Bali : Art and Divinity (2)

I’ve been incredibly slack and not posted all details in one go. The fear that I maybe forgetting details, prompted me to get busy with this post.

Ubud is far removed from the drunk bikinis landscape in Kuta, is known as the designs and disciplines hub, dominated by music classes and exhibitions. The strong influence of Hinduism is evident in Bali's art, culture, everyday life and in the two dance performances we saw – a Kecak dance, which depicts a battle from Ramayana, where Vanara (monkey) helps Lord Ram fight the evil Ravan.  The dance is accompanied by an all-male chorus, with no musical instrumentation.  It was originally a religious trance-inducing ritual, but was transformed in the 1930s into a dramatic dance show intended for Western audiences.  It's an interesting example of how Hindu ritual in Bali has become "art."  At first, I was a bit cynical about watching a performance that wasn't "indigenous" and instead was designed merely to entertain foreign tourists.  But with persuasion gave in, indeed was entertaining. We also saw the Barong dance, which - like the Kecak dance - tells an ancient mythical tale of the battle between good and evil.  Among other fanciful and dramatic plot points, the dance involves a spell of dark magic that makes soldiers fighting for the good want to kill themselves by stabbing themselves, thankfully, the dance also involves a counter-spell that somehow makes the soldiers resistant to their self attack. Reminded me of the dance performances we saw in Kerala.

Couldnt help but sense, there's a good dose of theatre in everyday life.  Just walk down the street and you're likely to see a crowd of impeccably dressed people headed to a religious ceremony, or a colorful festival associated with a marriage, birth or death.  Indeed, whenever you drive (or in our case, were driven) anywhere in Bali, it's a good idea to take into account the congestion that is caused by the ritual processions scheduled for that day.  

We also visited a few jewelry shops, batik painters, wood artisans and a couplea exhibits of artists’ collective of gorgeous paintings of life in Bali–scenery of rice paddy landscapes, women working in the fields, beautiful portraits of local Balinese. Wonder why India doesn’t have such a town where arts and crafts are exhibited to full glory ( Pondicherry perhaps?)

Local Balinese tradition is incomplete without mentioning the temple visits – our 1st stop was at the sacred, famous sea god temple Tanah Lot. We were told by our hotel, that erosion had threatened this temple’s survival; and hence, a comprehensive restoration and stabilization program saw about a third of the ‘rock’ replaced with artificial rock and concrete – courtesy of the Japanese Government. Today, it’s a popular site for both tourists and pilgrims. Tourists are not allowed in. Only certain Balinese people about to perform the ritual prayer are allowed entry into the temple. What we did get to see was the wonderful Sun God setting by evening, eclectic fireworks in the sky. We also the coral life on the shores, hanging around these corals are black and white snakes which local folklore states to be protectors of the temple from all evil influences.

The 2nd temple we visited was Pura Ulun Danu, a Shivling  in a water temple located on the edge of Lake Bratan. Upon arriving here, we were given a sarong to wear inside (Hindu tradition) before making our way through the gates. The first thing we noticed is the lake inside the temple with another smaller temple sitting in the middle of. A little bridge spans the gap for people to walk over and the view of the surrounding area from here was quite something.

Another temple we went to was a masterpiece of stone carving standing over 100 feet high and wide. We climbed the stairs and took pictures from the bottom before proceeding into the temple itself. After dressing the part once again we ventured into the black rock temple filled with creature after creature carved into its walls. I felt if Lara Croft could have been there she would have been shimmying up those statues before you could whistle. And the main attraction in this place was a massive opening in the mountain wall where a huge cave opened its mouth to the outside world. As we approached we could hear the screeching sound of thousands of bats hanging from the ceiling. They all jostled for position and every now and again one would fly right by reminding you just how creepy they are. We asked our driver where the cave goes and he said (in his scary voice), "all the way inside the mountain where the snakes live". I asked if anybody had ever been inside all the way, to which he replied "would you want to go in there?" he's got a point I guess. We placed the customary frangipani flower behind the statues ear and left the place.

Yes in many ways because of its Hindu affiliation, Bali reminds one of India. The warmth, the hospitality, the willingness to explain their culture, makes Balinese people special.

Sub text: Will come back soon and close the Bali trilogy.


Bali: Isle of Gods (1)

Lush and tropical, Bali is rich in traditions of spirituality; where the ancient Hindu culture blends seamlessly with nature and daily life. 

I had no expectations of Bali, but the serenity in some places was startling, for us city folks. We spent an afternoon at Biku, a place run by members of the royal family of Ubud. This restaurant occupies a 250yr old hand-carved wooden house from Java, and is located amidst rich green paddy fields. We were there for lunch followed by high tea, a wet rainy afternoon, cocooned in tranquillity; this day was an education in local and international leaves. The brew is served with Ritz-worthy finesse and is accompanied by strawberries and cream, scones, finger sandwiches, and homemade cakes and pies. A corner of the restaurant is occupied by Ganesha Bookshop, which has a fine selection of page-turners for the beach. Not complaining about the serenity, come evening we were kinda restless for some much needed distractions. 

The best beaches in Bali are in Kuta, Jimbaran, and the Bukit Peninsula. Kuta is particularly busy,we didn’t spend no time there. We dropped anchor at Jimbaran: great sand, no big crowds, an uninterrupted breath-taking sea view, private space to relax and unwind. Most of Bali’s lovely beaches are good for swimming, surfing, or just lounging on the sand. The hotels and villages are responsible for their heritage and hence one sees them provide daily clean up and grooming of beaches.

The quality of a beach changes drastically between seasons, depending on the location of the beach and the direction it faces. Our hotel beach was rocky, but about 50 meters away towards the beach cafes, it was heaven. The barbecue restaurants are great at night for simple non fussy food with the pleasure of toe diving in the sand.
Hospitality is an integral part of the Balinese culture and religion. Everywhere you go, you are made most welcome and most special. It is so geared to tourism. Lines of shaded trees along the roads, a stretch of beach for sunbathing, a strip of shops for shopping, a variety of  restaurants for wining and dining, the options are endless.

We visited a buzzing market place, teaming with people selling their wares. The smell of petrol fumes and cooking meat was thick in the air and it reminded me a little of China town in KL. We kept our money firmly in our pockets and didn't take our hands off it. Our driver insisted we try what he had bought for us once we were back in the car. A Balinesian speciality: rice with brown sugar and honey cooked until brown. With syrup drizzled all over it, in a banana leaf and served with a spoon made from the same leaf! The taste was lush.

Another food that is worth mentioning  (for the uninitiated)  is the Kue Lapis, basically a multi-layered cake which is meticulously made by hand in Bali by first, spreading a very thin layer of cake mixture recipe onto the baking pan. This is then placed in the oven and carefully baked under low heat until it solidifies. Then, another equally thin mixture made of a different flavor is spread over the first layer. The baking pan containing 2 layers is again placed into the oven under low heat. Once it solidifies, a 3rd layer is added. This process is slowly and painfully repeated for about 20 times until you get the Bali Lapis Legit — The Layered Cake. The taste is heavenly.  Smooth textured combined with pure decadence. Gotta indulge in small portions to slowly enjoy it’s full impact.

We celebrated the birthday in a classy Australian restobar which has maintained its status as the island's most glamorous spots. What a dramatically spotlighted bar, private pavilions, terraces, waterside deck, an eclectic cigar menu, an interesting wine list with selections from California, Chile, France, Italy, and New Zealand to complement the Australian vintages - a swanky private club if you will. SO, if , you want to people-watch while dinnering, this is the place to be, when the blondest, tannest crowd west of the Santa Monica Pier gathers at Kur.

During our daily wanderings, we saw some Balinese music,  an art gallery or two, plenty of typical tourist souvenirs on sale, genuine creativity amidst wood carvers. In our limited experience, the Balinese dont seem as effusive as the Indians or Sri Lankans, who merrily will cross the street with a big smile just to say hello, or pose for a picture etc.  But when you do connect with a Balinese person, the connection is strong and meaningful.  We befriended Lina, a quiet young man who worked at our hotel, and when it was time for us to leave, he spent the entire day with us traveling to our next destination, on his only day off for the week, at no extra charge, with no ulterior motive.  When we suggested that he might want to do something more fun on his day off, he responded that he would prefer to spend some more time with us, his new friends.  We were touched.

A few sub notes  - an admission if you will. It took me to reach Bali to realize how rice is farmed. A tour of the rice paddies around the Tea Garden made me feel so ignorant. Whilst I’ve seen lots of pictures of rice paddies, I never knew exactly how it was grown, and was amazed that rice grows like a wheat sheaf, with approx. ten grains of rice from each sheaf.  Picking can only be done by hand, and I was amazed at how labour intensive rice farming is.

A heads up if you will: Bali people do NOT believe in air-conditioning. Am all for natural living but hell, it’s hot and bothersome there!  So many restaurants, bars and nightclubs but no ac, at most a fan. Not a comfy situation.  


SriVardhan: God’s abode in Maharashtra

The drive from Bombay to SriVardhan (approx. 180-185kms) is nightmarish once you enter the Goa highway. No median dividing incoming/ongoing traffic, cops standing in the middle of the road as human dividers, narrow state highway filled with imbecile drivers! My road travel plans to Goa, definitely stand shelved.

Highway expansion work is underway. But no one has a clue by when it will be completed. Were it not for the traffic and the related stress, the road is lined with never ending palms, ficus, gulmohar and all varieties of trees in full bloom. Verdant, expansive and inviting.

SriVardhan is a beautiful beach destination, a peninsular that has the Diveagar beach and Kondivali beach to preen about. Leading European travelers refer to SriVardhan in their journals as Ziffardan (been in existence for over 200 years). SriVardhan is equally infamous for the Rdx landing on its shore thereafter the ammo reaching Mumbai and the city going under siege

The beaches are beyond expectations. A complete sea side drive of approx. 5kms that takes one thru ghats with sea view on 1 side and the cliffs on the other. Rare. Besides, the beach spread along this route is one of the longest I have seen in the Konkan belt. Diveagar has to be the most stunning beach for me, long uninterrupted coastline, breathtaking view, magnificient scenic drive, compels you to stop every few seconds and have your fill of pictures to proudly share this stunning untouched hideaway.

If you are planning to walk into the low tide, please be careful as the water can rise pretty sharply and by the time you realize the distance traveled to turn back, the water may even start lapping at the belly      

Once inside the village, you mentally keep wondering will some squalor and huts show up? But none do. The homes are simple and beautiful, with landscaped porches, high ceilings within, and the backyard boasting of innumerable coconut trees.

A freshly picked coconut has a sweet nectar like water to drink generously from. The tender coconut can be gobbled up in no time, leaving you wanting more. (No you don’t count the calories here)

This beach side village was once abode to a very famous Ganpati temple, the idol weighing 12kgs in gold, was robbed by 4 men. It is rumored that the police caught up with the robbers, discovered that the idol was cut up in 4 parts and sold. The loot is not yet recovered.

Many sports activities on sale, and I so wish they weren’t!  Cut the waves at 100miles an hour para gliding, surfing and even trekking the cliffs.  SriVardhan is a typical Konkani town with a beautiful coastline and small wadi’s.  A place known to have had Prime Ministers of valour of the Maratha kingdom, the “Peshwa’s” came from here. It’s a place with sun kissed sands on a spectacular beach not one but 3 one after the other. The cherry on the cake? Unpolluted air and sea. What more could you want?

Travel route: Bombay-Panvel-Pen-Mhasla, or
from Pune thru Mahad or
via Mahabaleshwar-Poladpur-Goregaon or
via Tamahini.   


Kolad, Maharashtra - a beautiful hideout

The place is magical. A perfect getaway

Within driving distance from Maximum city, this is that unplanned break youv’e been looking for, a week-end hideout on short notice. If you are a nature lover then this adage for Kolad is true – Path to glory is always better than the destination. Various ponds, a deep blue river,  floating clouds in the vast expanse of sky, beautiful Sahyadri range in the backdrop, fresh air to breathe – and the best part? The less headcount! Mumbai, Pune residents prefer Lonavala as their getaway, while Kolad is for those who want to beat the rush and give people a miss.

The drive to our friend’s farmhouse was beauteous to say the least. The dense lush green captures the heart & mind & eyes- sheer heaven! 

Kolad is approx.. 25kms ahead of Pen, fromPanvel

This tiny village in Mahad is picking up popularity for rafting and trekking. Beautifully situated near the Sahyadri range, there are trek paths which are easy, not stony, slippery, steep or tough. Kolad also has a gushing Kundalika river, known for its fast flowing water, hence the ideal locale for river rafting right thru the year. The reason behind its fast flowing is the releasing of water from nearest dam. Another sport that seems to be high on everyones list is paragliding, which we lazy people missed, for over sleeping in the morning! .

If religiously inclined, thr is something there for you as well.
Given India’s social fabric, most families owe allegiance to the presiding deity of the particular village from where the family or ancestors originated.  In present times when many people have shifted to urban areas, it is difficult to keep this bond alive on a day-to-day basis, so people visit the local temple. Many Indians make it a point to visit their native place at least once a year, most likely the day when the deity’s annual utsav is held.  The weekend we were in Kolad, we witnessed a huge congregation of people going towards Tamhini for the deity Vinzai devi’s blessings.

If you aren’t as lucky as us to have a friend living in this village, fret not. There are beautiful cottages and tents available on hire on the banks of the river constructed to give the appearance of a home, where you can relax & camp; enjoy the peace and quite. It is the perfect place to stay for a group/ family to relax and unwind.

A final tip: ensure the spare wheel of your car is in working condition. Be prepared to be cut off completely at times as the mobile network is iffy in these parts. Kolad is lush green heavenly in the monsoons, so plan a visit in the rains. 


India rediscovered: The untouched Andamans

A person gets used to being alone but break it just for a day and you have to get used to it again, all over from the beginning ~ R Bach

Isolated, untouched and far from the madding crowd…the beaches is where we spent our max time, clearly looking to escape the world- couldn’t have asked for a better haven. Beach view villas, sun shimmering off the waters, coconut trees swaying in the breeze. An eternal love affair with nature, where harmony was alive in larger than life size.

Laid back, not partying (other than  some few spontaneous one’s we chanced upon) Andaman n Nicobars are a world class eco friendly destination. Spread across 500 some islands dotted like a pearl neckpiece in the Bay of Bengal, showing off hilly green topography, crystal clear water and silvery sand beaches. Our flight reached us to Port Blair a cosmopolitan harbor town, where, we snorkeled and spotted coral reefs of Wandoor. The magic of nature is so alive and dancing in this part of the world, that it lures you, to come discover it more.   

It rained through the first half of our trip, but the rest of the days we had glorious sunshine from 530am onwards. I don’t have the faintest clue why people say one must not watch the sun setting, ever, but here, in Andaman if you miss it, it’s like missing natures sublime miracle. 

The sun sets red and heavy, in a perfect blazing circle, dropping in slo-mo into the waters, the sky colours are so indescribable and spectacular! Glorious nature. And once the pyrotechnics get over, the stars came out one by one, the sky becomes diamond crusted shimmer. Such a must visit destination for the weary soul to bond with nature, once again.

I generally try to keep my distance from the usual touristy locales to avoid the hustling. So, true to form, our sea fare was pre booked and we didn't see no jostle to buy our tickets to make our way to Havelock from Port Blair. The boat ride had options of   air conditioned push back seats or sitting in the open deck allowing the sea breeze to embrace us completely. The waters of Bay of Bengal are a deep deep indigo, a color one seldom associates with ocean waters and India.   Infact the waters very often turned turquoise as we moved closer to the islands. Our appetite for the beach and the swimming ahead certainly whetted, if the weather Gods didn’t play temperamental...

Once at Havelock we made our way to Beach 5 ( by some quirky Brit identification system, all beaches in this part are numbered!) – and that was the beginning of an idyllic travel through Gods nature. Picture postcard perfect locales. The waters stayed low (mostly), one could walk in quite a bit, crystal clear, allowed you to gaze right upto your feet below. It was heavenly to swim in such calm waters. We treaded water, lazed and gazed around at the coconut, palm fringed beach - wondrous experience.

One of those sun filled mornings, I put myself to some use, saw the first light creeping in the sky, everything looked ethereal n silent. Not a soul stirred in sight. The beach, the sands, the waterline at the horizon everything had a washed up look. I sat there with my notebook and my camera on one such washed up rock allowing the water to lap at my feet gently, didn’t take a single picture, didn’t write a single word. It all happened inside the mind and heart and soul. I have no words to describe the sheer magic of that moment. Tinged copper water, bathed every part of the isle golden, can never forget it. There onwards dawned peace with myself, totally calm, without any war inside my head.

Beach#7 has been described by many as 1 of the most beautiful beaches on earth, there is no doubt on that, it takes your breath away. We walked on soft white sand along side the mangroves, found a spot in the shade of the palms to sit down for the day with loungers and sun deck chairs some distance away, if we wanted to be among the other guests on the beach. And all we did often was sit in quiet and take it all in. Just be. The water here has many shades- the white of the surf, its green at the shallow end, turquoise a lil further up and majestic indigo at the deep end. Never seen such colours before in nature. Beach 7 (Coral Island) is dotted with mangroves (some call them the jungles) providing sylvan surroundings for the adventurous traveler to spot the deer, peacock and many variety of exotic birds.   

Breakfast was always late and more often than not on the beach, nursing a fragile head, but that never stopped us from washing down bottomless brunches, with bunkam banter, countless sangria pitchers... 2012 reflected many promises

Days merged into each other, with better time spent on the sands and water. Evenings spent at a local pub with an eclectic crowd of varying nationalities. We had hired a bike, were free to move about at our own pace  and free will, through country roads tarred and non tarred. The landscape was dotted with thatched roof homes, cattle in the front yard, fields of green smelling of soil n grains in the sun with rains having washed it the previous night. The hay for the cattle pitched up like a mound, small ponds with water lilies, locals on mopeds n bicylces traversing long journeys. Cliché it may seem, but all these clichés came alive for me  - lost in a different forever 

One day I ventured into the high seas with the local fishermen in their country boat fitted with a diesel engine. Barring the fumes from the engine which are not quite conducive to existence, and the boat feeling like a paper boat on the waters rocking and lurching roughly, it was some experience; when the engine was cut off, and the boat swayed gently in the deep waters, while they threw their fishing nets to capture the days catch.

 A word on the threatened tribes of Andaman, the Jarawa.  These tribes migrated from Africa and today we have several hundred thousand Indian settlers living on the islands. The principal threat to the Jarawa’s existence comes from encroachment onto their land, which was sparked by the building of a highway through their forest in the 1970s. The road brings settlers, poachers and loggers into the heart of their land.

This encroachment risks exposing the Jarawa to diseases to which they have no immunity, and creating a dependency on outsiders. Poachers steal the game the Jarawa rely on, and there are reports of sexual exploitation of Jarawa women. Unfortunately Tourism is also a threat to the Jarawa, with tour operators driving tourists along the road through the reserve every day in the hope of ‘spotting’ members of the tribe. Despite prohibitions, tourists often stop to make contact with the Jarawa. When will India learn its lessons? These are an integral parts of our DNA, we need to safeguard and protect such tribes, and not use them for exhibiting merely because the tourists have the muscle power of money.

A word of caution to all those who depend hugely on their connectivity. The islands are not very conducive to mobile phone connectivity. The network always played havoc no matter which auto roaming operator one chose, so for calls the best and most reliable solution would be the STD booth or the hotel phones. 

My ask ... soak it in, when at Andaman, but, allow it to remain, untouched for generations to know the magic of nature here.