Wenara Wana – The enchanting forest

Mark Ulyseas in conversation with I Made Gunarta, a resident of Jalan Hanoman, Ubud, who is the Marketing In Charge for the Sacred Monkey Forest since 2003.

The sacred monkey forest is an integral part of Ubudian life and history. To understand the essence of its existence we spoke to I Made Gunarta about the well-known facts and the offbeat anecdotes that make it an enchanting forest. It became a tourist attraction during the days of Walter Spies in the 1930s at a time when oddly enough there were no monkeys! About four-dozen monkeys were introduced in the 1970s. Now the simian population has grown to 300 and still counting.

The soul of the enchanting forest is the Old Pura Dalam Agung Pandantegal Village Shiva temple. The monkey is believed to be the spiritual guardian of this temple.

The Shiva lingam in the temple’s precincts is believed to be very old and it is thought that Hindus who arrived from Java many centuries ago made this lingam, as the materials used matches the lingam at the Campuhan temple which was the first base camp of these followers.

Adjacent to the Shiva temple are two other temples – one is the Prajapati Temple dedicated to Durga on north east side of the graveyard, the other one is the Beji Temple dedicated to Ganga. The holy spring water at this temple is used for spiritual cleansing by devotees prior to praying at the other temples.

Many a mortal has felt the presence of a spiritual force that apparently resides in the enchanting forest. There are stories brought down from family to family about the misadventures of those who had inadvertently taken leaves and wood from the forest without its prior approval. This is a bit weird but consider this story of Made’s grandfather I Nyoman Linting who was part of the Mancagera – a group of people chosen to service the temple. As a young man eager to do his duty for the temple he proceeded to cut a tree in the forest. The wood of the tree was required for the making of Gamelan. What happened next defied logic as the tree when cut fell in the wrong direction at the very last minute trapping Nyoman underneath. His still body was carried home covered with a banana leaf as the villagers assumed he would die of his wounds. However, he survived the accident but was partially paralysed on his left side.

Made recalls the story of the merchant who on the way through the enchanting forest to the local market picked up some leaves near the graveyard. Suddenly without any reason she began placing her goods on the graves as if laying out her produce at the market place. She assumed she had reached the market. A passer-by noticed her odd behaviour. The merchant was immediately taken to the priest at the temple who told her that her actions were sacrilege, as she had not asked the spirits of the forest for their permission to take the leaves. And that was why the spiritual force that resides in the trees possessed her.

The trees of the enchanting forest are considered by the Balinese to be sacred. No one is allowed to either collect leaves, bark, trim or cut trees without seeking the temple’s permission by praying, making offerings and consulting the holy priest. The wood from these trees (especially the Pule) is used in the making of Gamelan and masks for Barong and Rangda.

People who suffer from some illnesses seek the healing powers of the forest. They visit the temple with offerings and after paying obeisance to the gods and seeking the priest’s permission they venture into the sacred forest to gather the leaves, bark and roots to be used as herbal remedies. Entry into the temple by women who are having their periods or anyone who has a wound is denied, as blood spilt in a temple is food for the ghosts.

The total area of the sacred forest was 10 hectares. About four years ago 3 more hectares of land were bought. These 3 hectares are presently being used by school children who are taught yoga every Sunday. However, saplings will soon be planted on this land to extend the forest. In addition to this about 1 more hectare will be purchased. Thus expanding the forest to 14 hectares.

A special committee manages the sacred monkey forest. It oversees preservation of the forest, health of the monkeys, maintenance and promotion as a tourist attraction.

On the 23rd of December this year the committee is launching a tree adoption program whereby people who want to participate need only to pay Rp. 200,000/- per tree for adoption. A sapling would be planted in their name and a certificate of ownership would be given to the donor.

Another program that is in its infancy is the purchase of organic household waste for the purpose of composting. Presently, about Rp 25 Juta is being spent on the purchase of compost for the forest. The option being considered is utilising this money for the purchase of household organic garbage that can be dumped in compost heaps in the forest. The residents in the surrounding areas would benefit financially from this program in addition to understanding the concept of preservation of the forest through the use of biodegrade able materials.

The Wenara Wana is truly an enchanting forest that holds within its embrace sacred temples and spirits of the trees with the simian guardians holding forth. Those who venture into it must understand that there is a power far greater than man and paying obeisance is the only path to living in harmony with the gods.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om