A tryst with the spirits of Ubud

The Sacred Cave IMG_8397 copy

Many expats in Bali exist in the turbid waters of passion, fading dreams and a desperation that converges into a daily run to catch sanity. Keeping a lid on rising adrenaline that threatens to wreak havoc on frail hearts and snap frayed nerves is a challenge to these ‘outsiders’ who nest on the Isle. The viscosity of life on the Isle ensnares many in a pantomime world which mocks everything that these unfortunate souls attempt in an effort to surmount the odds. When the urge becomes the purge, they are forced to reach back into the past to seek an answer to the circle of life. Often, as a form of escapism, they take shelter in their incestuous group of friends, drink, smokes and a socialization that borders on surrealism. Some however encounter the spirits of the land that revives their lust for life.

The following narrative is about how the writer of this column faced a benign unseen force and came away feeling cleansed, blessed and comforted by the experience.

A short while ago I happened to attend a Full Moon religious ceremony at the family temple of a friend of mine, Tjokorda Raka Kerthyasa (Pak Tjok) of the Ubud Royal Family. It is situated a stone’s throw from the Tjampuhan River. On such occasions it is imperative that one honors the hosts and their culture by attending the ‘function’ in Balinese dress. Waddling down the winding path to the river (as I had tied my sarong a bit too tight) I eagerly looked forward to the sumptuous meal that would evidently follow the religious ceremony.

According to tradition a cock fight is staged prior to commencement of rituals. The cackling of poultry and the shouts of onlookers followed the three fights that were staged. It was entertaining as well as alarming as each fight ended in the vanquished dying on the grassy knoll. But I had seen such gladiatorial displays before in villages in India and therefore understood why this was an essential ingredient of the prevalent culture.

The ceremony itself took no more than twenty minutes.

The temple, which nestles on the side of a rock face near the river bank, has within its hallowed grounds a sacred spring. The water from this spring is said to have curative powers so villagers from far and wide often arrive to drink it. It is also the spring from which water is taken for all royal cremations.

Tjok De, the elder son of my friend, gave me a small white bowl of water taken directly from the spring. The cool sweet taste was refreshing.

After attending the ceremony and tucking into the smoked duck, chicken satay and other goodies I sat under an imposing Kadamba tree to chat with the younger son of Pak Tjok, Tjok Gus. He told me about a cave near the Ayung River that has a spring emanating from it. It is quite large and runs deep into the hill and there is sufficient standing room so one can walk upright into the cave. The water at its base is waist high (for the average Asian). It is said that if one enters it with an unclean heart or with bad energy, the person will see a large snake. Tjok Gus invited me to join him and his brother on a trip to the cave.

So the following day, along with Lisa Taylor a friend from London, we accompanied the two brothers and their friend Kacer from Taro village. The short drive ended with the beginning of a long steep walk down the hill side to the cave overlooking the Ayung River. On the way we were met by a pretty Balinese damsel, Made, decked up in her traditional attire holding the mandatory offerings of flowers and incense.

Lisa, an asthmatic was hesitant at first to walk down the path afraid she would never be able to make the return journey up the steep incline without her inhaler. Smiles, laughter and cajoling did the trick and Lisa was off with great enthusiasm. I think the stunning view of the manicured rice fields below, the sight of the meandering Ayung River and the sensual sway of the coconut trees gave her a feeling of oneness with nature. It was a soothing balm for she glowed with anticipation at the unfolding adventure into the great unknown.

We arrived at the cave, which was exactly as Tjok Gus had described it complete with the overhanging vegetation, moss and ferns. The shrubbery was a vibrant green and the silence was broken only by excited shouts in the distance of tourists rafting down the river.

As soon as we sat down for a breather, Made disappeared into the bushes to return wearing only a sarong from her chest down without anything underneath. She instructed us to do the same as we had to bathe in the water. Lisa, however, politely declined and I simply removed my shirt. The two brothers and their friend stripped down to the basics. We all entered cave wadding into the cold water.

A spring constantly feds the mini lake in the cave through pipes installed by the villagers; All of us took turns under the water spouts. I shivered as I looked into the deep dark recess of the cave where the water looked haunted and foreboding. It was if there existed in its very heart a menagerie of spirits each jostling to have a look at the homo-sapiens who had briefly invaded their turf. Suddenly I noticed a number of fish nibbling at the submerged part of my body. I didn’t feel a thing but before I could react Tjok Gus told me not to be alarmed as the fish were simply cleaning me. He informed me that people with skin ailments and the like often visited the cave to lie in the water and be ‘cured’ by the fish. Bless their little souls (the fish I mean), I thought to myself.

It is said that on Full Moon nights and other auspicious occasions, villagers arrive in numbers bearing floral gifts and more to the cave in homage to the resident spirits. Those who are ill in body bathe in the water where the little fish possessed by the spirits cleanse them of their sickness.

The intense feeling of being watched by an unseen force was quite overwhelming. I had to gather courage and turn my back and wade out of the water. Dripping and shivering I glanced over my shoulder and saw a few dark shadows in the water. But they were not spirits, just very large cat fish, the favored residents that dine on chicken eggs generously offered by visitors.

After the ritual bathing, we genuflected before the temple at the mouth of the cave, prayed, lit incense sticks and then sat in silence. Thoughts of past iniquities, thoughtless indiscretions and lost loves flickered briefly like a candle in the wind and then were snuffed out by the feeling of not being alone. I felt a great force had descended on the place and was taking a keen interest in the goings on. At no time during the prayers did I feel threatened. It was as if the great force was there to protect us.

The bathing, the prayers, the aroma of incense permeating the air around us and the gentle breeze that seemed to rise and fall with every breath had purified us, me in particular for the light around suddenly appeared effervescent. A quietness had settled in me.

I came away wheezing my way back up the steep incline with Lisa and Made in tow. The boys had simply run up the hill. Breathless we sat in the car as Tjok Gus drove us to Nacho Mamas where we refreshed our memories with draught beer and calmed the nagging hunger with sizzling pork spare ribs.

It was only when I lay in bed that night watching the geckos munch on the flying creepy crawlies on the ceiling did it dawn on me that this was the secret of Ubud I had somehow missed all these years; a belonging without the threads of ‘warped inheritances’ tying one down.

This was Bali helping one to confront apprehensions and assuaging the tentativeness that many of us feel towards the unseen.

I had gone out that day with fear of the unknown and returned with a feeling of belonging…belonging to the Universe.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om

Family temple near Campuhan River IMG_8284 copy

Spirits of the island

spiritsSomewhere beneath the shade of a tamarind tree in a small village outside Calcutta lies buried a stone wrapped in paper. On the stone is inscribed the words M loves Nina. Many years on that little boy M has grown into a man who is still searching for the esoteric dream of utopia. Trying to grasp the fleeting ethereal phantoms that appear off and on, on a full moon night in Bali.

So what is it that this island conjures up for each of us?

Some nights back a much travelled actor and writer announced over a glass of wine that people come to Bali only to be confronted with their demons. If they endure the truth they survive life on the island and are reborn. Otherwise the punishment meted out is one of instant loss of passion, the visible effects being cynicism and pessimism.

The Balinese have long understood about instant karma and have dealt with it in a matter of fact manner. Going about their work and respectfully carrying out their religious duties. One has often wondered about the pact they have made with the celestial forces that guide the ebb and flow of life for they live in sublime harmony.

As a child I have been enchanted by the spirit world, watching ghosts wander through the old colonial house in which we lived in Saint Thomas Mount, Madras. Too afraid to get up in the night to go to the bathroom I would wet the bed. The morning brought with it a sound thrashing.

Here in Bali I have seen apparitions off and on that walk past my room quite oblivious to my presence and no I don’t wet my bed…the thrashings did work. On arrival in Ubud it took me a few months to adjust to the pace of nightlife…bars, jazz and night time uninvited guests. I didn’t mind the nocturnal visitations to my room except for one particular lady in black who would often sit at the foot of my bed and look at me. Whenever I glanced back she would disappear. Irritated by this intrusion I called a friend to seek her advice. I was instructed to light an incense stick every night before going to sleep and if the visitor did appear again I should converse with it. Hah! As if I was about to start a dialogue with a being from another world.

“Excuse me Ma’m would you like a nice cuppa with a spot of milk and two sugar ducks? And if you are a bit peckish may I offer you Chicken Soup for the Soul.”

No the incense stick trick didn’t work but the visits have become few and far between. Maybe my personal hygiene could be the reason.

The period of adjustment to spirit life has had its moments. Once when I was going through a sense of displacement I bumped into a young designer and photographer, at Indus. She advised me to walk into the rice fields on a full moon night and talk to the spirits of Bali. I did just that. It opened wide the door to psychedelic visions. Beyond it laid a world of Dali ish phantastic realism that my friend and painter Wolfgang would have been most interested in. Suffice to say it settled matters with the spirits. Now I am not bothered by niggling doubts of mundane things like existence, co-existence or for that matter Sartre’s Existentialism!

All this Blake ian talk is enriching for it brings to the fore matters that need to be redressed by us visitors; The inexplicable sudden surge of extreme feelings that many of us have had to grapple with and the deep yearning to find the road to love and sometimes to connubial joy that is instigated and enhanced by the island’s spirits.

Diana asked me the other day about my uninvited guests remarking that she had not seen any entities that defied logic except the ones she met at Nuri’s. And Sophie talked about water being the vehicle for spirits. So if there’s any running stream, river or maybe a leaky faucet near, around, under your home the chances are that your neighbours in the other world may take the fast train to the physical plain and drop in for a chat.

Colin Wilson’s book The Occult is a must read as it documents many recorded instances of the paranormal. Some would call this old wives tales and mumbo jumbo. But proven studies only help in dispelling doubts many of us have with regard to the unseen world.

The following incident occurred when our family lived briefly in St. Thomas Mount, in the 60s. You decide what to make of it.

Alfie, the family friend who saved me from being electrocuted when the lights of the Christmas tree attached themselves to me, was an unholy gentleman who dabbled in black magic with Tantrics.

One day on the way back from primary school I saw Alfie taunting one of them whom he felt was an impersonator of the black arts. The man stood up, eyes blood shot and pointed at Alfie while uttering some obscenities. Alfie fell to the ground with both his hands around his throat and appeared to be throttling himself. People fled while shouting and pointing to his writhing body in the dust. I imagined he was joking so I ran to him calling his name and laughing. The Tantric looked at me. His face was the epitome of a power that was frightening. He turned and walked down the road without looking back. I shook Alfie but he didn’t respond. His eyes were bulging and spittle was coming out of the side of his mouth. I realised then that something was wrong and kept screaming till a passing bullock cart stopped. The man alighted and nonchalantly started slapping Alfie till he released his hands from his throat. He lay there covered in dust, spittle and blood that oozed from the side of his mouth. I pleaded with the bullock cart walla to take us home. The gruff chap just lifted Alfie like he was a stuffed toy and dumped him onto the cart while beckoning me to get on. He took us straight home. Mom was livid with me for bringing Alfie home. She thought that the spirits could have followed us.

So what was it that the Tantric did? Mind over matter? Cast a spell? Or was it harnessing the unseen world to do one’s bidding?

To survive in Bali one must pay heed to the spirit world by making offerings and listening to what the holy men say because they know from whence the spirits cometh. We cannot and should not ignore the tell tale signs around us.

It has been suggested that we look closely at how the Balinese live in harmony with their surroundings, their acceptance and comprehension of the metaphysical world and the many avatars that one encounters in this paradise. The road to attaining nirvana could be by shedding all angst of the past that we carry to this isle and to embrace the spirits of the land.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om