Saturday, June 29, 2013

Travel Essay Contest -- Entry 20


I Must Be Off! is having its first annual Travel Essay Contest. Each entry will appear at first without byline or bio. These will be added at the end of the contest. As you enjoy these travel essays from around the world, please feel free to comment; but if you offer criticism, remember to be positive. These writers are my guests.

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Enchanting Bali
by Sreelakshmi Gururaja

At daybreak in Bali, the bleary-eyed sleepy tourist scrambling to get some breakfast could very well step on or over the “offerings”. Ubiquitous, the “offerings” are placed at doorways and entrances of homes, restaurants, hotels, commercial establishments, shops, street corners and sometimes in small altars on the wayside. On the other hand, to the observant tourist these “offerings” are at first intriguing and then become an object of their curiosity.

The practice of making “offerings” is an essential feature in the daily life of the Balinese. The daily “offerings” are simple, relatively small, fit into the palm of a hand and are prepared and placed mostly by women. They are usually colorful with eye-catching flowers, fruits, vegetables, assortment of food items, coins, sweets, candy, cigarettes even, all of which are assembled on a quaint handcrafted small tray, the waft and weave pattern deftly created from palm leaf, bamboo, and banana stem. While each “offering” is unique, there is a pattern in the aesthetic array and its arrangement on the trays. The reverence of the slim batik sarong-clad women in making the “offering”, with heads bowed and hands folded, is unmistakably devout. The ceremony itself is serenely simple with gentle hand gestures directing the incense fumes towards the statue or object accompanied by graceful body movements that have been handed down and followed over generations. When I asked the young woman placing an “offering” at the hotel desk about the practice, she quietly informed me that the purpose is for thanksgiving, to appease the spirits and seek blessings.

The beaches, natural wonders, the lush green forests, waterfalls and mountains lure the tourists to Bali as do equally the temples, the culture, music, art and handicrafts. The unique structures of the temples aesthetically combine black lava stone bricks, the orange-red clay bricks and treated wood, bamboo and fibres to create the layered black pagoda roofs and ornamental engraved doorways. Driving past them, the visitors stop to take a better look and of course, click pictures non-stop on their digital cameras. The clusters of smaller shrines, we are told, usually belong to a family or families, and every village has its own temple compound built over the years, each generation adding another layer of shrines. While it was apparent that the temples follow a universal architectural design, the size and grandeur seemed to indicate the position, wealth and importance of the village.

To the Balinese, nine temples are considered very sacred and each has its own special characteristics – geographic location, significance of the Hindu God it represents, and historical importance. The mother temple of Besakih temple, situated on the south slope of the volcano, Mount Agung, is over 1000 years old and considered the most sacred as it represents Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. After climbing what seemed to be hundred steps hewn out of black volcanic rock, we reached the first vast courtyard , then we climbed another set of steps , a little less than before and then another. What is remarkable is the maintenance of the impeccably clean surroundings and the greenery.

 There are several ‘mantapas” or shrines in each courtyard. Unlike Hindu shrines in India, the shrines have cloth wrapped around them but are bereft of idols or statues. The colour and pattern of the cloth denotes the deity the shrine represents. The explanation given by the guide is that the idols are brought out ceremoniously by the priests once a year and installed in the shrines for worship. At other times, prayers are offered to the shrines for what they represent in a way implying the omnipresence of the deities, and emphasizing spirituality over ritual.

At the temple we witnessed a procession of men and women mourners carrying elaborate baskets of “offerings” on their heads. We were told that it was a family in mourning and the ceremony pertained to   blessing of the ashes after cremation. Clothed in white and holding the holy white umbrellas, they silently approached the priests seated on the raised platforms and placed the “offerings”. Observing from a distance, we got a glimpse of an actual religious ceremony without being intrusive.

The following day we visited the picturesque Tanah Lot temple. From afar, the temple seems almost celestial, perched on a rock in the middle of the sea. Literally, Tanah Lot means "Land in the Middle of the Sea” and it is truly so. It is definitely a ‘must see’ place. The tall pagoda temple and some smaller pagoda shrines atop the ragged rocks, few green trees jutting out and the white waves at high tide hitting the sides with roaring sound and splash made it a spectacular sight. Built in the fifteenth century to guard Bali from the sea, the awe inspiring temple is believed to be guarded by poisonous snakes living under it. Preservation and restoration work in recent times has rescued the temple from the ravages of erosion. The high tide did not allow us to climb or go too close but the temple is accessible at low tide.  We were told that the best time to visit Tanah Lot is at sunset especially for avid photographers. Even at high noon, it was memorable, etched in one’s memory forever.

Bali has in its own genre of dance and music. Operas with masked performers and graceful Balinese dance perform to the melodious notes of the gamelan on stories derived from the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Similarly, handicrafts such as the intricate woodcarvings, wall plaques, wooden masks and batik paintings are usually based on well known heroes and episodes of these epics. On the other hand, scenic water colour paintings capture the green rice paddy fields, the lakes and mountains in the background, flora and fauna of Ubud and are favoured for their soothing blue and green colours. But what made Bali enchanting to me was its preserved uniqueness, the serene blending of tradition, faith and ritual in its modern present, its closeness to nature and bountiful natural beauty. 

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Sreelakshmi Gururaja lives in Bangalore, India and worked for UNICEF for more than twenty years. Upon her retirment in 2005, she returned to her hobbies of reading and writing. She is presently writing a book on her childhood for her grandchildren and extended family.

RESULTS OF THE CONTEST ANNOUNCED ON JULY 20!