Enchanting Bali … a Hindu kingdom in a Muslim majority country


Denpasar Airport – Bali

Bali was on my wish-list since a long time and I chose to visit this lovely island on the occasion of my silver wedding anniversary. Though the time we chose to visit Bali (January) is considered off-season due to rains, the immigration process took us about an hour. The vast and lovely Denpasar Airport was filled with Tourists especially from Australia and India. Fortunately the Chinese tourists were few due to Chinese New Year. We were welcomed by our guide named Sutappa, an elderly gentleman in his mid 60s but possessing the spirit of a youngster. He kept us highly engaged with his talk on Hinduism in Bali, about the history of various sites and he also sang local Balinese songs for us.


Bali in Rains….lovely sight

How the name “Bali” has been derived is a debatable topic till date. Some say it was called “Bali Dweepa”, which in Sanskrit means island of sacrifice, reincarnation, or offering. Some say Monkey King Vali from Ramayana lived in Bali or some even say Mahabali asura from Vaman avatar was sent to this island to settle down. The first theory seems more authentic though. People here speak either Balinese (Hindus) or Bahasa (Indonesian language). Sanskrit is used by the priests belonging to Brahmin caste, for rituals. Most of the common people struggle to speak in English, though they understand the language. People are extremely friendly and they love to strike a conversation with Indian tourists, perhaps trying to find a cultural connect that links Bali to India. The people are extremely disciplined and keep their roads and surroundings very clean. They follow traffic rules by not breaking lanes though roads are not broad everywhere. I hardly heard anyone honking unlike in India. The roads had no potholes, no destructive speed breakers and footpaths are wide with no encroachment. Something that India should learn from it’s distant cousin. The road dividers virtually look like exotic gardens, which has plants and fruits like pineapple etc. January is the time when Bali experiences heavy rainfall and hence the tourist inflow is supposed to be low at this time of the year. But our experience was quite different since most of the spots were full of tourists. Maybe Bali overflows with tourists during high season. Since Bali is closer to the Equator (south), it enjoys tropical climate throughout the year. It could get hot and humid during the day time, so consume lot of water or better still coconut water available in plenty.

Bali is part of the Coral Triangle, the area with the highest biodiversity of marine species with over 500 reef-building coral species to be found. Bali is also home of the Subak irrigation system (water management system for paddy fields), a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Bali Mandara bridge in the background

Though Bali belongs to a developing country, the infrastructure is simply superb starting with their Airport to the roads and bridges.  The ride from the airport to our Resort (Bali Dynasty) took us just about 15 minutes. The moment we checked in, there was heavy downpour but not to worry since the rainfall hardly lasts for not more than an hour in this part of the world. After lunch, we left for the sunset cruise, by cruising through the 12 kms long Bali Mandara bridge stretching across the Gulf of Benoa. The bridge is a massive structure over the sea and an engineering marvel. The automated toll collection system, that creates absolutely no queues, is something India should learn from this small country. The cruise duration is about 2 hours including dinner but nothing much to write about as the entertainment programs were very ordinary.


Volcanic mountain – Mount Batur

Our Day 2 started with a visit to Handicraft centre, Silver, Wood carving and traditional painting. Just visit these places to have a glimpse since the items sold here are very expensive compared to the street markets. Shop for wooden articles and bamboo art work at shops near tourist spots, which may give you a better deal. Later we visited Kintamani village to view Mount Batur, which is an active volcano site. It last erupted in the year 2000. Mount Agung close to Batur is an active volcano that keeps erupting at regular intervals. Just before we landed at Bali, this volcano was in the news for spewing white clouds of smoke and ash more than 700 metres into the air but fortunately the flights were not affected this time.

After lunch we visited the Pura Tirtha Empul Temple. Everyone had to wear the local dress called “sarong” (similar to the lungi worn in India) before entering the Temple. This is a Hindu Balinese water temple consisting of bathing ghat like structure and it is famous for its holy spring water,

where Balinese Hindus go for ritual purification. We could see them lining up to drink the holy spring water drenched in knee high water while some people were performing puja on the banks.

 

Goa Gajah Cave

From here we proceeded to Ubud to visit the famous Goa Gajah Temple. Goa means cave and Gajah means Elephant in Sanskrit. Most of the names here have their origin in Sanskrit. There are no elephants here but probably the name came from Elephant headed Lord Ganesha. To reach the entrance of the cave, you need to walk down a long flight of stairs. The entrance to the cave depicts a giant menacing face whose wide open mouth forms the doorway. Throughout the temple complex, a variety of structures bear Hindu influences which date back to the 10th century as well as relics, which feature some elements of Buddhism that date back to the 8th century. Inside the cave is theShiva linga and its female counterpart the yoni, as well as a statue of the Lord. Just outside the cave are located 7 statues of women (out of which 1 is destroyed due to earthquake) holding water pitchers that depicts seven holy rivers of India; Ganga, Saraswathi, Yamuna, Godavari, Sindhu, Cauvery and Narmada. There is a small waterfall in the complex near the Buddhist relics.


Kecak dancers (monkeys)

Ramayana characters – Ram, Sita, Sugreeva, Indrajit and Ravana

Later in the evening we visited the Kecak dance and fire show near Uluwatu Temple. Kecak means monkey in Balinese. There are about 50 men wearing only loin cloth and they form rows of circles, in the middle of which is a traditional Balinese coconut oil lamp. First they move their bodies rhythmically to the left and to the right, chanting the words “chak ke-chak ke-chak ke-chak” continuously, in slow rhythm. Gradually the rhythm is speeded up and by turns they lift their hands, trembling, into the air. The kecak dance is performed for dance-dramas and the story presented is taken from the Hindu epic – Ramayana. The kecak dance is used to present the Ramayana dance drama, the bare chested male Kecak chanters play as Rama’s troops of Vanaras (monkeys) and also as Ravana’s troops of Rakshasas. The show lasted about an hour and it depicted the Ramayana from the point Sita and Rama are sent to the forest ; followed by the appearance of the Golden Deer, the abduction of Sita by Ravana, the battle between Ravana and Jatayu, the search for Sita by Hanuman and ending the battle between Rama and Ravana. Here some of the key male characters like Lord Rama, are played by women. The spectacular show ended with an act of fire kicking, known as the fire dance performed by a dancer in a trance phase, wherein he is blessed by the priest before the act. The dancer during that phase does not feel any pain from fire because he is in the stage of trance. It was great to take photos with the artistes post the show.


ATV ride in slushy muddy waters of a rivulet

On Day 3 we changed the program by including Quad bike or ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) drive on the way to the Royal Temple called Taman Ayun Temple. This was not on the original itinerary but we wanted to have some thrill and perhaps a break from visiting Temples. However this became the highlight of our trip, as the ATV drive was quite unusual from what we had experienced before. Though a little expensive at US$ 40 per head, for a drive lasting about 60-75 minutes, it was worth every dime. The drive took us through the vast paddy fields, then through rivulets and small hillocks. It was extremely thrilling but get ready to get wet completely. The support staff was extremely friendly and came to our rescue whenever the ATV got stuck in the hidden ditches covered by muddy waters. The gum boots, to be worn before we take the ride, came in handy. Fortunately for us the weather was perfect though cloudy. But just after we left the place, it started drizzling and it remained like this for most of the day.


Typical Balinese Bungalow

After lunch, on the way to Taman Ayun Temple, we stopped at a Balinese House Compound, which had a huge family Temple and a swimming pool. The house resembled a palace though the Owner was not considered a super rich person. We were wondering how the houses of super rich would look like at Bali. We were treated to tender coconut called young coconut by the locals. In the local market a tender coconut costs about Indian Rupees 50 but the water content is easily equal to about 4 tender coconuts,  available at Bengaluru.


Taman Ayun Temple resembling Mount Meru

Taman Ayun Temple pond

Taman Ayun Temple also called the Royal Temple of Mengwi boasts of magnificent traditional and architectural features throughout its courtyards and enclosures as well as expansive garden landscape comprising of lotus and fish ponds. The 17th century Temple has towering tiers resembling Mount Meru, the sacred five-peaked mountain used in the ‘churning of the sea of milk’ or “samudra manthan”.  The Temple complex is considered the ‘mother temple’ of Mengwi, serving the needs of  the Mengwi royalty and the people. The Taman Ayun Temple complex comprises four different divisions. As we enter the complex, we cannot miss life size images of  people and cocks engaged in a fierce game of “cock fight”. Though banned in Bali, the cockfight is still a part of Balinese ritual and the purpose of this is to spill blood on the ground to ward off evil spirits. Since the Balinese were celebrating Makar Sankranti, the main Temple was closed to tourists. Local people were seen attending the prayer ceremony. The kitchen staff of the Temple, were very busy preparing food for the devout, after offering the same to the Gods. One could see huge bamboo masts with harvest items such as rice, fruits, coconuts and coconut leaves tied to it, all over the Temple complex. The name ‘Taman Ayun’ translates as ‘beautiful garden’.


Alas Kedaton Monkey Forest

The weather turned very gloomy and dark by the time we finished visiting the Temple and it started to rain heavily by the time we reached the Alas Kedaton Monkey Forest and Sanctuary. The small forest is inhabited by hundreds of grey long-tailed macaques. Alas Kedaton Monkey Forest is regarded as the island’s ‘other monkey forest’ after the most prominent and often visited Ubud Monkey Forest with its band of monkeys. By the time we left this place, it started to pour. Certainly it was a bad day and this despite our Guide praying to Lord Indra to stop the rains.


Tanah Lot Temple

Our last destination for the day was a visit to a seaside Temple called Tanah Lot. This was perhaps the most enchanting Temple we visited at Bali, located on a hill surrounded by the Indian Ocean. Though we had plans to enjoy the sunset view, thanks to heavy rains, we could barely enjoy even a small trek inside the Temple complex. Tanah Lot Temple is one of Bali’s most important landmarks, famed for its unique offshore setting and sunset backdrops. An ancient Hindu shrine perched on top of a hill amidst constantly crashing waves, this Temple should not be missed. The onshore site is dotted with smaller shrines alongside visitors’ leisure facilities that comprise restaurants, shops and a cultural park. As per an old legend, a priest from Java, who travelled to Bali in 15th century to spread Hinduism, arrived at the beautiful area and established a site honouring the sea God, Varuna. He faced opposition from the village chief who soon gathered his loyal followers to dispel him. The priest resisted, incredibly shifting a large rock he meditated upon out to sea while transforming his sashes into sea snakes to guard at its base. The rock’s original name, Tengah Lod, means ‘in the sea’. Tanah Lot faced the constant threat of erosion and today a third of the present Temple is actually artificial rock. At high tide, waves flood the causeways making it impossible to cross. At low tide, you may cross to view the rock base where the legendary ‘guardian’ sea snakes dwell in crevices around the Tirta Pabersihan fountain. This natural spout is the source of holy water for all the temples in the area. You can cup your palms and take a sip to prove it is amazingly fresh water. We rushed back to our vehicle as the rainfall was getting heavier. Wish the rain God – Varuna was kind enough to us only for this day.


Barong dance

On Day 4, Sutappa strongly suggested we experience the Barong dance before we visit Tanjung Benoa for water sport  activities. The Barong dance is the classic story of good (Barong) triumphing over evil (evil witch Rangda). The Barong is a large lion type creature played by two men and Rangda is the epitome of evil with long fingernails and droopy breasts. Barong is an ancient Balinese mythological dance, performed by highly trained local artists in an open air theatre. This show will appeal to Hindus who have studied the Mahabharata in detail especially the story of Kunti, who had vowed to sacrifice Sahadeva before Rangda …. else it may come across as a mish-mash dance of characters that may not connect well with the brief story line provided with the entry ticket.  Sahadeva is a relatively minor and obscure figure in Mahabharata but in Bali, Sahadeva is the main character, who presents the story of good versus evil. Like the Kecak dance, here too, the key male character – Sahadeva was enacted by a woman dancer. There is no dialog from the stage, just acting and dancing. The orchestra from the sidelines accompanies the dance performance. The evil Rangda is a strictly Balian creation but this character is weaved into the tale of Sahadeva and his mother Kunti. Of course, the good prevails over the evil at the end. Compared to the Kecak dance near Uluwatu Temple, this performance paled in comparison despite the live music. Some of the jokes were crude with reference to human private parts etc. It would have been better if the story was told to the viewers in advance, though a handout was given to us along with the entry ticket. Most of the viewers walked out in between the performance as they were not able to follow what was happening. Even for Indians it was tough to follow the play, since not many have heard about this particular story of Sahadeva in Mahabharata.


Para sailing at Tanjung Benoa

Today the weather was very kind and it helped us enjoy the water sports activities at Tanjung Benoa. Except for para sailing, other activities had less queue. Remember to bargain and you may end up getting upto 60% discount on the rides. My son enjoyed scuba diving in the deep waters and he felt it was an exhilarating experience. Rest of us enjoyed para sailing, jet ski and banana boat ride.  Later we took a glass bottom boat to reach Turtle island. While on a glass bottom boat, you can enjoy the beautiful underwater scenery including a variety of ornamental fish, marine plants and other marine animals. We were welcomed by the green turtles at the Island. The guide handed over the turtles to us, some weighing 10 kgs and 15 kgs and some as old as 400 years old. We fed weeds to turtles, kept in the murky pond. We also saw caged animals and birds like the civet, iguana, bats and some parrots. At the end, a python (with mouth taped) was handed over to some of us, who had the guts to garland it over the neck. The visit is not something I would recommend strongly, especially looking at the pathetic condition of the animals and birds kept here.


Scenic view of hillock near the Uluwatu Temple

The tour ended with a visit to Uluwatu Temple, one of six key temples believed to be Bali’s spiritual pillars, renowned for its magnificent location, perched on top of a steep cliff approximately 70 metres above sea level. Tourists are advised to wear the sarong while visiting this Temple. This temple also shares the splendid sunset backdrops as that of Tanah Lot Temple. However since the weather was clear, we enjoyed the Sunset view overlooking the beautiful Indian Ocean. Without a doubt, what makes Uluwatu Temple spectacular is its cliff-top setting at the edge of a plateau 250 feet above the waves of the Indian Ocean. ‘Ulu’ means the ‘top’ or the ‘tip’ and ‘watu’ means a ‘stone’ or a ‘rock’ in Balinese. Several archaeological remains found here prove the temple to be of megalithic origin, dating back to around the 10th century. A small forest lies at the front and hundreds of monkeys dwell here. We had to be extremely careful since the monkeys take away anything they see and it becomes difficult to retrieve later. Some ladies, whose purses and mobile phones were taken away by these naughty monkeys, were seen crying.  They are believed to guard the temple from bad influences. The serpentine pathway to the temple is fortified by concrete walls on the cliff side. It takes about an hour to get from one end to another as there are several fenced points along the way to stop. The views from the bottom of the water surging up against rocks and the ocean horizon are remarkable. The Balinese Hindus believe that the three divine powers of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva become one here. That belief results in making Uluwatu Temple a place of worship of Shiva Rudra, the Balinese Hindu deity of all elements and aspects of life in the universe. Uluwatu is also dedicated to protect Bali from evil sea spirits. On the day we visited this Temple, hordes of people had gathered wearing white dress and the women were seen carrying offerings on their head, since they were celebrating the Sankranti festival. Like other Temples, entry was restricted to Tourists due to the ongoing festival rituals. Behind the main shrine, in one of the courtyards of Uluwatu Temple, is the statue of a saint named Dhang Hyang Dwijendra, facing the Indian Ocean. As per an old legend, he was the architect of Uluwatu Temple and several other temples in Bali.

Giant statue to Ghatotkacha fighting Karna

It is really interesting to see how Bali has preserved Hinduism…the way Ramayana and Mahabharata has been depicted not just through plays and dance but through gigantic statues at prominent road junctions, is indeed a sight to behold. The huge statue of Ghatotkacha (son of Bhima) fighting Karna cannot be missed on the way to the Denpasar Airport at Bali. In this statue, Karna unleashes his favourite weapon or missile called Vasava on Ghatotkacha, who had wreaked havoc on the Kaurava army using his magical powers. Karna had secretly kept this missile for years, waiting to slaughter the Pandavas in battle. After being hit by Vasava, Ghatotkacha fell to the ground growing his size and while dying he crushed 5 lac Kaurava soldiers. The other noticeable one is about the 5 Pandavas going for war, which is again on the way to the Airport.

Lord Ganesha statue can be found everywhere at Bali

The Hindu New Year is celebrated as the “Day of Silence” called Nyepi, that coincides with Ugadi or Gudi Padva. Balinese follow a 210 days calendar called pawukon starting with Nyepi. Nyepi is a day reserved for self-reflection and as such, anything that might interfere with that purpose is restricted. The main restrictions are no lighting fires and lights must be kept low; no working; no entertainment or pleasure; no travelling; and for some, no talking or eating at all. The effect of these pprohibitions is that Bali’s usually bustling streets and roads are empty, there is little or no noise from TVs and radios, and few signs of activity are seen even inside homes. However Tourists are free to do as they wish inside their hotels but no one is allowed onto the beaches or streets and the only airport in Bali remains closed for the entire day.


At the Sunset Cruise

Till the 80s, agriculture was the main occupation of the Balinese but now Tourism constitutes 80% of their economy. The Government has given lot of importance to improve and grow Tourism in this region. The least denomination we came across was 5,000 IDR (Indonesian Rupaiah). Don’t be surprised if you transact in lacs or millions at Bali because 1 lac IDR is nothing but Indian Rupees 500. Initially we were taken aback when we asked for the price of a photo taken at the cruise and the response was 1 lac IDR. At the local markets one has to bargain hard to get a good deal. An item may start at 2 lac IDR may end up for less than 1 lac IDR. US$ is widely accepted here and in some places Indian Rupees was also accepted. There is absolutely no public transport available in Bali. People have to use their 2 wheeler or car to commute. We found a large number of scooters and motorcycles on the road but they were very disciplined unlike our motorists in India viz. wearing helmet, following lane discipline etc. 

Balinese massage is something one should not miss here especially after long treks to the hillside Temples. It is quite inexpensive and the price could be less than US$10 for a full body massage. The masseurs have the wonderful ability to soothe the nerves and relieve pain with their expert hands. Since Indians form the bulk of tourists at Bali, you can find authentic Indian restaurants, almost everywhere, especially in South Kuta region.


Sutappa our Guide and Reagan the Van Driver

We bid adieu to Bali on Day 5 and what a memorable trip it was. A place, that has managed to maintain and follow Hindu practices and culture, despite being part of a Muslim majority country. I decided to visit Bali again and hopefully with a different mission….perhaps to understand their culture more closely and discover any linkages to India and our Hindu culture.

Acknowledgements:

  • Chariot World Tours for organising the enchanting Bali trip for me and my family
  • Mr Sutappa for being such a wonderful and informative guide
  • Mr Reagan, our driver, for ensuring we were always on or before time during the site visits
  • Bali Dynasty Resort for providing excellent hospitality during the 5 lovely days spent with them
  • Malaysia Airlines for on time arrival and departure causing us no heartburn
  • & above all the people of Bali for being such wonderful hosts to us

 

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