Please Do Not Enter. Just the Praying People Here
Updated: Jan 28
Written in Bali in 2006.
Bali. Early one Saturday morning in the middle of April. A day that dawned bright and clear and sunny. A canopy of endless blue sky and a happy feel in the air, expectant with the possibility that after seven months of rain the unending monsoon may at last be over.
I had just returned home from the coast having spent the previous evening at a lavish dinner at a five star hotel on the beach. Fine wines drunk in the company of friends by the light of the moon had left me with a somewhat sluggish demeanour and diminished vitality. Nothing, however, that a cool shower and a hearty lunch wouldn’t cure.
As I towelled myself dry my phone vibrated noisily on the granite shelf. A message from Yusa, my landlord and Bali brother,
‘We go to Besakih at 7 tonight. Please do not have any plants.’
I took this to mean that our arrangements to visit the Mother Temple on the slopes of Gunung Agung the coming Monday had changed and whatever plans I had, I should cancel. As it so happened, I had many plants but no plans and could see no reason why I could not join my adopted family to make offerings and pray at Bali’s most holy temple. In fact, I welcomed the opportunity for another journey into the spiritual life of this wonderful culture. At that moment in time though, I had no idea just what a journey it would turn out to be.
As the appointed hour for departure drew near I was drawn into my loft to look out towards Gunungs Agung, Abang and Batur. Dark, heavy, heather-coloured clouds cloaked their slopes, pregnant with the promise of rain. Yet again. Just beyond the windows the light was glorious. A still-shining sun bathed the fields in a luminous golden glow and the tops of the rice swayed seductively in a sensuous dance with the wind. Cockerels crowed, geese cackled, the crickets whirred and from the garden the sound of bamboo chimes drifted across my reverie.
Seven adults, two tall teenagers, a child and a tired toddler, all beautifully dressed in temple attire, piled into two cars. There was not a great deal of space for us people once we had carefully placed the numerous offering baskets we were taking with us at strategic places in the cars’ interiors. Places where sacrificed chickens and bright pink rice cakes were unlikely to tumble out. Despite the starry sky above our heads and the heat that was still in the air, we were armed with umbrellas and jackets. It gets cold up in the mountains at night and we were certainly not taking any chances with the rain.
Off we drove, heading towards Ubud. Before long I noticed that we were travelling in the direction of Gunung Batur, to the north. Gunung Agung lies to the north east.
‘Yusa. Are we going to Besakih?’ I asked.
‘Yes, Later. But first we must go to Batur.’
‘Er, why?’ I asked in a puzzled tone.
‘We pray there first before. Then we cut through the forest along the edge of the mountains to get to Besakih,’ he replied, with a smile and in a tone that plainly implied I should have known this.
The quantity of offerings we had with us should have been a clue to the night’s events but so complex are the rules governing temple ceremonies and what is given when and where and by whom, that a non-Balinese stands little chance of predicting what is to happen. As always in Bali, you go with flow and see where the current takes you. It is most usually to a place where surprises await.
So off we went, onwards and ever upwards in the dark, climbing through villages of woodcarvers working by the light of naked bulbs until we eventually came up into the forest and the clouds. An animated discussion ensued on the finer differences between low cloud, mist and fog. Whatever definitions may or may not have been correct according to the dictionary, their presence slowed us to a crawl.
Traffic on the way up was scarce but as we neared the centre of Batur it began to dawn on me that this was no ordinary ceremony we were attending. The roads were choked with cars and buses and bemos and bikes. Policemen waved red fluorescent batons in an attempt to direct the traffic and a carnival atmosphere pervaded the air.
Along the roadsides sat row upon row of stalls selling food and cigarettes and cool drinks, CDs and dolls and sunglasses and flashing neon bracelets. And balloons and flowers and sarongs and large furry animals. Pulsating disco music blared out into the night and the streetlamps cast an eerie orange glow through the fog.
Between all this an unending ribbon of colourfully dressed people wound its way up to the temple. The men with ujungs, traditional headdresses, on their heads, the women with elaborate offering baskets on theirs. Children ran around laughing and mangy dogs went about their usual business in the gutter, oblivious to the happy chaos surrounding them.
As we walked from the car to the temple Yusa explained that for ten days past the recent full moon the Balinese would come to pray at the temples of Batur and Besakih. Marking the 1,10 or 100 year ceremony of Bali’s most sacred places of worship. He said that as a child he had been taken to the last 100 year event. This year was a just a 1 year ceremony. Not elaborate he assured me. In hindsight, all I can say is Yusa’s understanding of ‘elaborate’ and mine are completely different.
The outer sanctum of the temple was thronging with people. In the bale’s several gamelan troupes played and above our heads the most ornate penjors I have ever seen reached their exquisitely decorated bamboo stems high into the sky. After a short while we all began to move up some steps and through two narrow carved gateways into the inner sanctum. By the side of one of the gates was a sign,
‘Please do not enter. Just the praying people here.’
As we walked down the steps on the other side of the gate my breath was swept away by the stunning sight before my eyes. Numerous tasselled temple umbrellas, gold, white, magenta pink and rich yellow textiles, towering colourful rice paste sculptures and an elaborate offering of a sacrificed pig all stretched from one side of the courtyard to the other. More penjors waved in the wind. In the shrines were the Gods, intricately decorated with lavish cloth. Some wearing fearsome masks, others hidden from view. The whole scene lit by a mellow golden light.
White-robed priests watched as the faithful made their offerings. Once this was done we began to kneel, hundreds upon hundreds of us in rows facing the Gods. As a singular temple bell rang out through the mist we placed our incense and flowers in front of us. With our hands palm up on our thighs, we waited.
The bell stopped ringing and as one we began to pray. First cleansing the mind of negative thoughts and the body of sickness with clouds of fragrant incense smoke. Hands, palms together now, were raised to the third eye. Praying firstly with incense to focus the consciousness and then with flowers in a particular order of colour. For the Gods we know and the ones we have yet to meet and various other prayers I didn’t understand. But that didn’t matter. In such moments of collective prayer your soul soars and an understanding far greater than that housed in the conscious mind takes over.
With our prayers complete, the priests began to move along the many rows of people. Sprinkling us three times with holy water. Pouring the same, again three times, into our right palms for us to drink and then once more to wash over our hair and faces. We placed rice on our third eyes and throat chakras, we ate a little and put the rest on our hair, and were then ready to leave, purified and enveloped in peace.
Or so I thought we were leaving. But no. We walked to the far left of the sanctum where, much to my surprise, was a Chinese temple, bedecked in red, that housed a beautiful Buddha and a statue of Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. Apparently the main God of Batur has a Chinese wife and this temple is in her honour. Once more we made offerings, simpler this time, and prayed in the style of the Chinese - standing, with three sticks of incense that we placed in a large brass pot filled with sand when we were finished.
That done, we walked out of the temple as a gentle, misty drizzle began to fall through the darkness. It never rains like this at lower altitudes. There it arrives in torrents. This was like autumnal English rain. Soft and sweet, laying itself upon us with a delicate, feather-light touch.
Driving across the mountains to Besakih was a slow, arduous process. The fog had thickened, reducing visibility to a scant few metres. Yusa dreamed about yellow fog lights whilst I ate gado-gado with my fingers from a brown paper package, delighting in the myriad of flavours that danced across my tongue. In the back of the car the children slept and Tiwi, Yusa’s wife, dozed.
After what seemed like the longest of times we came to a stop. In the forest by a temporary shrine. Yusa’s brother-in-law got out of the other car and left offerings and in his prayers asked the Gods for permission for us to enter Besakih. This done we drove higher up the volcano in a darkness that was blacker than black. A darkness that brought with it the rain.
By the time we arrived within a kilometre of the temple rain was tumbling from the sky in thick curtains that reflected the light from our car headlamps back at us. Water had begun to flow down the hill like a silvery serpent in search of the sea. Groups of people huddled in the stalls that lined the road in a futile effort to avoid getting wet. We tried to park as close as we could but our efforts to evade the traffic police were in vain. We were ordered to turn round and make our way back to a car park lower down the mountain.
To say our walk to the temples of Besakih was a wet one would be nothing but the greatest understatement. Rain lashed in under our umbrellas and muddy ice-cold water flowed over the tops of our feet as we waded our way up the hill. It was at this point, soaked to the skin as I shivered and shook, that I learnt we were to make offerings and pray in six different places. At the thought of being so wet and so cold for so long, we all looked at each other and laughed.
‘It’s only water!’ I said.
For the next three hours we gave our offerings and prayed. Firstly in a simple temple, kneeling in puddles of black volcanic mud, the wetness of the night lessened by the beauty of our flowers and the scent of our incense.
We entered the Mother Temple herself and worshiped in sanctums from the bottom to the top. Crowds and crowds of people together. The Gods in their shrines beneath red and white and gold umbrellas. Penjors swinging in the now heavy wind. Bells ringing. Priests bestowing countless blessings. Incense fragrantly clouding the air and drifts of offerings covering the floor like colourful mosaics.
As we walked back to the car, our prayers complete, it struck me that mine was the only white skin I had seen all night. Yet on this most holy of occasions no-one had given me a second glance. Just imagine if this non-conditional tolerance prevailed throughout the world. We would all live in a space of harmony and peace. What a triumph that would be.
It was past 1am by the time we returned to the cars. My sarong was filthy, full of black mud and grit from kneeling on the floors of the temples. I could hardly feel my feet they were so cold. We were all drenched but so very happy. We were covered in rice, and had flowers behind our ears and in our hair. Our souls had been thoroughly cleansed by prayer, our physical forms by the rain.
We descended on a warung, a small local roadside eatery. Small but with enough space for us all to sit. Hot, sweet black coffee was ordered. A welcome respite, I thought, before heading off. I was surprised to hear Yusa say that we wouldn’t be home before 3.30am. That was almost two and a half hours away and yet home, even in heavy rain, was no more than an hour’s drive. It was not long before I found out why.
As the rain resumed its tumultuous fall from the heavens it became clear it was time to eat. From several offering baskets came two sacrificed chickens, palm leaf parcels of sticky rice, small sweet dried fish and blindingly hot chilli sauce. We ate from banana leaves with our fingers, our words and laughter pealing through the raindrops.
As eating ended and chatter continued I sat and absorbed the scene around me. Tears ran in rivulets with the rain down my cheeks, my heart filled to overflowing with love for this family that has welcomed me so unconditionally into their embrace.
Driving slowly home through the floods Tiwi and the children slept, I fitfully dozed and Yusa kept his eyes on the road. Between wakefulness and sleep my thoughts wandered over the pilgrimage our evening had become. A pilgrimage that had lasted more than eight hours and taken us to Bali’s most holy temples, sited on her two most hallowed volcanoes. A journey more sacred than any I’d experienced before. Sacred in its holiness. Sacred in its tolerance. Sacred in the peace it had bestowed upon us all.
I thought of the extraordinary contrast between this night and the last. The essential equilibrium of opposites so inherent in the Balinese way of life was never more apparent, never more appreciated.
And I thought of what wonderful experiences we can have when we have no idea where we are going, when we just sit in our boats and float wherever the current of life takes us. Because when we allow it, life simply unfolds herself, unveiling a surprise around every corner. Surprises that become priceless gifts that reside in our memory palaces, there for us to savour and share over the passage of time. Their lessons never lost.