The Balinese consider their highlands to be the domain of the gods and it was clear that my guides did not intend to come calling at this unseemly hour without ringing the spiritual doorbell.
The ancient temple of Pura Luhur Batukau is the gateway to Gunung Batukau and, at four o’clock in the morning, Sudana was intent on making the wake-up call as gentle as possible.
“This offering will ask the gods to give us a safe passage,” he said as he raised the carefully folded envelope of rice, flowers and betelnut towards the cloth-wrapped shrine and bowed his head into a cloud of incense that swirled in the beam of his torch. The sacred mountain loomed somewhere above us in the dark, chill mist.
The spiritual preparations for this trek had begun the evening before, in Sudana’s family temple where he made offerings before each of the divine and ancestral shrines. As he sprinkled us both with holy water and daubed us with rice, his wife Ketut was strangely subdued and his mother wept quietly. It was clear that for the 46-year-old farmer this trek was to be something more momentous than just a day-trip to check out the view from one of Bali’s most beautiful spots.
We left at 2am and, shortly after picking up mountain guide Wayan at the village of Wangayagede, I narrowly missed an owl that flew down into the jeep’s headlights. “Burung hantu,” said Wayan, “the ghost bird. An unlucky omen at the start of a journey.”
The Balinese night is still inhabited by ghosts, leyaks (witches) and malicious spirits. The jungles are said to be full of plants that sting or can even blind an unworthy trespasser and trees that, if touched by somebody who has lied or cursed, will cause them to lose their way. Leyaks are frequently known to take the form of monkeys, such as the unseen troop that grunted alarm calls out of the dark trees as we began our climb.
I had imagined that a nocturnal walk on the jungle-covered slopes would be daunting, to say the least, but the highlands – even the sulphur-choked heights of the great volcanoes – are essentially benign places.
At each jungle clearing along our trail, my two companions stopped to make offerings and, by the time we reached the fern forest on the upper slopes, we had miniature bouquets of bougainvillea blossoms tucked behind our ears.
The first golden beams of the rising sun penetrated the canopy and brought the phrase ‘Morning of the World’ to mind. Pandit Nehru, the former Indian prime minister, gave the island this title during his state visit in 1950 and – even disregarding the fact that the village fighting cocks made sure that I would see more sunrises here than anywhere else I’ve ever lived – I could still never watch a Balinese sunrise without thinking how perfectly this now-hackneyed phrase really fits.
From the summit of Batukau the show was more spectacular than ever. To the west the mountain’s own shadow pointed towards the uninhabited jungles of west Bali and the volcanic peaks of Java; in the other direction, great swathes of corduroy paddy terraces stretched away to the fairytale cone of Gunung Agung, which floated on a solid blanket of downy mist.
To the Balinese this great volcano is the ‘Navel of the World’. In days gone by pilgrims would only ever attempt to climb it without the shoes, watches or jewellery that might appear presumptuous to divine eyes. These days few regard it as strictly necessary to make the trek with a priest, but a guide – preferably one without a fractured ankle from a football injury – is definitely advisable.
“A couple of years ago a German backpacker thought he would climb Agung alone,” my guide told me when he had finally limped up to me on the crater rim. “It was during Galungan (a Balinese Hindu festival), when the gods leave the peaks to come down to feast at the temples. They never found his body.”
Back in 1963, just as the island was preparing for the great Eka Dasa Rudra, the purification ceremony that takes place every 100 years, something much more serious enraged the gods of Agung. The mountain blew its top, killing more than 1,000 people and leaving 100,000 homeless.
Sudana was six at the time. “The sun didn’t rise for two days and hot ash rained from the sky,” he said.
On 12 October 2002 that disaster was overshadowed (for all but the older generation) by the bombings at the Sari Club and Paddy’s Bar that killed 202 people and injured over 300... and earned a place in Balinese history as ‘Black October’. The disaster struck the peace-loving people of the island with particular horror because it was the not the will of the gods (or a God), but of men who had the audacity to believe that they were acting on His behalf.
While Sudana and Wayan paid their respects at a shrine that was draped with sun-bleached and wind-tattered yellow cloth I wandered over to sit on the northern edge of Batukau’s plateau. The smooth blue of the Bali Sea, with its coral reefs and sheltered coves, was in distinct contrast to the Indian Ocean that crashes against the cliffs of the south coast.
The Balinese are considered one of the few island nations who turn their eyes inland towards the mountains instead of facing the sea. When I first arrived on the island it took me several weeks to realise that my idyll of renting a house in a ‘Balinese beachfront village’ was an impossible paradox. Only tourists live on the beach; even the fishermen in Sudana’s village prefer to commute from their houses on the hill.
It is almost 80 years since the Dutch KPM Packet Line first had the bright idea of replacing the cargo of pigs that they shipped to Singapore with the new wave of culture-seeking tourists who had heard tantalising reports of the sensual wonders of Bali.
Some of these tourists headed to the cultural heartland of Ubud, but even then the immense stretch of beach that ran past the villages of Kuta, Legian and Seminyak was the main destination. The band of palm trees that had been left as a spiritual buffer-zone between the sea and the villages quickly became the target for international developers, hotel owners and the rare local entrepreneur who grabbed his chance to get in on the ground floor.
By 1930 the KPM captains were congratulating themselves on shipping several thousand visitors a year to the island; in 2000 there were almost two million arrivals and the three main coastal villages had turned into one great sprawl of hostels, hotels, bars, cafés, restaurants, stalls and surf-shops.
Entire families of fully-clothed Javanese Muslims would gather on Kuta’s beaches simply to watch the semi-naked orang barat (Westerners) who cavorted or sunbathed like some sort of alien sea-life. Middle-aged Balinese ladies offered an array of pampering treatments – and local lads dressed like pirates to rent sun-loungers, surfboards or sex.
“Perhaps the gods are not happy with the way we ran tourism recently,” one respected local priest said during the great soul-searching that was part of the aftermath of the bombing. “We were turning every single thing into a saleable item, including religious attributes. The incident was a warning that we should re-evaluate tourism.”
Balinese gods are notoriously high maintenance and many in Kuta see the ‘curses’ of the last year – first the bomb, then the Iraq war, SARS and, just as things began to pick up, the Jakarta Marriott bombing on 5 August 2003 – as a sort of Biblical plague. Even in ‘soulless’ Kuta, girls in sarongs and ceremonial sashes troop out of McDonald’s, Hard Rock Café and Jungle Surf with trays of offerings and incense that might appease the gods – and bring back the tourists who are so badly needed.
Take the southern temples of Ulu Watu, Tanah Lot and Pura Rambut Siwi, which were built as a bulwark to protect the islanders from the forces of the sea and simultaneously as a sort of spiritual force-field against the pressures of Islamic Java. During busier years hordes of tourists flocked to these temples in the late afternoon to greet the sunset with a barrage of camera shutters. Now they are once again unforgettably serene and deserted places to stroll.
Our victorious return to the village from the otherworldly heights of Batukau was greeted with ostentatious respect from Sudana’s wife... and an air of long-suffering patience from mine.
The drive home had offered the typical wide-screen, technicolor show that accompanies any long journey through the Balinese countryside. The late-afternoon performance involved just the right measures of drama (a team of white buffalo staggering in knee-deep mud), sadness (pretty country girls struggling under the weight of great buckets of building sand), comedy (hundreds of ducks queuing along paddy dykes), joy (children running with soaring kites) and echoes of tragedy (homecoming fighting cocks in their dome-shaped baskets).
A traditional formula says that ‘the land that belongs to the gods is merely loaned to the people’, and Sudana, for one, was clearly keen to make the most of his own ‘divine leasehold’ of a small patch of disused terraces at the edge of the village. His day would start at 4.30am when he would go out to cut grass for his six buffalo and tend his crop of beans, bananas, mangos, sugar cane, coconuts, cacaos, papayas, melons and cassavas. He would bathe in the river with his buffalo and, on his way home for the first of his three daily meals of rice and vegetables, he might sometimes help carry a fisherman’s outrigger up the beach for a fish or two.
In addition to the interminable round of upacaras (ceremonies) that take place in Balinese villages there are at least 60 holy days a year and odalan (commemoration ceremonies) every six months in each of the estimated half-million temples on the island. Even the purchase of a TV cannot be completed without the collaboration of the gods.
When we arrived back from our highland pilgrimage Ketut was busy preparing offerings for the blessing of a neighbour’s new moped. The two-hour ceremony would involve a sacrificed chicken (the blood of which would ‘purify’ the tyres and engine), a table groaning with lurid sponge-cakes, boiled bananas, jaja (rice cakes), baskets of fruit and the services of a hired priest to coordinate the sprinkling of holy water and minister to the visiting gods.
“Balinese are very happy with ceremonies,” Ketut smiled as she deftly stacked flowers, leaves and rice and spiked them with betelnut, “but busy... always busy.”
It has often been said that every Balinese person is an artist – though some of the second-rate art shops and galleries of the ‘cultural centre’ of Ubud perhaps take the statement a little too literally.
Even Ketut’s 11-year-old son Ikomang was an accomplished dancer (not to mention kite designer). As an indispensable player in the local gamelan orchestra, Sudana often spent sleepless nights accompanying various obscure temple rituals with the soundtrack that the Balinese apparently find hypnotic yet, to the outsider, can quickly become excruciatingly monotonous.
Even as early as 1910 travelling ‘doom-watchers’ were saying that the Balinese way of life was dying out. By the 20s and 30s Bohemian expats in Ubud were already crying that the Balinese arts would soon be ‘suffocated by materialism’. In 1937 Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias wrote that the island was ‘doomed to disappear under the merciless onslaught of modern commercialism and standardisation.’
The same laments were repeated throughout the 40s and 50s, and with increased vigour in the 80s and 90s. Even today – in a Bali that is perhaps more tranquil and uncrowded than it has been for decades – you will find people singing the same old song.
But anybody who takes time to explore will soon realise that Bali has remained far more truthful to its ideals and traditions than many other, more remote destinations.
The arts are still practised in isolated villages where a foreign face is never seen and the people still meet for their social mandi (bathe) in rivers and irrigation channels at the edges of the villages. Semi-wild dogs still bark at cars and paddy workers in conical hats still wave. And, most importantly, the famous smile of ‘Old Bali’ still lights up the face of absolutely everybody who catches your eye.
The Balinese believe that when they die they will find heaven to be very similar to the earthly paradise that the gods have loaned them. To anyone who has watched sunset from the cliffs at Tanah Lot or ‘The Morning of the World’ from one of the sacred peaks, this does not seem unreasonable.
Get the very best of Wanderlust by signing up to our newsletters, full of travel inspiration, fun quizzes, exciting competitions and exclusive offers.