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Making waves

After a brief slowdown, tourism rediscovers beauteous Bali..



Tanah Lot, an ancient sea temple near Denpasar, Bali.

Pratim Ranjan Bose

Luxury-taxi driver Gusti Sarwa is happy. After a brief slowdown, international travellers are thronging Bali again. The ‘Bali Bombing’ in 2002 and another attack in 2005, which had affected his earnings, are thankfully a distant memory now.

The tiny volcanic island surrounded by coral reefs in the Indonesian archipelago is variously described as ‘The last paradise’, ‘Island of gods’, ‘Island of thousand temples’ and ‘Island of artists’.

Thanks to the country’s early contacts with Indian civilisation, nearly 88 per cent of the 30 lakh Balinese are Hindu. Evolved as a fusion of animism and ancestor worship together with Hindu religious practices, Balinese Hinduism is distinct in its form and approach.

On a recent ‘epicurean expedition and destination discovery in Bali’, we landed in the capital city of Denpasar. The volcanic peak of Mt Gnung Agung (10,038 ft) was visible on the island’s eastern side.

We drove from the Ngurah Rai International Airport — named after the hero of the 1946 Indonesian Independence war against the Dutch — to The Laguna, a luxury resort and spa at Nusa Dua.

The Balinese have traditionally enjoyed prosperous agriculture, aided by the fertile volcanic soil. A calendar filled with ceremonies and programmes for performing arts has enriched the civilisation, particularly in the island’s southern part. As the Dutch colonial interests were mostly concentrated in the ancient port city of Singaraja in the north, the south was virtually isolated until early 20th century, when the Dutch crushed an uprising led by the ruler of Badung and consolidated their presence at Denpasar.

Later, Western tourists discovered the island’s beauty. In the 1930s the colonial government joined hands with local rulers to patronise indigenous art and culture, and promote the Bali Museum at Denpasar. Bali grew in stature and eventually Denpasar became its capital.

Nusa Dua, with its picturesque setting enhanced by white sand beaches, benefited from the tourist boom in the 1980s and earned distinction as a luxury sea-resort. Nusa Dua contrasted Kuta, where crowds, night clubs, pubs and large shopping plazas stood out.

The Laguna, a sprawling 17-acre property promoted by the Starwood Worldwide chain, offers a mix of culinary experiences, cultural programmes and indigenous adventures.

We reached the resort close to sundown and looked forward to watching a Balinese dance-drama on the beachfront and savouring local cuisine. Balinese cultural and social life is largely inspired by Indian mythology, especially the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The simple but realistic presentation was engaging.

After a brief visit to Denpasar the next morning, we left for the art districts of Ubud and Batuan. Located in the mountainous areas of South Central Bali and landscaped by terraced rice farms, Ubud has a fascinating art bazaar. We saw innumerable shops selling wood carvings, masks, paintings and so on between the main town square at Pasar Ubung and Tegal Alang on the mountain.

A Short History of Bali: Indonesia’s Hindu Realm by Robert Pringle mentions that Ubud rose to prominence in the 1930s when the local ruler, Corcode Gede Raka Sukwati, invited a number of foreign artists to settle here.

One of them, a Moscow-born German painter, photographer and musician called Walter Spies was instrumental in setting up Bali Museum and preserving the traditional Balinese art of palm leaf and palace decoration. A painters’ cooperative came into being to promote Balinese painting among overseas buyers.

Cooperatives have an important place in Balinese society. The traditional Subaks or dry-season irrigation and agri-technique cooperatives formed by the farmers in each village deserve mention. According to Gusti Kertayasa, chief concierge of The Laguna, every village in the island has a public hall, which is used for daily music and dance sessions and periodic community meetings.

Our last and most memorable stop in Bali was at the 15th-century sea temple of Tanah Lot, 20 km from Denpasar. Along with familiar Hindu gods and goddesses such as Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and Saraswati, the Balinese Hindus worship several local deities. Temples abound in villages and towns here.

Tanah Lot — which means ‘land in the water — proved to be a photographers’ delight. Situated on a rocky islet shaped continuously by the ocean, the temple is believed to be guarded by poisonous sea-snakes and accessible only in low tide. It is one in a row of seven sea temples on the south-western coastline. We visited Tanah Lot during high tide and watched the lashing waves in rapt attention.

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