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.