It is nearly impossible to overstate the ubiquity of the delicate white-tipped Frangipani flower with its pastel navel and slender stem in the lives of the Balinese. A fresh flower is tucked dexterously into a woman’s neat hairdo; a careless little cluster decorates the small idol that sits atop the dashboard of our taxi, filling the vehicle with their distinctive peachy fragrance; and little baskets brimming with the yellow flower wait in offering at the thresholds of the many temples that line the winding roads. Indeed, all things in nature enjoy aesthetic and ritual roles, as we realised on a recent trip to the volcanic Indonesian archipelago, in which we chose to forgo the customary sun-surf-beach holiday for one marked by dense, exotic vegetation and paddy fields farther than the eye could see, and a tryst with the uniquely Balinese Hinduism.
A traveller’s heaven
On a viciously hot day, my friends and I escaped Chennai, Tamil Nadu, for three nights in the balmy Ubud, a town in Bali known for its traditional art and craft, ancient palaces, manifold sites of worship, and a street that houses a variety of art galleries and chic restaurants offering multiple cuisines. The local market, buzzing and chaotic, is a veritable treasure trove of craft and textiles (perfect to hone one’s bargaining skills), lined with shops that sell baskets and colourful wooden masks traditionally thought to house ancestral spirits, among other things. Tourists photographing, buying and eating with various degrees of urgency are Caucasians in ganjis and dhoti pants carrying yoga mats and reading at their regular cafes. Ubud, it seems, is the embodiment of hipster culture, a case in point being the array of organic and vegan foods we consumed with relish at various restaurants and artisanal coffee shops. Be it the magenta dragon fruit and mango smoothie bowl so striking it could rival the richest Kanjeevaram sari, or the tangy Nasi Goreng that warmed our shivering bodies after a dip in the pool, Bali offered it all with elan.
It is Ubud’s natural landscape, however, that truly takes one’s breath away. Long trails are dotted with ancient little mossy-walled temples with their customary guardian stone sculptures. The Campuhan Ridge walk offers views of undulating rice fields and the majestic Pura Gunung Lebah Temple complex, the long trek punctuated by sudden magical-looking lily ponds and delightful cafes that offer panoramic views of unending fields. The Tegalalang rice terraces, famous for the ancient traditional Balinese irrigation system of intricately-linked canals, are breathtakingly green and lush, offering the perfect photo-op for yoga enthusiasts who pose for the camera in the most complicated asanas. Not ones to shy away from the touristy, we even sipped on the world’s most expensive Luwak coffee, notorious for its origins (from the excreta of the very small, frightened-looking nocturnal creature called the civet, if you must know) in a teak deck overlooking dense tropical foliage. Later that evening, as we took in the symphony of birdsong in our luxurious yet surprisingly affordable room, admiring the garden’s strikingly orange birds-of-paradise blossoms, our eternally-smiling host, the very picture of the famed Balinese hospitality, seemed uncharacteristically worried. “Do your tourism fast,” she warned, “after tomorrow, maybe no taxi drivers.” A man we presumed was the caretaker joined us. “It’s the ceremony,” he exclaimed, nodding. “Galungan!”
The Batuan Temple is held to be nearly 1,000 years old.
The festival of Galungan
Galungan is an important festival for the Balinese, a time in which the island really comes alive with festivity and colour. A religious event that marks the victory of good over evil, Galungan is considered a time in which families pray to the spirits of ancestors who visit them. Roads are lined with penjor — tall bamboo poles from which offerings are suspended, and the thresholds of homes and family temples sport canang sari — intricately woven palm leaf trays carrying banknotes flowers, food offerings, incense, and even cigarettes, all of which the wandering tourist has to be particularly careful to sidestep, and the contents of which often become a snack for a passing dog or monkey. Larger baskets, woven in colour, are piled high with poultry, livestock, and other offerings, and an incense stick with a peculiar heady smell carries the essence of the offering up to the heavens.
As we drove through Ubud, we watched families sitting together outside their homes, stitching, skewering and cutting, getting their ceremonial paraphernalia ready, and averted our gaze every time we passed by the customary sacrifice of an animal. Most enchanting perhaps was the lamak — sophisticated pieces of art in themselves, long narrow strips made of palm leaves hung from altars and shrines, and decorated with elaborate motifs of symbolic significance in Balinese culture. Though ephemeral and temporary, these pieces of ritual art form a vital part of the island’s cultural and artistic landscape. Some of the more intricate lamaks are even woven by master craftsmen.
The Campuhan Ridge in Ubud offers sweeping views of undulating rice fields.
What would a trip to Bali be without a visit to a temple? On the day of Galungan, we set out to see the Hindu Batuan temple in the country with our chatty driver Mickey. The locals were in their finery — men and young boys in pristine white sarongs and shirts, and women in identical-looking lacey tops cinched at the waist with a wide sash, several carrying rather precariously perched baskets on their head. On our way to the temple, we dodged several large street processions headed by a yak-like creature, red-masked, fanged and large, galloping along playfully. The barong, we were told, was the personification of the good that battled the evil. Clad in our midnight blue sarongs, we entered the large temple premises, the customary split gate welcoming us in what Mickey insisted, perhaps architecturally quite inaccurately, mimicked two palms pressed together in a namaste. Men and women sat on the ground meditating, young children peered into the temple pond, exclaiming at the fish, and swung gaily from door to door, while dogs wandered about lazily. Mickey asked that we pay attention to the seemingly innocuous sight. “See how we all coexist,” he said. “Dogs are like what salt is to food. The ceremony here is considered successful only if a dog arrives at it.”
As we left for the airport later that week, clutching our last smoothie (berries and yoghurt this time), we took in the remnants of the canang sari on the roads, the many stone sculptures that lay by the roadside, the large palms, and the tall frangipani trees lining the Denpasar roads that seemed to sway in farewell.