Explore the rich culture of Bali through its temples and history when you travel to this Indonesian island

Explore the rich culture of Bali through its temples and history when you travel to this Indonesian island

Explore the rich culture of Bali through its temples and history when you travel to this Indonesian island

It's almost impossible to overstate the ubiquity of this delicate white-tipped Frangipani flower with its pastel navel and slim stem from the lives of the Balinese.  A new flower is tucked dexterously to a lady's neat hairdo; a sloppy small cluster decorates the little idol that sits atop the dash of our cab, filling the vehicle with their distinctive peachy fragrance; and small baskets brimming with the yellow flower wait in supplying in the thresholds of the many temples that line the winding streets.  Really, everything in nature like ritual and aesthetic roles, as we realised on a recent visit to the volcanic Indonesian archipelago, where we decided to forgo the customary sun-surf-beach vacation 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 brutally hot afternoon, my friends and I escaped Chennai, Tamil Nadu, for three nights at the balmy Ubud, a city in Bali famous for its traditional art and craft, historical palaces, manifold sites of worship, and a road that houses many different art galleries and posh restaurants offering numerous cuisines.  The local market, buzzing and chaotic, is a veritable treasure trove of artwork and fabrics  (ideal to hone one's bargaining skills), lined with stores that sell baskets and colourful wooden masks traditionally considered to house ancestral spirits, among other things.  Tourists photographing, purchasing and eating with several degrees of urgency are Caucasians in ganjis and dhoti pants carrying yoga mats and studying at their regular cafes.  Ubud, it appears, is the embodiment of hipster culture, a case in point being the collection of vegetarian and organic foods we have with love at different restaurants and artisanal coffee stores.  

Be it that the magenta dragon fruit and mango smoothie bowl so striking it could rival the richest Kanjeevaram sari, or the tangy Nasi Goreng that heated our shivering bodies following a dip in the pool, Bali offered it with elan.It's Ubud's natural landscape, however, that really takes one's breath away.  Long paths are dotted with ancient small mossy-walled temples with their customary shield stone sculptures.   The Tegalalang rice terraces, famous for its ancient traditional Balinese irrigation system of intricately-linked canals, are breathtakingly lush and green, offering the ideal photo-op for yoga fans who pose for the camera at the most complex asanas.  Not ones to shy away from the touristy, we sipped on the world's priciest Luwak coffee, infamous for its roots (in the excreta of this very little, frightened-looking nocturnal monster known as the civet, if you must know) at a teak deck overlooking dense tropical foliage.  Later that day, as we took in the symphony of birdsong in our lavish yet surprisingly inexpensive room, admiring the garden's strikingly orange birds-of-paradise blossoms, our eternally-smiling host, the very picture of the famed Balinese hospitality, appeared uncharacteristically worried.  "Do your tourism quickly," she cautioned,"after tomorrow, possibly no cab drivers."  A guy we believed was the caretaker joined us.  "It is the service," he exclaimed, nodding.  

The festival of Galungan

Galungan is an important festival for the Balinese, a period where the island actually comes alive with festivity and colour.   Roads are lined with penjor -- tall bamboo sticks where offerings are suspended, and the thresholds of houses and family temples game canang sari -- intricately woven palm leaf trays carrying banknotes flowers, food offerings, incense, as well as cigarettes, all which the wandering tourist must be especially careful to sidestep, and the contents of that often turn into a snack for a passing dog or monkey.  Larger baskets, woven in color, are stacked high with poultry, livestock, and other offerings, and an incense stick with a strange heady odor conveys the essence of the offering to the heavens.

As we drove through Ubud, we saw families sitting together outside their houses, stitching, skewering and cutting, becoming their ceremonial paraphernalia prepared, and prevented our gaze each time we passed from the customary sacrifice of an animal.  Most enchanting possibly was the lamak -- sophisticated pieces of art in themselves, long narrow strips made from palm leaves hung from altars and shrines, and adorned with intricate motifs of symbolic importance in Balinese culture.  Though temporary and transient, these parts of ritual art form a very important part of the island's cultural and artistic landscape.  Some of the more complex lamaks are woven by master craftsmen.

On the day of Galungan, we set out to find the Hindu Batuan temple at the nation with our chatty driver Mickey.   On our way into the temple, we dodged several large street processions led by a yak-like monster, red-masked, fanged and big, galloping along playfully.  The barong, we were told, was the personification of the great that fought the evil.  Clad in our midnight blue sarongs, we entered the huge temple premises, the habitual split gate welcoming us into what Mickey insisted, possibly architecturally quite inaccurately, mimicked two palms pressed together in a namaste.  Men and women sat on the floor meditating, young kids peered to the temple pond, exclaiming in the fish, and swung gaily from door to door, while dogs whined about lazily.  Mickey asked that we listen to the apparently innocuous sight.  "See how all of us coexist," he said.  "Dogs are similar to what salt is to food.  The ceremony here is deemed successful only if a puppy arrives .

A must-visit

"As we left for the airport later that week, clutching our final smoothie (berries and yoghurt now ), we took in the remnants of this canang sari on the streets, the numerous stone sculptures which lay by the roadside, the big palms, and the tall frangipani trees lining the Denpasar streets which seemed to sway in farewell.

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