Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Bali: Black and White

No matter how peaceful Sanur was, once again I had to get out. 

And other than summoning the courage to rent a scooter and deal with traffic, suicidal dogs and a total lack of signs, a comfortable air-conditioned car was the only way to go. So I booked a personal tour of the east side of Bali with a trusted driver.

Sure, I wanted to see the sites, but I really wanted to pick Agung’s brain — his opinions, his feelings about the history, the culture, etc… Of course it would only be a slice but that is all that 500,000 rupiah ($30) could give me.

First stop, Pura Puseh Temple. 

It is old, he thought— 11th century. The Balinese have another calendar— in Isaka time is 944. 

Of interest is the carving of a turtle. (See the head on the left.) He calls it Empas— a figure on which the world can be turned, an incarnation of Vishnu?

Here are men preparing holy water, letting black smoke infiltrate the jar. Everything here, it seems, can be holy.

The Elephant Cave, Goa Gajah, named after the river, used as a Buddhist Hermitage.

With everyone in required sarongs, tie belt and shoulders covered.

The oldest village, around the 11th century, Tenganan, is home to the Bali Aga people — descendants of the original Balinese. 

No vehicles are allowed. A “magical” cloth known as the kamben gringsing is woven here from cotton and  local plant-dyes. 

I also resisted the urge to buy these intricately inscribed traditional pieces on lontar. (Rule number one, Kathy— don’t buy anything! Too much luggage!) 

And  handcrafted baskets from local fibers.

Men displayed  their dyed fighting roosters who are taken out of the bamboo cages for daily massages. Blood sacrifices are important to religious ceremony, Agung related. Blood-letting rooster fights at the temple, even puppies …

I had missed the festival in May in which the village men fight with sticks wrapped in these thorny pandan leaves, the very leaves that are dried and woven to make comfortable sleeping mats. 

A fight of honor, to the death

Agung didn’t display any emotion during this historical tour until we reached Puri Agung Semarapura, a historical building complex, consisting  of the court of justice, a floating pavilion, and a museum. The palace itself was destroyed by the Dutch in 1908. Here is the memorial to the “puputan”. My tour book refers to a suicidal fight of the depicted royalty at this site in 1908, including women and children. Agung calls it a fight of honor— a fight to the death.

Yet Agung quickly said that there is no black and white to any of this.
“The cloths we see around objects in nature such as trees, around carvings of gods and protectors, and at offering sites are black and white. Like Yin and Yang, it isn’t about one or the other but about a balance of both. We say thank you for everything. God made black and white, bad and good.

“But in Western thinking we resist the bad, strive for the good!” I insist.

“But we have three main gods— Brahma the creator, Vishnu the sustainer, and Shiva the destroyer. Without destruction there can be no new creation. And bad and good are just powers, like nuclear power— it can be used either way. Look at the Dutch colonization — if they hadn’t taken away many of our sacred objects for their museums in the Netherlands they would have been lost here!”

An interesting perspective…

And indeed these gods, in one form or another, seem to be at every major intersection! This Balinese form of Hinduism (and animism) is all pervasive.

“Is black magic real?” I probed. I had just finished a book “Bali Magic” and wanted to know his perspective.

“Of course it is real. Just because we can’t see the dark forces doesn’t mean they aren’t real!  My arm hurt for three weeks with no cause. The doctor couldn’t find the reason and his medicine didn’t help. So I decided someone had put a curse on me and went for a purification ritual. Immediately when the cold water hit, the pain disappeared and has never returned.”

“Didn’t you want to find out who put the curse on you?”

“No. It doesn’t matter. Revenge is just negative karma. All that is important is purification and moving forward.”

I remembered that he had refused a payment of 350,000 rupiah for an earlier ride from Ubud to Sanur, showing me on What’s App, that we had agreed on 250,000 even though I had forgotten. “To take it would have brought on bad karma. If I ate food with the extra money it could have poisoned me. We can always choose the good.”

But I have to agree that Bali is not black or white. 

Offerings are made to the demons to appease them, not deny them, and to keep everything in balance. What look like demons to me are often strong and fierce protectors at the entrance to buildings or walkways.

Our last stop was a visual reminder of black and white — natural salt-making by the sea. 

At first I could not figure out what this man was doing with buckets dipped into the sea. 

As he walked back up the  beach they leaked sea water all over the black sand! 


And then Agung described the process. After drying, the salt-infiltrated sand was put into a basin, more salt water repeatedly poured through it, and a super saturated salt solution was recovered out the bottom and poured into these troughs. The sun did the rest, ending up with pure white large crystals that fetch a good price in expensive hotels. Who would have thought?

The precious result, white purified through the black volcanic sand.

A great day. A dip into a culture. A new way of thinking — black and white. Acceptance of both. And always a choice.

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