The annual ceremony at Batur Temple is also held at Besakih Temple. Besakih is the Mother Temple of Bali and is located at the foot of the sacred Mt Agung. On an island of thousands of temples these two temples are the most important, and every year the Balinese come from all over the island to pray, to make offerings, to honour their ancestors, and to honour the temple, at either Batur or Besakih, during the two-week period of this ceremony. I was told the Balinese name of the ceremony but it was too much to take in. Translated it means “when God comes down for all”. How wonderful – the time when God comes down to earth for everyone.
Our guide Ketut and his wife were planning their annual pilgrimage and offered to take us with them to join in the ceremony and ritual. In a heartbeat we accepted.
Ketut and his wife
Crowds streaming towards the temple
Ketut’s wife had brought all the offerings for all of us, flowers and small cones of banana leaves, and we first went through a small ritual of prayer and offering at the smaller temple of Ketut’s family ancestors. She also had two baskets of food blessed by the priests. Then we went to the main temple.
The inner courtyard of Besakih Temple presented the same scene we had seen at Batur Temple – hundreds in prayer, and wonderful energy and respect for the sacred. And this time we actually got to take part in the ritual: holding up our hands in prayer with flowers held between our fingers, and then with the small banana leaf offerings held between our fingers, in an age old ceremony of devotion and connection with spirit. Moved to tears again. Magical.
And of course there was dancing – intentional, traditional, sacred, and focused. And spoken performances – hilarious, even not understanding the language, and almost like stand-up comedy. The spoken performances are from their traditional mythology, and had the crowds laughing out loud, side by side with hundreds of others kneeling in prayer, and others chatting in groups.
The only way to see these dances and performances is to go to Besakih Temple at the time “when God comes down for all”. They are never performed outside the temple.
The difference from western spiritual practice, it seems to me, is that there is a great sense of community here, and a light-heartedness that I’ve never come across in the west. Everyone seemed committed to their pilgrimage and their religion, but at the same time very relaxed – it was a holiday and Holy Day both, and families wandered around chatting and smiling, while others knelt and took part in the ritual offering and blessing. It felt sacred and like a party both at the same time.
Heading home, in the car, Ketut’s wife opened one of the baskets of food that had been blessed and we all had snacks for the drive – oranges, some yummy things like potato chips but made with rice, and little cakes very like North American muffins.
Then we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, with a fabulous view, where Don and I ate. Ketut and his wife took the other basket of food and wandered off somewhere to have a picnic of blessed chicken.
A wonderful day: one of our best days in Bali. The temple so colourful, the people so devoted, and open, and light hearted, the energy of spirit so strong, the ritual so ancient and heart felt, the dancers so serious in their portrayal of the traditional stories, the actors so humorous, so obviously having fun while at the same time honouring the sacred. A wonderful day.
A new day and we were off to Tulamben on the east coast to go snorkelling at the second best place in Bali. There’s a shipwreck there, and colourful tropical fish. We rented equipment and paid for a guide. The water was a bit rough and we went out quite far. Not sure we would have gone on our own but with a guide it felt safe enough. We saw lots of colourful fish, and it was interesting to follow the outlines of what once was a ship now covered in barnacles and coral and other sea life, but the highlight by far was the huge school of jackfish that suddenly appeared out of nowhere under Don. He stuck his head out of the water and shouted for me, and then our guide saw them too and we followed them for a long time as they swirled around and around, moving as one entity. Other purple and yellow fish attached themselves to the outside of the swirling jackfish. It was fascinating to watch them all. We were just enthralled. We’d never seen anything like it. Our guide had an underwater camera and took lots of pictures for us.
Our friend Linda was travelling in Bali with other friends and came to Ubud to spend a few days with us. Together we went to Yeh Pulu (thousand year old relief carvings) and Goa Gajah, known as the Elephant Cave (a 9th century sanctuary carved into the rock), and the village of Petulu where every evening about 15 to 20 thousand cattle egrets come to roost for the night.
We were collected from our hotel at about 2.30 am, and along with 4 other people, drove for about an hour to who knows where. We were given a cup of coffee and a banana pancake and then back in the car for about another 40 minutes. Then we met our guides. Our group of six turned out to be all Canadians: three twenty-somethings, and three sixty-somethings. We were given flashlights and set off up the volcano behind one of our two guides.
It was easy enough at first, but gradually got steeper and steeper and rougher and rougher. Eventually the three twenty-somethings took off ahead of us with one of the guides, and the other guide stayed with us. It was not an easy climb. I wish I’d had one of those headlamps, rather than having to hold something in my hand. Lava rock is very rough and sharp and crumbly. And it was pitch black. When we looked up all we could see was a sporadic line of small lights slowly moving – vertically. We didn’t look up often, or for long. Best to keep flashlight and eyes on the treacherous path directly in front of us. But we persevered. We are intrepid travellers! We climbed higher and higher into the fog. We could see the dawn beginning to come and we persevered. Eventually we reached the top, only about 10 minutes after the others in our group. Just in time to see the sun beginning to appear through the fog.
There were about fifty people in all who had climbed the mountain that day. There was a little building with a kitchen where you could buy much needed hot drinks, and we were given a simple breakfast of bread and banana and an egg hard-boiled on one of the steam vents from the still active volcano .
We were taken to the rim of the volcano, and to some of the steam vents, and monkeys came to beg for food.
And then we began the long trek back down, almost more treacherous than coming up. I climbed down like a monkey – it seemed to me that four limbs would keep me more stable than two. As we walked away from the volcano a backward look revealed just how much of the top of the mountain was blown off by one of the major eruptions.
In between all these long days out exploring both the Balinese country side and culture, we would have days at home – lay days, as my sister calls them, just staying at home doing not much, catching up on photo editing, reading, writing. It took a while to feel like home here, after having been in the same apartment for nearly three months in India, but after about ten days or so it started to have that familiar feeling of home. And then, kind of suddenly it seemed, our time in Bali was over and it was time to leave. For our last day we went to Turtle Island where they breed, and then release, turtles that were becoming extinct, the serene beach of Nusa Dua to sit for a while and watch the waves come in, and to the cliff-side temple of Uluwatu to watch the sunset. And then off to the airport for a late night flight to Sydney.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.