach, tempe (fermented soy cake), vegetable curry, chilli sauce and chicken satay — was completely organic and sourced locally. In the distance, the tinkle of a baling baling (hollow bamboo wind chimes) kept the birds away, adding a bucolic touch. Back in Bengaluru, each time the baling baling catches the breeze rustling through the coconut trees, I close my eyes and I’m transported back to Bali.
Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 26 March, 2017 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.