A Tryst in a 1000-Year Old Cave in Bali

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The entrance to the Goa Gajah Cave, an 11th century site in Bali
The entrance to the Goa Gajah Cave, a 11th-century site in Bali

Visiting with Bali’s Gods and Goblins

By Lakshmi Sharath

Standing in front of the 1000-year-old cave, Goa Gajah in Bali, I meet the ferocious glare of the door guardians, with one of them holding a weapon up in the air.

The massive goblin-like creature engraved at the mouth of the cave looks right into my eyes as I gape at the stone relief. Just then, a voice calls from behind, “You from India? Hindu? We are Hindus too.”

The local guide tries hard to break the ice while selling his services, but we politely refuse.

But he does not let go all that easily. We discuss the Gods and he says Goa Gajah, pronouncing the Goa as “Guha,” means elephant cave. I smile.

Guha, I tell him, in Indian languages also means cave, and Gajah means elephant and can be interpreted to refer to the elephant God, Ganesha. He nods his head and we shake hands as he leaves.

Entering the dark cave with a bright orange sarong wrapped around me, I realize that Bali is both familiar and exotic at the same time. It is not just the deities and the demons, but there is a mysticism in the air that can be felt everywhere.

Inside the cave, a Balinese Ganesha clothed in bright clothes smiles at me, as another shrine houses the Trinity.

Mount Batur,an active volcano in Bali
Mount Batur, an active volcano in Bali

Outside, the greenery is all enveloping as the curved figurines in the tank, holding pots in their hands, pour water to wash your feet. A flight of steps takes you down the gardens as you see several smaller shrines dotting the landscape.

“Did you see the Buddha?” Another guide walks in, and points to a carved face in the rocks, partially covered by moss. The 11th-century site, called Lwa Gajah, was not discovered until the 1950s and was believed to be a sanctuary of a Buddhist monk.

The River Petanu flows around the lush village, creating a picture postcard of paddy fields sloping towards you.

Traditional Bali homes

Wandering through Bali, I find the cultural landscape of the island very similar and yet so different from India. An ornate bright orange door brings my journey to a halt.

I stop by to photograph it when it slightly opens a bit and the family welcomes me inside. A huge compound wall virtually shuts out the outside world as we walk together inside.

They say there are more temples than houses in Bali.
They say there are more temples than houses in Bali.

They say there are more temples than houses in Bali, and as you enter every home, the first piece of architecture that greets you is the ornate shrine dedicated to spirits and ancestors.

Traditional Balinese houses are vast, with open spaces, backyards, lotus ponds, gardens and with several smaller buildings housing various members of the family.

To Pura Besakih

We move on towards Ubud watching the artisans at work, gazing at more terraced farms until we drive towards the active volcano, Mount Batur, and the crescent-shaped crater lake.

Amid the black soil of the mountain and the emerald blue of the lake is a tiny train of travelers making their way up the crater, some of them stopping by at the temple, Pura Ulun Danu Batur, dedicated to water Goddess Dewi Danu.

We, however, travel towards Mount Agung, on whose slopes lie the most important temple of Bali, Pura Besakih. A group of women gently swaying their hips walk past us, carrying baskets full of offerings for their Gods.

A Tryst in a 1000-Year Old Cave in Bali 1

Balinese believe that Mount Agung and Mount Batur are fragments of the holy mountain, Mount Meru, and were brought down to Bali by the early Hindu Gods as their thrones.

As the good spirits reside here, the temple here is often referred to as the Mother Besakih with more than 20 shrines that literally look like houses of the deities.

A sudden magical spell surrounds the temple. And then the mist comes calling as the skies suddenly turn from blue to a pale white. A never ending flight of steps decorated with ornate sculptures takes you towards the Pagodas of Pura Besakih.

Located amid courtyards, the many shrines are built in clusters at various levels, almost giving you a sense of climbing the summit. The Hindu philosophy of Mount Meru being at the center of all universes is reinforced here through the architecture.

Sunset at Tanah Lot in Bali
Sunset at Tanah Lot in Bali

We follow the locals into the shrines but are told that we cannot enter the sanctum. I look around and see wisps of clouds floating around, covering almost everything from small villages, lush terraced fields to the mountain peaks. For a moment, we just lose ourselves in the silence.

Sunset at Tanah Lot

I have been on the road in Bali for the last few days, experiencing the many facets of this island state. The beaches, the adventures, the nightlife – the energy is virtually inexhaustible.

I even plunged to the depths of the ocean floor to get a glimpse of the life under water as I went deep sea diving.Yet in this moment at Pura Besakih, I feel like I am lost entirely to a different world.

But the best is yet to come says my driver, as he takes us to watch one of the most glorious spectacles in Bali – Sunset at Tanah Lot.

Girls selling sarongs in front of a temple
Girls selling sarongs in front of a temple

Many writers have waxed eloquent about the tryst between the setting sun and the oceans against the backdrop of the rocky island that houses one of the most ancient temples, Pura Tanah Lot. The 15th-century shrine, dedicated to Balinese spirits of the seas, built under the direction of a priest is believed to be guarded by snakes.

Yet at this moment the tourists are all waiting for the sunset. We reach just in time to see the sky change colors, as the sun keeps its appointment with the horizon. And then in a flash, the ball of crimson dissolves into the oceans leaving tinges of pink and purple across the sky.

Leaves You in a Trance – The Fire Dance

We hardly have a moment to gasp in awe, but I am whisked away to watch the Kecak or a trance-induced fire dance that has its roots in exorcism.

Now the fiery part of the performance in the Kecak dance
Now the fiery part of the performance in the Kecak dance

As the circle of more than hundred men begin to chant “chak,” swaying their arms and heads about the stage, their chorus moves from a mere murmur to a loud crescendo of voices.

Depicting scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana, the chanting often referred to as Ramayana Monkey Chant gets rather dramatic and ends on a fiery note when the trance ritual begins.

A dancer on a wooden horse bursts into the stage and gives a power-packed performance and then leaves you gasping and speechless as he jumps into the flames in a state of trance.

I stand there transfixed, as the performers put out the fire and drag the dancer out and the applause echoes down the shore.

I linger around for a while as the performers leave and then walk towards Tanah Lot one last time.

As the waves lash the rocks, it sounds almost like another ritual. I slowly retraced my steps, thinking of the day spent in the company of gods, demons and spirits.

Lakshmi SharathLakshmi Sharath is a media consultant from Bangalore, India, but her passion lies in travel, travel writing, andd blogging. She blogs at backpakker.blogspot.com. 

Read more GoNOMAD stories by Lakshmi Sharath:

Thattekadu, India: My Date With the Birds

Kabini and Bhadra, India: Life Unfolds by the Riverside

Tawang, India: History and Romance at 13,000 Feet