Sunday, September 11, 2011

Visiting Bali

A Mahabharat Story; Ghatotkacha fights Karna 
The flight to Bali is crowded with people from all corners of the world. I try to communicate with a German couple, sitting next to me. The attempt is largely unsuccessful as their knowledge of English and my knowledge of Deutsch are more or less at the same level. After finding out that I am from India, they immediately draw the conclusion that I must be a computer expert. After some effort, I manage to convince them that I have retired and do not work for living any more. Besides, my knowledge of computers is also at a very rudimentary level. We manage to make friends as they are also in the same situation. The lady keeps on chattering something unintelligible, for the rest of the flight.

The aircraft makes a smooth landing on Nagurah Rai Airport. As we taxi towards the tarmac, I look out of the window. What I see, really impresses me. This little airport is unbelievably clean and well laid out.  Not something expected in a third world country. The airport buildings are clean and freshly painted. The usual dharavi style zopadpatti, which encircles the Mumbai airport, is totally absent here. The green grass patches between concrete pavements appear well cut and maintained. I also dont see aircraft gear, such as ladders, cargo trolleys, lying here and there in a disorganized manner. The aircraft comes to a halt. I come out of the aircraft through an aero bridge. I can not believe my eyes. Even today, much aclaimed Bangalore International airport has managed to get only a couple of them

The arrival hall is not furnished with any luxury, but is largely functional. We form a small queue but I get my visa in a jiffy. For an Indian passport holder, getting a visa without hassles is unbelievable. There are no documents to be furnished. No health insurance certificates or proof of finances is to be submitted. The immigration and customs staff is courteous. No one asks me silly questions such as the purpose of my visit. Bali wins me over at the first step itself.  
The guide starts his introduction with a Namaste. I infer that he must have done it so, knowing that I am from India. But to my surprise, He chants the Gayatri Mantra and explains the meaning of it. They worship the trinity of Bramha, Vishnu and Mahesha. Balinese people are 95 % Hindu and are also very proud it.  Through out my stay, I am reminded of this fact by airport porters, hotel staff and taxi drivers. There is also a little confusion about time. Even though part of Indonesia, Bali does not adhere to Jakarta time. I recollect the inconvenience of having sun rise at 3 am and sun set at 3 pm forced on Assamese and Manipuri people because of the Indian standard time.
Bali appears to have two faces. On one hand, the cities are crowded with pubs, discos, spas and wine bars. On streets, lined with motor bikes, a group of teenagers, presumably college going, is chatting. But then one of the girls suddenly approaches you for a highly dubious massage service. There are American style eateries, 24 hour shops, retail outlets for major fashion houses and shopping malls. In fact, there is everything that a tourist needs. A pop artist called Peter Pan attracts so many crowds, that the roads leading to his concert are jammed with motor bikes parked on them.
The other face of Balinese culture still retains the Hindu mythology. On this plane, Balinese appear to be living in a different age. A street corner near the airport is adorned with a huge statue of Ghatotkacha riding a chariot with six horses and fighting his last battle with Karna. Another huge statue of King Rama dominates a street corner in capital Denpasar. Lord Vishnu riding on Garuda, Ganesha, you name the god and it is there. Balinese art, centers on Hindu mythology. A peep in Telephone directory reveals names, which could appear in the directory of any Indian city. There is a Hotel Yudhishtira. A transport company is named as Sindhu ghosh transport. But still, Balinese people are different. Their food, the way they dress, is very much Indonesian. Still the bond of religion appears to be very strong. They have great love and affection for India. They are genuinely sorry that very few Indian tourists visit their beautiful country.
I am on my way to view the Kintamani, ( k is pronounced as ch ).the active volcano which had erupted as recently as in year 1926. I am told that the volcano crater is now adorned with a beautiful lake. On way, I cross village after village with the main streets lined with artifacts. Every village however has its own specialty. Wood carvings, stone carvings, bamboo articles, wooden furniture, the list is endless. Statues of Ganesha and King Rama mingle with Greek gods, elephants, horses and Komodo dragons. As our vehicle starts climbing towards Mount Batur, we have a flat tire. On northern horizon I see an ominous purple black nimbus cloud. Suddenly things appear very gloomy. As we reach Kintamani village, it starts to rain. Visibility is almost reduced to zero. There is very heavy fog. I stop near a restaurant lined with huge French windows to view the volcano. The rain is pouring by now. I decide to have lunch and wait for the weather to clear. The buffet spread is sumptuous. The rain gods however, do not appear pleased and Kintamani remains totally invisible to us. Dejected with this sudden development, I decide to return to the hotel. On way back we visit a huge exhibition of wood carvings. The place is huge, poorly lit and water leaks from the roof. Inside however there is an amazing spread of Balinese art. In a wood carving, King Rama and Princess Sita are seen riding a chariot. Their attire is distinctly East Asian. Another wood carving depicts scene from the epic, Mahabharata.  There are birds, animals,lizrds, human faces and figures, Khajurao style erotic couples, all carved in wood. Another carving depicts an old man holding a chicken in his hand. His beard and mustache appear almost life like.
I am traveling to Ulwatu, the southern tip of Bali Island. The landscape changes. The heavy shrub forest is wind swept and wet. Small village huts appear once in a while. The road ends and I have to walk the last mile. The dress I am wearing is not acceptable and I have to put on a blue sarong along with a yellow ribbon around my waist. The way slopes down and I suddenly come upon the most breath taking view I have ever seen. The land ends with a sudden drop of couple of hundred feet. I see below, the blue waters of Indian Ocean with huge waves rolling and undulating. On left, there is a cliff and perched on the top of the cliff is a pagoda like temple of Lord Ganesha. The temple, supported by land only on one side, almost appears to be hanging in the air. I walk up to the temple but the gate is locked. As a special privilege, I am allowed to enter the premises. The actual temple, at least twelve hundred years old, is located about six feet above the ground and is supported by four solid wood pillars. I find that the door to the sanctum is closed and locked. I am told that it can be opened only by the holy man. Lord Ganesha of Ulwatu refuses to oblige me. I pay my homage and decide to enjoy the scene. I am surrounded by water on three sides. Only eastern part of the temple premises is connected with land. The rain gods again turn spoil sport and it starts pouring. I make a harried exit.
Indian Ocean as seen from Ulwatu temple
On my way back, I visit a modern show room of ceramics. The range of products is simply stunning. The Balinese touch given to these articles of daily use by the local artisans is something unique and extra ordinary.
Kechak dance of Bali 
The time is six-thirty in the evening and I am eagerly waiting for the start of Kechak, the exclusive Balinese dance performed by Sahadeva dance academy. The spectator gallery is multi storied and spartan. Bamboo topped benches and chairs are provided for sitting. The open stage is constructed with stones and surfaced with mud. At the center of the stage there is a Deep mala burning several oil lamps. The entire arrangement gives a certain authentic and haunting appearance. The sky is already dark with rain bearing nimbus clouds and it could rain any time. I wonder about the prospects of the dance performance if rain gods appear again. About hundred men now pour on the stage. They wear checkered Sarongs and squat down in a semi circle. The dance guru appears and blesses them. The choir starts to sing softly some words which sound like Chuk, Chuk in a rhythm. There are no musical or beat instruments. The effect is spectacular. As if given a cue, the raindrops start falling and King Rama and his queen Sita appear on the stage. Their attire is bright and East Asian. The dance poses are quite striking. The moods and feelings of characters are conveyed through movements of wrists and fingers. King Ramas anger, Sitas fear is expressed through their trembling fingers. The choir changes the rhythm. The story of Ramayana slowly unfurls before our eyes. The end however is little different. The monkey king Sugreeva kills the demon king Ravana as King Rama serenely looks upon them. There are few more dances and the finale is provided by a dance on burning coconut husks.

For dinner, I decide to visit Gimbaran fresh sea food court. The place is almost touching the sea and is very windy because of the high tide. The sea food is kept live in huge water tanks. I am asked to select the fish or prawn or whatever I want to eat. It would be cooked and served to me. I find that whole concept quite unpalatable and decide to return to my hotel to have some familiar Nasi Padang.
Next day, I catch my return flight. Images of Bali stay with me.

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