My mother visited Bali many years ago and came back to tell me that the Hinduism practised there seemed to be one that was old, maybe from the time when it made its journey there across the seas and it stayed preserved in its small island cocoon. There were no idols in their temples, she’d said, but just space or the void. And given her tryst with religion at that time, space seemed like ‘the’ thing to worship. When I landed in Bali, even before the trip began actually, I had worked myself into a curiosity. I must state right here, that religion is not something that is close to my heart, and I read somewhere recently and agree with the thought, that religion is probably one of the worst inventions of man. It might get our race before climate change flares up big enough to burn us. So my curiosity was more academic in nature, though I am not a really academic person, but you get the drift. In Bali, the dominant religion followed is Hinduism and this is at sharp contrast to the rest of Indonesia which is has one of the largest populations of Muslims in the world. I arrived with my preconceptions, my mum’s words ringing in my head. On the first day we visited a temple and through the rest of the trip visited many more including a few shrines by the road.
The Uluwatu temple stands majestically at the edge of a cliff. ‘No Shorts’ the guide had screamed to us inside the bus multiple times, though he’d made the mistake of telling us when we were already on our way and in true traveller mode, most of us were not ‘appropriately dressed.’ But no worries, we got a large cloth and had to cover our legs tying it like a sarong with a large yellow belt running tightly around our waist. The guide, a local with a constant look of extreme fear on his face, was sure we would let our legs show, and while were his fears, no temple official cared once we were inside. We walked in through a large gateway, headed towards the right then straight on till we reached the path that ran along the coast. The cliff dropped straight to the ocean, around 50-60 metres in height, and far below, the waves crashed into the rocks, weathering hard stone, creating patterns, establishing dominance as water will over rock. Sunset was just an hour away and the sky, clear of clouds, had started glowing with a majestic dark blue that hinted of the captivating orange that would follow. I broke away from the group, wishing to set my own pace, and walked to the far right. The chatter of tourists surrounded me as I stood at the edge, camera safe around my neck, and railing keeping me from falling down. Wild shrubs grew below me and extended all along the ragged rocks that poured into the water far below. In the far distance a ship parted the surface of the ocean, creating ripples that extended around it into the distance and birds swooped and glided showing off their control in air. To my far left in the distance, stood a pagoda shaped structure, a part of the temple complex, around 70 metres above sea level creating a beautiful silhouette at the edge of the cliff. If I were to remove the temple, I could be far away along the coasts of Australia that I had visited but a few months ago. Similarities in areas separated by seas, especially for a topography novice like me, are always remarkable. After a few snaps, hoping that I had captured the moment appropriately, I walked towards the temple. The pathway sloped down, and then there was a steep incline. I stopped midway, not only to catch my breath but also to linger at the edge and peered down at the sea and the horizon a hazy line of dark blue against the lighter sky.
There are two ways to reach the temple, the one I was taking along the cliff, and the other was a stately and stoned path that lead from the parking lot. The tourists, as per my guess, thronged the cliff-way, more intent on the experience, while the locals went about their business of praying. As I walked towards the temple a group of locals, dressed in white, the women with flowers on their head, and small dots of white rice stuck on their forehead like a bindi, made their way towards the temple. When I got there I realised that outsiders weren’t allowed inside as there was a puja or ritual ceremony going on. The temple courtyard was surrounded by white washed stone walls that weren’t too high so I climbed onto a mound of mud and peeped in. There was something very familiar about the scene unfolding inside and yet something deeply unfamiliar. There was the classic signs of Hindusim – offerings, flowers, people chanting, circumambulating and a mindless following of rituals, almost as if everyone was executing the process mechanically. Then a man to one side calmly lit a cigarette. I think my head actually jerked back in shock. This wouldn’t be allowed inside a Hindu temple in India. There was also a smell that surrounded the entire area and it took me back to the cliffs of Southern Australia that were home to the blue penguin… that same musty, wet animal fur smell. At first I thought it was the flowers, damp and rotting, in the small offering trays that are typical of Bali Hinduism. Then I saw a small baby goat, a kid. I wondered, yes, naive me, what a kid was doing there. It was all curled up, lying to one corner. Then I saw a few more. Later on, when I asked a local I was told about animal sacrifices. I am not going to get holier than thou now and say animal sacrifices do not happen in India, they were definitely part of the culture but have been curtailed and have reduced over time. There are few temples where it happens, and rarely something so prominent with so many people visiting. Or could I be wrong about it? But I find it extremely horrific that we are willing to kill an animal to appease a God, who is a human invention, and bribe him/her into giving us what we want. That stench enveloped me with deep pain and disgust as I followed the group of chanting locals as they made their way to a small area lower down on the hill.
At the small grass lawn lower down, a huge Ganesh idol loomed large over a raised arch with another idol on the other side. Interestingly all the idols here were wearing sarongs, covering their lower parts. Ah modesty! The women and men in their white sarongs carrying their large trays loaded with offerings, flowers in their head, a few cigarettes dangling here and there, circumambulated the space repeatedly. I stood there, watching the ceremony in front of me, my curiosity about Hinduism in Bali still only emerging from its cocoon, but wondering what other shocks I would be in for. A few days later, I got off the group bus, and decided to walk back to our hotel after dinner. On the way I met two girls who told me all about the offerings they make that sit on little bamboo woven trays looking pretty and snug. But maybe that is for another post.
Religion, as I would come to realise by the end of the trip, is as diverse as the people who follow and believe in it. There are large similarities, but interpretations differ and local practises, cultures, beliefs, and older religions of that region come to influence the current version. A few days later, the mandatory trip to Goa Gajah, a cave temple, was also ticked off the list. It was purely ok, but if you do visit, the forest garden beyond the temple, accessible through a gate, is really beautiful. Large old trees stretch up the skies, and far below on the ground, where you stand, a measly puny human, as best you stand to the height of a few of those gigantic roots. Some of us wished that Tanah Lot, a temple on a rocky protrusion, was part of our organised trip. One of the co-travellers who had been there earlier raved about the experience, the slipperiness of the rocks as you walked to it and the beauty of a temple surrounded by water. I didn’t let myself stay disappointed for too long… isn’t it always good to save up for the next time?
Must Dos at Uluwatu temple:
- Don’t miss the Uluwatu temple on a visit to Bali.
- Walk around the entire temple area, there are some beautiful carved stone guards at doorways, large idols and ancient looking stone structures.
- Go there for sunset, it is truly spectacular.
- If you want to visit the temple inside ensure there is no puja or function.
- You need to be fully clothed to visit Hindu temples in Bali, no skin showing.
- For an additional cost there is a Kecak dance performance that takes place in the open air auditorium to one side of the temple complex. Tickets available separately. It takes place every evening.
- If you are like me, and religion does not hold a sway over you, then ensure you have sufficient time to sit by the cliff and soak up the vistara that unfurls in front of you.