As a teenager, I took to painting on canvas one summer. Copying sunsets and mountains from high-gloss posters. Remember art splayed on the streets of Lajpat Nagar? I would haggle the price down to a paltry sum, satisfying my ego at the steal. My sister and I collected such posters and stacked them in a secret pile in our shuttered shoe rack under the grilled window of our room. I hoped to label the stack “My Journey” someday. Anyhow, after my initial sunset I graduated to painting mountains. One particular one had a spring sprouting out of the mountains flowing towards a bright blue river interspersed with little canoes. I remember painting half a canoe along the left edge to represent movement and emergence. For the others, I applied faint curvy strokes in olive green in the distance. In these canoes, sat men wearing conical, straw hats paddling away at the sparkly waters. I remember spurting out a blob of bright green onto my wooden palette, mixing a dab of yellow in it and painting veins on a leaf of a bright pink lotus smack in the middle of the light blue water. To the painting, I added more fuchsia pink flowers in uneven strokes in the distance to contrast the green of the steppe fields along the river.
That, in retrospect, was Bali. Though, the picture holds true for most of Indonesia Bali is one among 13000 islands that form Indonesia.
‘Hare Rama, Hare Krishna.
Hare Rama, Hare Krishna.’
That’s the song we were greeted with at the Arrivals gate of the Denpasar airport. A group of Hare Rama Hare Krishna devotees were gathered at the parking bay to bid farewell to another devotee, perhaps. The colourful sarongs, lungis and frangipanis stood out as also the familiarity of the music and the twang of the finger cymbals. They knew we knew the tunes, the shared smiles laying proof to shared religions across nations.
It was through the drive from the airport to our resort in Nusa Dua that the screen captures of the sights I was seeing filled me with a sense of déjà vu. The highway stretched out over the sea and to my left along one shallow end of the water I could see a little canoe with a man in a conical, straw hat. His muscular dark skin reflected the light of the sun and I was reminded of my painting, one I had long forgotten. Of course, I don’t paint such any more, but the image refreshed my childhood imaginations of a far flung, mystical land called Indonesia, with crystal clear water, steppe agriculture, lotuses and people going about their daily businesses in canoes.
Bali is magical and mystical. It seems to exhibit a rhythmic intermingling of the five elements of nature: water, earth, fire, air and space. I often stood still to listen, so I could decipher the notes, believe. All I heard was the soft hum of a placid sea ensconcing the island in a warm embrace.
All around, there was water bluer than blue teeming with life. There was lush green vegetation, greener than green. There were volcanoes spitting fire, engulfed in mist and calmed by rain and there was the vast, clean air and sky all around.
Narrow tarred roads buzzed with life. Ladies in sarongs and colourful lace blouses perched on the back seats of two-wheelers carried straw bags of daily living. Marriage parlours sprouted around street corners with ornate, golden head gears, colourful clothes and photography deals on display. Women in the pictures with facial features drawn out to perfection like the dancers we were to see. Ever so often, we could see stone carvings being sold by the road. The black stone contrasting against the lush green trees and bushes that carpeted the island. Entrance gates to houses and temples were made of black stone, as if a tower of black blocks had been stacked up and sliced down the middle, top to bottom and statues of Barong, the lion God representing goodness, stood at these entrances. Intricate carvings on wooden doors to houses or whatever magic lay within, kept me marveling at their craftsmanship.
All through Bali, the crossroads or roundabouts were adorned with sandstone, concrete or black stone statues and sculptures depicting various scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Ever so often, a statue of Barong on a pedestal would stand along the street. Black and white checked wraps covering the pedestals and canang saris spilling over each other at the foot of these statues in reverence and prayer. Canang saris, daily offerings with colourful flowers in a little basket woven of palm leaves, also lined the shopfronts and entrances to buildings in Bali.
Temples with black stone svarlokas or heads could be seen dotting the Bali sky. Receding tiers forming pyramids depicting the Burmese Buddhist as well as North and South Indian influences of temple architecture. The gateways to these temples resembled the Gopurams of South Indian temples, only these seemed to have been sliced down the middle giving way to enter a holy premise.
It was in one such temple that we sat down on bamboo chairs to enjoy a Barong dance performance. While we waited for the dancers to take stage, cymbals, bells, drums, bamboo xylophones and gongs played the Gamelan in the background. I could not help but look beyond the walls of the temple. Surrounding the temple outstretched a paddy field. At the far end, a farmer was being pulled along a wooden plough by cattle at speed. A conical, straw hat balanced itself on the farmer’s head as the plough pulled him along the outstretched field. Closer to my end of the farm, water flowed out from a higher steppe to a field at a lower steppe. The sky was blue, with puffs of grey cotton balls lining the sky. At another extreme of the field stood a white and red little cottage in silence, perhaps enjoying the music rising from the temple where we sat in anticipation of an enthralling performance.
Enthralling it was. Dancers in colourful costumes took centrestage and depicted the story of Barong and Rangda, the story of good vs. evil. Both depicted as lions in Balinese mythology. After a colourful performance graced with drama, dance, music and risible expressions, we proceeded to catch a glimpse of the active volcano at Mt. Batur. It would have been another site to checkoff on my Must-visit Sites Before I Die list. Alas! It was raining and all we saw was fog and mist. If only we could cut through the white fuzz and reach out for the peak.
A visit to the Tirta Empul, Holy Water Temple, whose holy spring is said to have been created by Indra, the god of the rains, completed our spiritual journey around Bali. The temple is built around a spring that never dries up and locals believe its waters have curative powers. The people of Bali thronged the temple on this last day of the year to seek blessings for a blessed new year. Dressed in a sarong decorated in Batik print, wading the rain and feeding the flexible goldfish, I could not help but marvel at a mystical spirit that seemed to traverse the water, the black stones of the temple and the colours all around, the colours in the flowers, the lungis, the goldfish, contrasted against the black stone of the temple infused with magical stories coming to life in the multitudes of ornate statues.
That was Bali for us, and it ended with a walk under the sea the next day. The ocean really is way more supreme than the land. Its deep, dark secrets too profound for man to discover, for man to ever know. One handspan around me in that intense preassure was my world for 15 minutes and that was enough to drown me with its superiority.
I do not wish to explain, I do not wish to tell, except that I stepped down merely seven steps down a ladder from a little boat and found myself floating on the sea bed. It was a different world altogether and I held onto the steel rod of the instructor and onto dear life. A helmet on my head played with science to make sure air was mightier than water and I bounced myself in a walk across the sea bed.
The instructor plucked my hands from the steel rod and made me clutch onto another mossy, iron rod that demarcated the reef for us visitors. With a squeezie of fish food in my hand I attracted multicolored fishes and tried to feel them up. But it was their world and they teased me away. I floated, I flopped for a picture or two of my heroic exploits and was taken away for my way back up. It took one giant push by the instructor for me to manage and step onto the ladder, and another six pushes on my bottom to reach air and reclaim control over my life. I desire to know not more and I leave you be in reverence, the Sea.
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© 2018 by Donna Abraham