To visit Bali is to slide into an alternate reality where myths coexist with modern supermarkets, and the past and present coalesce harmoniously.
Jimbaran, a small town in Bali, is about an hour’s drive from Denpasar airport. On the main highway, the choc-a-bloc traffic crawls at snail’s pace. Along the road are modern commercial buildings, supermarkets, shops, money changers and small restaurants as well as hotels operated by well-known international chains. There is a billboard advertising Bintang beer, the famous Indonesian brew made of cooked rice. Small temples, artfully concealed by thick tropical vegetation and their split gates of heaven point to the otherworldly Bali.
Not far from the airport, there is a largish traffic roundabout with a statue of Ghatotkacha, the gentle giant from the Mahabharata, frozen in the instant when he is about to receive the arrow from Karna, his slayer. Down another street, there are prominent statues of Nakul and Sahadev, the comparatively unsung twins among the Pandava brothers.
In no other place does the past and present coalesce and mingle so much as here. Myths and fables coexist closely with the daily lives of the Balinese people who have effectively created an alternate reality. Everywhere, temples, big and small, with their appurtenant gates of heaven rise skyward. While Hinduism and its epic heroes dominate the faith of the people here, there is also the discernible influence of the Buddha’s teachings.
It is not yet dawn. I sit on the porch of my cottage. The sky has an indeterminate shade. There is a steady breeze that sways the areca palms. The banana palms are not of the fruit-bearing variety but their broad leaves rustle in the wind. Frangipanis, two tall climbing monstera plants, a solitary screw pine and an Australian Magenta Cherry nod in tandem. The roosters continue their zany crowing, forever defying chronological time. It is first light.
A unique gauge
A windchime’s desolate notes, possibly from a place of worship nearby, resonate in the morning quiet. In the lawn outside the breakfast room, I run into a unique gauge to predict the weather. It consists of a coconut that hangs off a small wooden board and on it are written these words:
Coconut moving Windy
Coconut still Calm
Coconut wet Rainy
Coconut dry Sunny
Coconut white Snow
Coconut invisible Foggy
Coconut gone Storm
I find this uncomplicated approach to atmospheric physics entirely pleasing.
At breakfast I meet Paul who is in charge of marketing and sales for the resort I am in. He is from Manchester but has been with this company for 20 years. Paul foresees more growth for tourism in Bali. I have to point out that there are concerns, particularly environmental concerns, about the sustainability of the present model. Already the island receives more than 4 million visitors. Woodlands and forests are regularly cleared to make space.
It is evening and we walk to the beach. The waterfront has many warungs, or eateries, where you get different cuisines. Bali’s major-domos are the Aussies. They come by planeloads, over the Indian Ocean, just 2,700 kilometres away. Many Australians own villas on the island, living permanently in paradise. Then there are the Japanese, the New Zealanders, Singaporeans, Malays, and Chinese who mostly come and go. I met a few Fiji Indians too. Indonesians from other islands too, notably Java, visit Bali.
No moral police around
Jimbaran’s beach is sandy and long, but not wide. Warungs use up much of the beach space. What remains of it is for the people to enjoy. The Java Sea is placid and the waves roll in gently, surging up only when the high tide comes in. Some youngsters are playing robust soccer on the beach. At the edge of the water, men and women hug and kiss openly. I don’t see any moral police. Indonesia is an Islamic country, but, clearly, it does not regulate lives claustrophobically. And, if you remember, some major scenes of the Julia Roberts superhit film Eat, Pray, Love were shot in Bali.
The sun sets in a rapid succession of colours—red, crimson, yellow. The reflection of the fishing boats moored close to the shore, bob up and down in tandem with their real counterparts in the swell of the sea. When darkness descends, the wind is cooler. I glimpse Venus in the clear sky. Just a table away from ours, someone strums a guitar. Another young man joins in. The music rises above the din of the beach. Feet tapping, they sing “La Bamba”, the 1960s hit by Trini Lopez—“Para bailar La Bamba, se necessita una poca de gracia, pori sere (to dance the Bamba you need a bit of grace!)
- In Bali, the past and present coalesce and mingle, myths and fables coexist closely with the daily lives of the Balinese people.
- Jimbaran, near Denpasar, is a good place to visit, with its sandy and long beach.
- You can get a taste of local delicacies in Warungs, or eateries.
On the far shore, Denpasar airport is brilliantly lit with myriad lights. The blue lights on the runway tarmac blink like tiny fireflies. Airplanes streak across the night sky, rushing to land before the airport shuts down for the night.
Indonesia has a population of about 270 million. The Islamic state, spread over 18,000 islands, is the fourth largest populated country in the world. Among these, Bali is a small island with active volcanoes, dense forests, hills, tablelands, and beaches. Its population is about 4.5 million, with Muslims—about 10 per cent— a sprinkling of Buddhists and Christians, and almost 85 per cent Hindus. It is in fact a Hindu enclave in an Islamic state. But that state has bestowed complete freedom on the Balinese Hindus to practise and worship according to their faith.
Hinduism came to the island in 1 CE through the sea route from India. The rulers of the various islands adopted the new religion. The older animist faith blended with Hinduism. A hybrid religion took root. A number of Hindu empires flourished in Java, Sumatra, and Kalimantan. Some of them absorbed Buddhist ideas too. In the 13th century, Islam overwhelmed Hinduism but the only exception was Bali, where the Hindu ruler of East Java sought shelter from Islamic forces. Bali turned Hindu and has since been home to a composite Hinduism.
A different kind of Hinduism
But Balinese Hinduism has no place for idol worship. In the garden of our cottage there is a small sacred structure. Someone places fresh flowers there every day. The islanders’ Hinduism is not doctrinaire or overly rigid. There is an inner calm and harmony, and I can sense that eat-pray-love equilibrium.
I have known Koko Sudiama for some years. Well-built and genial, he works eight months in a Dutch cruise liner as a bartender. The four months at home, he runs a Toyota van taxi service.
Koko drives me to the sea temple at Tanah Lot in his taxi. It’s an astounding creation on a rock formation in the Indian Ocean. We pass Seminyak, the Bond Street of Bali. At sunset, foreigners throng its discotheques, bars, and eateries. It had rained in the night. Amidst the wet leaves of a gnarled tree, a warbler sings a forlorn cadenza. We drive fast and come to more open countryside. A few warungs offer Nasi Goreng, Mi Goreng, fried eggs, and assorted fish and poultry.
A healthy society
The ordinary Balinese may not seem affluent, but everyone eats well and looks healthy. Rice, meat, and seafood are staples. The island grows vegetables and fruits. There is no abject poverty or malnutrition on view.
The much-photographed terraced paddy fields make an emerald-green border along our route. Palms and pineapple bushes mark their boundaries. We are on a gradient. And where the paddy terminates and the horizon seems to dip, I notice a blue wall, ethereally beautiful. It moves and heaves—it is the Indian Ocean. For some reason, Aceh comes to my mind.
Tanah Lot is crowded. As Koko parks, I walk among the shops selling souvenirs, clothes, umbrellas, and just about everything. I cannot see the ocean but can hear its roar. The wind picks up and suddenly the sound of crashing waves is deafening.
I walk on and the ocean suddenly makes a dramatic appearance. It’s a primeval force. I stand close to land’s edge and feel the saline spray on my face. A signboard reads Tebing Berbahaya, which translates to dangerous cliff.
Why is Tanah Lot perched there? Balinese consider Purah Tanah Lot central to their faith. A priest, Nirartha, came here to explain the tenets of Hinduism. He settled on the rocky outcrop in the ocean to meditate. He then ordered the construction of Pura Tanah Lot and other temples in the south-west part of the island. An adjacent temple is called Pura Batu Bolong.
Tanah Lot and Batu Bolong are magnificent feats of imagination and engineering. They celebrate solitude. You cannot be more removed from the here and the now. A drizzle falls. We walk to the car. The cries and pleas of the hawkers still chase us. The Balinese live many lives, in one life.
P. Krishna Gopinath is a Delhi-based writer with an interest in photography and Western classical music.