East Bali's Spiritual Landscape
Updated: Nov 5
Known as 'The island of the Gods', Balinese harness the power of Mother Earth to appease the Gods. I journey to the volcanic heights to take a purification ceremony in sacred springs.
Early morning meditation from my favourite panoramic viewpoint high above the village of Manggis, with the port of Padang Bai to the right and the rice fields of my village of Mendira directly below on the coast (photo: Glen Bosman)
Buying a 'fridge isn't often a moment of existential reverie, but after all the fun of negotiating a price in Bali's downtown commercial district of Denpasar, the can-do alacrity of sealing the sale with free delivery came to a sudden halt last week when I gave my address:
"Villa Nilaya, Mendira Village, near Candi Dasa, thank you" .
"Where's that ?"
"Karanagsem", meaning the region that marks the border of East and West Bali.
"Ohhhh", slow intake of breath and widening of eyes, "Karanga-a-a-sem. Please wait Ibu, I must ask the boss".
This inevitably results in another negotiation, and the peeling off of more red ones (those hundred rupiah notes, where ten make a million, and might buy you half a manicure).
For all its costs (and yes a fridge, along with many other commodities needs replacing with annoying regularity, the kitchen being only 40 metres away from the seafront), it's an expense I bear with equanimity.
Why? Because for now at least, it's still a small world away from sports bars, braids and Bintang T-shirts of the west coast tourist centres, and affords one an increasingly rare chance of experiencing at close range the serene and stunning beauty of one of the worlds most famous islands.
Now only 90 minutes' drive from the airport (it used to be a 3 hour journey and meant one really had to want to be here), your approach into East Bali is marked by the auspicious buildings of Goa Lawah - the bat temple - marking the place where the mountains come closest to the sea. In a culture where topography defines a spiritual compass, the conjunction of mountains (represented by the Hindu god Brahma) and sea (represented by Vishnu), is a potent location and your journey will often be enlivened (and perhaps delayed), by Bali's famously beautiful cremation ceremonies as snaking processions of mourners, who, quite rightly, will not be hurried by any form of emergency , carry the ashes aloft before consigning them to the sea amidst clouds of fragrant incense.
Life visibly slows down here as untidy shacks and jungley parts replace the urban development which is rapidly encroaching upon the food-producing fields closer to the cities and tourists hotspots, where villa complexes are rising like mews in the middle of watery padi fields.
Life in the slow lane and time to watch rice grow (photo: Glen Bosman)
You're already in a part of Bali that many city dwellers and the majority of tourists don't bother to visit, but keep going - it gets better.
I've been exploring this region of Bali for twenty years, and it's taken all that time to discover, with help of my most trusted guide, a region and practice that has truly taken my breath away… the lava fields of Mt Agung and the holy springs of Lake Batur.
Driving west from Villa Nilaya on the coast and taking a hard turn right just before the Amankila resort to ascend the tightly wound and darkly-forested road towards the ridge above Manggis, on enters another Bali. The early morning market of Selak village is worth timing your journey to visit - with everything from plastic bucket traders to tight-lipped weighers of gold behind high glass counters, this is a bustling microcosm of Bali village life in a moderately prosperous area where rice farming and cow rearing are augmented by a vast array of vegetables agriculture. It's also a great opportunity to sample freshly-made street food or pick up nibbles for the 40-minute drive to the volcano where you'll stop for breakfast.
Mt Agung peaks behind the crater which is Lake Batur, with its tilapia fish farms and across the water at the far end of the lake, is the remote and rarely-visited - and hard-to-get-to Bali Aga village of Trugnan (photo: Anna Kwiecinska)
My specially-arranged 'Purification and Meditation' experience is with the man whom the Balinese authorities call when trekkers get stranded in the island's wilderness. 'A 'mountain man' whose grandmothers were both traditional healers, he is growing towards his responsibilities as a village elder, a wise man from whom others can seek advice on many matters, including spiritual ones, for although he is not a priest, he is permitted to conduct certain spiritual ceremonies. He's brought with him his special priestly-clothing, white sarong and shirt, yellow hip sash, and of course the distinctive headwear which all men must wear to be properly dressed in Bali.
Wrapped in a traditional sarong, I make my way along a series of water spouts representing the 11 holy springs issuing forth their Earth-warmed water into Lake Batur at the foot of Mt Agung, Bali's largest volcano.(photo:Glen Bosman)
For me, he's brought a fresh sarong which I change into for the purification ceremony, whilst he sets up all of the ritual's necessary elements: flowers of 5 colours to represent the cardinal directions occupied by triumvirate of Hindu gods - Brahma Vishnu and Shiva - plus the celestial and earthly coordinates above and below where we sit.
For my purification ceremony we have fresh petals in woven palm leaf baskets - 'cana' (pronounced 'chana' , incense, a receptacle for the holy spring water and the bundled palm leaf sticks with which it is sprinkled and white rice, all laid out on fresh white cloth.
The ceremony begins as we sit cross-legged opposite one another outside of the Holy Springs enclosure by Lake Batur. It's a quiet weekday morning, there's no traffic noise, only the quiet chug of an outboard motor taking its boat owner to check on the floating enclosures where tilapia are bred. The lake is silent, barely a lapping sound, and a small boy distractedly flings a fishing line in from the reedy shores.
We begin as the pleasantly monotonous chanting of Sanskrit fills the air and in between verses I'm instructed to pick certain petals, hold them between my fingers above my head in a position of prayer and then place them sequentially behind both ears and then the crown of my head. Each placement is followed by a sprinkling of now-blessed holy spring water and the final blessing, one of abundance and prosperity, is the placement of soaked rice grains pressed upon my forehead. The blessing has taken 15 minutes or so and although not a word is understood, I've given myself over to the experience with an open mind and heart, and love the reverential quality that now hangs in the air around us.
11 water spouts, 11 holy springs - I move through the warm water with a sprig of incense, placing it to the left of each spring's deity before making my own prayers - the entire process takes me 30 minutes (Photo:Glen Bosman)
Thus sanctified, we now move into the Holy Springs enclosure for the purification ceremony. It is here that the local villages of Kintamani region will come to make their major blessing festivals, and this space will resound with gamelan orchestras, gongs, drums, chanting and gaiety, but today, within the high stone walls, we are alone on a perfect day and I'm glad … the spring waters gushing forth are so deliciously warm that I want to spend as long in here as possible, just floating and soaking up these non-sulphurous, sweet-tasting waters.
Beginning at the far end, the luxuriance of this water is distracting - this might be the ultimate spa experience in Bali! I place a stick of burning incense to the left of the first water spout representing a natural deity, and whilst my priestly guide intones his verses in Sanskrit, I raise my arms to catch the water and then, in an age-old gesture of reverence, raise my hand above my head, as if to bring upon myself the blessings which are being bestowed by the gods through Nature via the holy verses.
Beneath the sun, immersed in soft, warm water with a towering volcano behind me and ancient stone carvings before me, I've become a willing participant in this ceremony and don't want to lose one single opportunity to call to mind … well, never you mind … suffice to say that the repetition of this blessing 11 times as I moved through the waters to stand before each spout - a different spring and deity - was gently galvanising, the words I spoke to myself that morning remaining with me.
I'm neither religious or especially spiritual, but I'm stronglydrawn to ritual, and on Bali, the Island of the Gods, where trees and rocks are as revered as statues and temples, the elemental power beneath the very ground that we walk on seems an appropriate place to direct one's attention as any.
Ever been inside a lava tube? Here we set up for the mediation practice withing the stoney-quiet space of a a pitch black lave tube on the western side of Mt AGung. (Photo: Anna Kwiecinska)
Reluctantly I had to eventually to leave this glorious pond of pleasure, dry and set forth to the next destination … a lave tube that runs deep into the western flank of Mt Agung (yes, the one that rumbles and upsets airports). Not surprisingly, a small temple sits inside the entrance, and after a Jules Verne moment of walking with flashlight into the utter darkness and stillness of the tunnel, I opted to do our meditation by the temple, rather than as was offered, inside the tube with the lights off. (if you do it, please tell me how it was!).
The temple was already adorned with ceremonial umbrellas of white and yellow satin, and wrapped in the distinctive black and white chequered cloth that signifies the good and the bad, the full moon and the dark moon, the yin and yang of life, and strewn about were the remains of recent offerings - which somehow made me feel better.
Sitting for 30 minutes cross-legged on pointy lava outcroppings will not be to everyone's taste, and I guess there's an opportunity to make this part a little briefer, but unlikely to return, I'm here to give it my all … after all, it was to this culmination that the purification ceremonies were leading .... and I love the chanting.
The last time I came here, some 5 years ago, I travelled with my same guide to the Bali Aga village of Trugnyan, a famously remote, if not fiercely unwelcoming community who live on the far side of the lake, practicing their own versions of Bali's pre-Hindu culture, including, uniquely, that of not burning their dead, leaving them instead, wrapped in cloth beneath a special tree which is said to purify the air (and indeed that seemed to be the case when I witnessed such a ceremony). Today, visiting is not advised as frequent rockfalls make the place extremely unsafe - and one can't help feeling that the Trugnyans probably prefer it that way.
Bali Aga refers to three villages who are distinct from not only one another, but from the rest of Bali, in their spiritual practices. So as you make your way back downhill, it's worth making time to visit Tengenan, which lies snuggled into a secret valley just behind Villa Nilaya.
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Cheerio for now,
Beautiful East Bali.