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Bali – where religion meets art and culture (Guest Post by Arun Iyer)


Bali’s essence is best captured in a quote by American author Elizabeth Gilbert (known for her book ‘Eat, Pray,Love’) which goes like this – “Religious ceremonies are of paramount importance in Bali ( an island, don’t forget, with seven unpredictable volcanoes on it-you would pray, too).”An island deeply rooted in religion and culture, Bali in Indonesia is where one witnesses Hinduism maintaining a distinct identity several thousand miles away from India, the land of the religion’s birth.

Enthralling Ubud

On the way from Kuta to Ubud, one of the sevendistricts of Gianyar regency, you travel past a village named Batubulan.Lined on either side of the narrow road are sculptures, thousands of them, shop after shop. A variety of Ganeshas, Buddhas, Dewis, Garudas, monkeys, fiery demons and many other sculptures jostle for space, as if in an over-crowded mythological land.

At first, it makes you wonder what Balinese do with so many sculptures. However, when you have covered most of Bali, you understand that the village supplies sculptures to the entire region. Every nook, every corner, every house, every street and every temple of Bali has these beautifully crafted statues adorning them. That to me was the highlight of Bali, a land more popular among tourists for its nightlife than for Hindu culture.

Shops sell beautifully sculpted idols on the way to Ubud from Kuta

Shops sell beautifully sculpted idols on the way to Ubud from Kuta

As you drive further towards Ubud, you see shops full of paintings on either side of the road. These are not the masterpieces one would find in museums or in living rooms of billionaires but paintings by ordinary artists that would adorn budget hotels and living rooms of the common man. The shops are packed with a riot of colorful paintings, some abstract, some whacky, some sensuous and some serene. These paintings give the first glimpse into the hub of art and culture that Ubud is. There are several art galleries in Ubud with work by renowned artists and one could easily spend a few days visiting these.

Paintings in Ubud have a diverse range of subjects

Paintings in Ubud have a diverse range of subjects

The one place in Ubud that one should not miss is the Sacred Monkey Forest.  Set amidst a dense tropical forest, it’s a perfect harmony of beautiful sculptures depicting a variety of Hindu deities and littered with a large number of our simian ancestors, both real and made of stone. It’s a unique experience to walk through the forest with the relatively timid monkeys going about their routine antics.

One can get some amazing pictures of monkeys in a variety of poses. It makes you realize that while we might have evolved intellectually, our emotions are close to our brethren from yesteryears.

A monkey seeks comfort in the company of a stone compatriot at the Sacred Monkey Forest

A monkey seeks comfort in the company of a stone compatriot at the Sacred Monkey Forest

Tegalalang near Ubud is home to lush green rice terraces. Besides providing picturesque vistas for filling your camera frames, they are part of a unique irrigation system known as ‘Subak’, used to water paddy fields. Like all things Balinese, there is a spiritual aspect to this – the subak reflects the philosophy of Tri Hita Karana, bringing together the three worlds of spirit, man, and nature. The components of Subak are forests, which protect water, terraced rice fields connected by a system of canals etc, villages, and temples that mark either the source of water or its passage through the temple on its way downhill to irrigate Subak land (Source- Wikipedia).

Lush green rice terraces at Ubud

Lush green rice terraces at Ubud

 

Ledges make natural paths for water to flow through Bali's rice terraces

Ledges make natural paths for water to flow through Bali’s rice terraces

At Tegalalang, one can find a number of cafes overlooking the rice terraces, most of which sell Kopi Luwak. Luwak (local name for the civet) refers to the coffee that includes part-digested coffee cherries eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet. It is supposedly the most expensive coffee in the world. While many had recommended it, we simply could not digest the fact the coffee actually passes through the digestive tract and comes out of the civet’s rear end. We gave it a miss.

One could easily spend 3-4 days in Ubud and the best way to enjoy it is to soak in the culture via, short walks or cycle rides in a leisurely manner, unlike the hurried day trips we did over two days.

On a Wild Goose (or should I say Dolphin) Chase

I believe there are two types of tourists who visit Bali. The first is the kind who stay awake till 2:30 a.m. to party hard in the many pubs that it houses and the second is the sort who wake up at 2:30 a.m. and travel in a sleep-deprived state for two hours to watch dolphins at sunrise.

Firmly in the second category, we woke up at 2:30 am and took a bus from Kuta in the southern part of Bali to Lovina, which is to the north. Prone to using Google before visiting any place, I was pretty excited we reached the beach. We got into a sleek, narrow boat and set out on the waters, but an hour of wandering later, there wasn’t a dolphin in sight. The sun had already risen, albeit hidden from sight behind dense clouds. It was a plausible explanation for not being able to sight any dolphins thus far. However, our boat navigator was not one to give up. He took us further and further into the sea, to join a new fleet of boats. Someone had apparently informed him that they had sighted dolphins. After 15 minutes, we finally caught a glimpse of a pod of dolphins cutting through the waters, going up and down in perfect synchrony.

The following meme aptly describes what the trip ended up being for us:

Left image- Google search result for Lovina; Right image - What I actually saw

Left image- Google search result for Lovina; Right image – What I actually saw

Although what we finally saw was far from expectation it was still rewarding, not to mention the fantastic ride on the boat in the early morning.

An early morning ride in Lovina is spectacular

An early morning boat ride in Lovina is spectacular

On the way back from Lovina, one takes a long road called Jalan Raya Pancasari which takes you over the Bedugul mountain range. Somewhere along the road is a spot from where you get a spectacular panoramic view of the Twin Lakes (Danau) named Danau Buyan and Danau Tamblingan.

Temples of Bali

Bali’s temples are a quintessential representation of its Hinduism. There are so many that one could easily write a doctoral thesis on the ‘Puras’ of Bali. However, that is not my intent, so I would recommend reading about the types of temples and what they represent by clicking on the link here

Some of the noteworthy temples that we visited were –

Pura Puseh Desa – An ancient temple, believed to have been constructed in 11th century AD. It’s amazing to see a temple that is more than 1,000 years old but still retains its ancient charm and mystique.

Views of the inner ‘mandala’ of the Pura Puseh Desa

Views of the inner ‘mandala’ of the Pura Puseh Desa

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan (or Beratan) is a water temple, set amidst the beautiful Lake Bratan with the majestic Bedugul mountains in the backdrop. At a height of 1,200 meters above sea level, the pleasant climate simply enhances the visual treat that the temple complex presents.

The majestic pagoda of Pura Ulun Danu Bratan

The majestic pagoda of Pura Ulun Danu Bratan

Pura Tanah Lot and Pura Uluwatu are Sea Temples built close to the sea.

Tanah Lot is built on a rock formation on the shores of the sea. It gets flooded on all four sides by water during high tide.

The Pura Uluwatu is built at the edge a cliff with a sheer drop overlooking the majestic Indian Ocean.

A view of the Indian Ocean from Pura Uluwatu

A view of the Indian Ocean from Pura Uluwatu

Both Tanah Lot and Uluwatu temples provide for breathtaking pictures against the backdrop of a sunset. The one thing that struck me as being different from the ones in India is that the focus of the temple is not the deity, but the overall setting. In fact, neither of them had a main deity like the ones back home. Nor do these temples have intricate carvings like those in Indian temples. While the temples do represent Shiva, Vishnu or Brahma, the unique aspect of these temples is how they blend with nature, be it the sea, the lake or a mountain, and spread an air of spirituality and calm to the surroundings.

What else to see in Bali?

You might be wondering, a blog post on Bali and no mention of beaches? For sure, there are many beautiful beaches in Bali with pristine white sands and clear blue waters and they’re definitely not to be missed. One could visit the touristy spots of Kuta/ Legian/ Seminyak, the resort-filled beaches of Nusa Dua, or the beach at Pantai Pandawa on the southern tip of Bali.

We did spend a day at the Pandawa beach and while it was good fun, as most visits to beaches are, it wasn’t the highlight from my perspective.

The other popular attraction for tourists is the nightlife that Bali has to offer. Despite staying in Kuta, which along with neighboring Legian and Seminyak is a hub of Bali nightlife, we stayed away from this part of the Bali experience. After all we belonged to the second category of tourists, the one that wakes up early rather than stay up late!

There are so many other things in Bali that one could see and admire – The many traffic rounds-about that grandly depict scenes from the Ramayana or Mahabharata; The Kecak dance, a traditional folk dance that combines  sound, color and dance; Or myriad street shops selling a variety of local artware.

Ravana abducting Sita – A scene from the epic Ramayana enacted in a Kecak Dance

Ravana abducting Sita – A scene from the epic Ramayana enacted in a Kecak Dance

If I were to call out one literal ‘dampener’ in the entire trip it was the fact that extremely high humidity left me with damp clothes all day.  But that is hardly a sweat once you encounter the beauty that is Bali, a perfect blend of color, art and nature.

From the minute you’re welcomed with ‘Om Swasti Astu’, meaning ‘Peace and greetings from God’ till the time you leave, you’re sure to feel special on account of the warmth and hospitality shown by the Balinese.

The traditional Balinese greeting ‘Om Swasti Astu’ says a lot about their way of life

The traditional Balinese greeting ‘Om Swasti Astu’ says a lot about their way of life

 

THE PRACTICAL BIT

How to get there

Bali is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Far East. So there isn’t a dearth of direct flights from major Indian airports to Denpasar. We had been to Jakarta before our holiday and took a flight from there.

Where to stay

There are innumerable stay options, ranging from budget hotels to luxury resorts. We were a large family of 6 adults and 3 children, so we booked a villa on Airbnb. There are a number of villas available on Airbnb’s site. Ours even had a small pool, which the kids enjoyed.

Other travel tips for Bali

  • The sightseeing places are spread out and it’s best to book a vehicle for the day. We booked a 12-seater van for all 5 days since ours was a large group. Komang, our driver was friendly and punctual drive spoke reasonably good English. His contact number is +62 813-3820-3715
  • Although we stayed all 5 nights in Kuta, I would recommend staying 3 nights in Ubud and maybe 3 nights in the Kuta / Legian / Seminyak region or Nusa Dua or Jimbaran.
  • Given that it is the most popular destination in Bali and its streets are narrow, Ubud can get crowded very quickly, so one needs to budget sufficient time for sightseeing
  • If you plan to watch a sunset at the temples, you should reach the temple at least a couple of hours in advance. The roads leading to the temples are narrow and get jammed with tourist vehicles and buses, so much so that late-comers could miss the spectacle altogether.
  • Bali can be quite damp, so carry a couple of quick dry or synthetic material clothes
  • The monkeys at Uluwatu have a notorious reputation of stealing sunglasses, spectacles, necklaces, cameras etc. So beware!
A cheeky monkey at Uluwatu says ‘This is mine’

This monkey stole my wife’s slippers right off her feet!!

 

ABOUT THE GUEST AUTHOR

Arun Iyer, by his own admission, is a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ and dabbles in photography, painting and poetry. As a software professional, he’s in a perennial state of conflict, swinging between ‘One day I will give it all up and chill’ and ‘I need to do this’. You can catch him on twitter @arun_s_i

Note from Vibha Ravi (blog owner and editor): Thanks Arun for giving us a glimpse of Bali

 

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7 Comments

  1. Arun Iyer

    Thank you everyone for your kind words.
    Certainly makes me want to blog more often.

    Special thanks to Vibha for her deft editing that made the post a crisp read.

    Liked by 1 person

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