Face to face with myself in a small village in Bali

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.” – Pema Chodron, from Things Fall Apart.

In India, Dussehra (a prelude to Deepavali) is marked by the burning of the effigy of Ravana, the King of Lanka who kidnapped Lord Ram’s wife Sita and took her to Lanka. It is the day when Lord Ram, his brother Laxman and Lord Hanuman along with an army attacked Lanka. In the ensuing battle Lord Ram killed Ravana as it was foretold between day and night – at twilight. It is the day when good triumphs over evil. And the Hindus rejoice with pomp and gaiety.

About two weeks after this, Deepavali (the Festival of Lights also known as Diwali) is celebrated when Ram, Sita and Laxman return to Ayodhya. It is also the day when Pujas are performed in every Indian Hindu home in honour of Laxmi the Goddess of wealth. The bright lights, new clothes, the exotic variety of sweet meats (Barfi, Ladoo, Halwa, Rossagulla, Gulab Jamun, Sandesh) and firecrackers are part of the celebrations. It is the Hindu New Year in India.

Now why did I tell you all this?

It was many days ago when Ketut Suardana, Assistant Manager The Bali Football Club, successful businessman and husband of Janet de Neefe, sent me a message wishing me Happy Dussehra and inviting me to join him on a yatra with his wife and Elizabeth Henzell of the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. As it was his Balinese birthday that happened to coincide with a Full Moon, Ketut was going to meet a High Priest to seek his blessings.

He explained that the Balinese celebrate their birthday every 210 days (i.e. every six Balinese months consisting of 35 days each).

Ubud – October 25, 2007. – The drive from Ubud past Semarapura and then via enchanting Sideman to Selat Duda a village situated in the Amlapura area took little less than two hours. We stopped on a narrow road and walked to the Brahmin High Priest’s home.

The instant one walked through the entrance one felt as if one had entered a Pandit’s dwelling in Vrindavan; the courtyard; the bird cages hanging in rows; the serenity punctuated by the tinkling of bells, chanting of prayers and the aroma of incense permeating the air around us. In the distance, the audible sound of Indian bhajans being played over a public address system could be heard. Was I momentarily transported to the holy Hindu city of Vrindavan? Sentiments within me rose and fell to the reverberations of the haunting chants. I held back my tears for fear of being inundated by things that had fallen apart in the past.

Soon we were called to one side of the courtyard and the High Priest’s wife Pedanda Istri performed the Makala – Kala on us; that is the cleansing of all bad energy/spirits. Then we stood in front of the High Priest – Pedanda Lanang – who rang a bell, chanted prayers, blessing us many times with holy water that drenched our heads and trickled down onto our clothes. The fragrance of frangipani and the heady scent of incense sticks finally released the pent up emotions and I wept uncontrollably recalling for a fleeting moment (many years ago) when my wife and 5-year-old son stood beside me in a Krishna temple in Vrindavan while the priest blessed us and put Tikas on our foreheads just like the Pedanda Lanang, who was using rice instead of sandalwood paste. Nothing could bring those memories to life again. Only the thought of being with friends in a Balinese priest’s home and the passion of the rituals comforted one’s troubled soul. Elizabeth’s gentle hand on my shoulder made me realise that Love and God were both alive and well within me once more.

When the ceremony was over we retired to a verandah where we sat on the floor awaiting the Pedanda Lanang to return from his prayers. Warm cups of comforting Bali coffee arrived with pink seaweed jelly as an accompaniment. The silence was occasionally broken by the cooing of doves in the cages hanging from the ceiling above us. Idle chatter was half hearted, probably we all felt humbled by the profound spiritual encounter.

By now the sun had set and the Full Moon bathed the courtyard in an ethereal light. To me it seemed a shadow less night. Lunar rays gently stroking and calming the emotions that had made me a bit like the jelly I was eating. The mingling of tears with sweet Bali coffee put everything in perspective. This was life. The choices were there for us all. What we did, we did consciously. It was karma; and I had come face to face with myself in a small village in Bali.

Later the Pedanda Lanang arrived and sat before us on a cane sofa while benignly smiling at us. His face was a study in placidity that transcended life around us and in it bore a semblance to a kind of divinity. His hair was tied back in a bun with few flowers placed in it. We waited patiently in silence as if meditating on our lives. No one spoke for a few minutes. Then Ketut whispered in my ear, “Do you want to ask the priest any questions?” I did so hesitantly as there was a small congregation of faithful sitting with us! The medium of language was Balinese. Ketut was kind enough to translate the same for me.

What transpired next was a string of revelations that confirmed what one was doing all along – the rights, wrongs and sometimes the rudderless drifting. Regretfully one cannot discuss the details with you dear readers. But needless to say one did get a few pointers on how to become a better human being and for this I say shukreya…thank you.

A short while later we left the priest’s home and walked back on the moonlight road towards the car. The night air felt much lighter and the heavy burden on my chest had lifted. I understood then that it was the acceptance of the inevitable – the final parting from the Past – my family and home as I knew it. Maybe one was destined to travel the world like a bird to share all one had learnt with fellow travellers, just like the Pedanda Lanang had predicted of me.

The drive back through Sideman and the phantom like moonlit landscape with the backdrop of Agung looming on the horizon completed the picture of a Bali I had embraced. The experience with Ketut and my Australian friends helped me comprehend the many subtle layers of life that exist and persist on this isle.

We cannot ignore or control the rhythms of existence. All we can humanly do is to understand what Love is and to honour our Gods.

I wish my Hindu family and friends in Bali and around the world, Happy Deepavali and a Prosperous New Year. May this New Year bring you peace, prosperity, and happiness.

And to Ketut Suardana and his family, Elizabeth Henzell and the readers of The Bali Times may you be forever young.

Happy Deepavali!
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om