Works of Worship

8 Aug

JUST 10 minutes had passed since I had dropped from the edge of the boat and into the shimmering blue water that lapped at the edge of a cove. In that interim, I had fallen on my face, my side and my rear a hundred times.

Only 10 minutes had passed, I told myself, sputtering after gulping what seemed like litres of sea water.

I was water-skiing. Or attempting to. The instructor hid a smile as the boat took off without me for the third time in a row. But I still thought I was at least getting the hang of it.

The second water sport I tried in Bali was much easier. It didn’t involve much more than hanging on for dear life while being sandwiched between my dear siblings on a banana boat as they attempted to tip the oversized yellow sausage and us into the frothy water.

But water sports had to wait. I was hijacked by the other facets of Bali, the exquisite batik silk sarongs and gorgeous wood and cane furniture sold on every street corner. By its multitudinous temples and unique version of Hinduism. By the gargantuan stone statue of Hanuman with its straining sinews and powerful thighs, planted on a broad pedestal. By the incredibly fine wood carvings and fearsomely attractive masks.

The next day, we dragged the more reluctant members of our party out of bed and into the car we had hired to show us around. We plagued our English-speaking (barely) guide with a torrent of questions such as: Why does Bali have stone statues on either side of the doorway to almost every major building? Those were for security, our guide Muskita (we soon nicknamed him Mosquito) replied.

They were stone versions of security guards and some of them were clothed in sarongs to boot. Wasn’t Indonesia a Muslim country? Yes, he replied, but ironically enough, the island itself was predominantly Hindu.

What were the door-like structures framing major roads and around temples? They represent the pathway to god and they framed the road leading to god.

The 17th-century Pura Goa Gajah, the first temple we visited, was not much more than a scary, mossy face carved into the face of a rock. Its mouth formed the entrance, and its frightening features were meant to scare evil-doers away. Inside, a bare bulb lit the damp way; the shrines consisted of a stone Ganesha and three small lingams behind a large one.

When praying to the gods in Bali, one must bring the palms together at a level above the head. When greeting a fellow human, the palms come together at the chest level. And if, god forbid, you should need to greet an evil spirit, the address is made at the abdomen level, with the fingers pointing downwards.

WE also visited the ancient temple of the Mengwi dynasty, Taman Ayun. It was built when the founder of the kingdom, Gusti Ngurah Putu, moved his palace from Balahayu to Mengwi. The date of construction is recorded on a carved door—1634 AD. The temple is situated on a vast stretch of land, which the adventurous can survey by climbing a very narrow set of stairs to the top of a watchtower.

The wonderfully unusual thing about Balinese temples, palaces and other important buildings is that there is no one structure. So Balinese temples consist of a number of open sheds with thatched roofs supported by four pillars. Between the sheds is a grassy floor, natural ground untouched by marble or any other stone. As always, this led to a flurry of questions: Where were the idols? The Balinese do not believe in idolatry, probably something that rubbed off from mainland Islam. Why so many structures? Because (this was my favourite explanation) there are many gods. So if during Baisakhi, the Baisakhi god wishes to visit this temple, he has a place to stay. There is space for gods from all over Bali in their temples. Often, nearby, there’ll also be a single large shed with stone steps for people to sit. It acts as a ring for cockfights, a popular activity, and serves as a community centre for important meetings. The last temple we visited was the most beautiful—not the temple itself, but its setting.

Tanah Lot Temple is on most tourists’ radar, as it should be, and is another legacy of the Mengwi kingdom. It’s in Tabanan, just across the boundary of Badung regency.

The story behind Tanah Lot Temple is that a 16th-century priest Dang Hyang Nirartha saw a light emanating from a point on the west coast and came to the spot to meditate.

The disciple of a local spiritual leader was fascinated and began to study with Nirartha. The local priest, jealous of Nirartha’s popularity, challenged him. Nirartha simply moved his meditation spot to the middle of the ocean. This point later came to be known as Tanah Lot or Land in the Middle of the Sea. Get there about 20 minutes before sunset to truly appreciate its magnificence. Two arms of highland enclose a bay streaked with shades of pink and orange as the sun drops into the horizon. A doughnut-shaped facing rock provides a keyhole view of the breakers beyond, on which surf crashes and the slanting rays of the sun fall in tangled splendour.

The silhouette of a lone surfer twists this way and that, a slow-moving speck on a roiling sea. There are crowds of people in every direction, but I have eyes for nothing but the sky turning every colour of the rainbow and the lure of the sea.

EXTRA BAGGAGE

When in Bali, bring home: • A woodcarving. You can generally find them at any roadside flea market, but you’ll get the best in the market near Tanah Lot Temple • A sarong. Yes, you get them in Goa and just about everywhere else, but pick up a batik one • Wind chimes. The ones made of wood. They sound far more natural, soothing and pleasant than metal ones • A dose of java. Pick up some Balinese coffee • A Barong mask. It’s the perfect wall accessory

This article was published on 8 August 2004 in the Indian newspaper The Indian Express.

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