That Old Bali Magic

The Indonesian island's true heart beats in mysterious ways.

From the June/July 2013 issue of Traveler magazine

The joyous, hectic clangor of a gamelan, the traditional percussion ensemble of Indonesia, startles me awake just after dawn. Outside my bedroom window in Seminyak, one of Bali’s booming beach resorts, a dozen men wearing batik sarongs and headdresses sit cross-legged in the parking lot of the new nightclub across the street, banging on gongs and xylophones. I jump into my jeans and run downstairs.

The morning din turns out to be a melaspas, a ceremony unique to Bali that is held to bless the opening of a new building. The gamelan’s brassy notes are intended to drive away any evil influences. Inside, the owner, a Balinese man in his 30s with a lurid crimson-and-cobalt tattoo on his right arm and a real Rolex on his left, gives me a neighborly greeting. “I spent $4,000 on this ceremony,” Gede Wira Apsika says, grinning confidently. “I am Balinese. I know that investing in a good melaspas will bring my club success.”

Towers of star fruit and oranges and frangipani blossoms—offerings to the gods—crowd the dance floor, along with curlicued sculptures made from carved pork rinds. Incense smokes in front of a state-of-the-art sound system.

The pedanda, the high priest, arrives in a vintage black Mercedes sedan with tinted windows. Wearing a long white robe and a black velvet crown embroidered in gold, he ascends the canopied platform erected for him in the parking lot and begins chanting. An acolyte ties a duck and a chicken to a post; their flapping and squawking will end at sundown, when the pedanda slits their throats at the climax of the ritual.

Passing tourists pause to gawk as masked dancers enact ancient legends of princes, demons, and dragons, alternating with a pair of beefy drag artists and their bawdy version of a stately dance usually performed by young girls. The visitors may not realize it, but serendipity has brought them a glimpse into the true heart of Bali: the pervasive magic rituals and beliefs of this intensely colorful Balinese Hindu civilization. Some of these visitors will join tours promising to transport them to the “real Bali,” with performances of classical Balinese dance or excursions into the forest by 4WD vehicles. Yet they will never get closer to Bali’s innermost soul than here in the parking lot of a new honky-tonk in Seminyak.

I moved here 14 years ago, following my Indonesian partner, who wanted to open a restaurant. In those days, the area was still largely agricultural, with outposts of budget tourism amid the coconut groves. My bedroom window looked out on rice fields; on a clear day I could see the island’s volcanoes smolder in the distance. But plot by plot, farmland here gave way to high-rise hotels, swanky restaurants, and chic little shops, built by entrepreneurs who proclaimed their intent to create an Ibiza, a South Beach, in rural Indonesia.

Yet this worldly modernity is just a veneer: Under the skin, Bali’s magical belief system is as muscular as ever. After this sacred yet profane dance show with full gamelan appears at my doorstep, I decide it’s time to dive as deeply as I can into the numinous core of this island of some three million people.

I BEGIN BY TRAVELING ABOUT AS FAR FROM Seminyak as I can go in both space and time, to the pristine forest of the West Bali National Park. Apart from a two-lane blacktop that cuts through the park and a low-impact resort on the northern seashore, the land is completely undeveloped. It remains just as it was when the island’s distinctive culture emerged thousands of years ago. Comprising 73 square miles of the island’s western tip, the park doesn’t boast attention-grabbing rhinos or orangutans as other nature preserves in Indonesia do; the Bali tiger was hunted to extinction by the 1940s. Yet herds of docile mouse deer wander the park, and southeast Asian porcupines and marbled cats abound.

On an early morning horseback ride through the mangroves, accompanied by stocky, stone-faced Ketut Sulastra, a park ranger who grew up near here, I see a pair of Bali starlings flutter up from a stand of bamboo. This elegant white mynah, beloved emblem of the island, is one of the most critically endangered species on Earth. In the 1990s there were only about 15 of the birds left, but thanks to captive breeding programs the population now numbers at least 127. When India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, visited Bali in 1954, he called it the “morning of the world”; traversing what seems like a primordial landscape, I can now feel what he meant.

LIKE MOST INDIGENOUS BELIEFS, Bali’s religion of magic began as animism. At the top of the food chain here is the reticulated python, which has been known to gobble up children. When I ask Ketut if we might see a python, his cool ranger’s face melts away and he exclaims boyishly, “Oh my god! A few weeks ago I saw a big one, over ten feet long, that had just eaten a monitor lizard almost as big as he was.”

The lizard, in death’s throes, writhed in the python’s belly, ripping first one foreleg and then the other through the snake’s skin. “It was a python with legs—a dragon!” Ketut says. The bizarre chimera collapsed: the monitor lizard dead from asphyxiation, the python from blood loss—about as primordial as it gets. The story reminds me of the magical transformations common in traditional Indonesian shadow-puppet theater. In the old plays, gods often masquerade as ferocious beasts, only to reveal their true identity at the end of the story.

The only sign of civilization in the park lies a couple of miles inland, at Makam Jayaprana (Jayaprana’s Mausoleum). Ketut leads the way through a dry streambed rustling with the scoot of small lizards, up a steep, densely wooded trail that winds past a small cave with the image of a python carved into the rock around its mouth. Macaques crash overhead, swinging on vines through the canopy. We emerge at the crest of the hill in a small paved plaza flanked by rustic sheds clad in chicken wire, humble shrines that shelter mossy, weathered monoliths. We buy sport drinks and peanuts from a jolly, toothless woman who runs a refreshment stand for visitors and sit down to catch our breath.

According to Ketut, believers built these shrines after two graves were discovered here and identified as relics of the legendary Prince Jayaprana. Jayaprana was the adopted son of a powerful village ruler who conceived a mad lust for Jayaprana’s betrothed and ordered his heir to be killed, so he could take her as his own bride. “Jayaprana was murdered in this very place,” Ketut says, arching his eyebrows dramatically. When the young prince died, a heavenly fragrance wafted through the forest and all the animals wept—all but one, a white tiger that leaped on the assassin and killed him. When word of Jayaprana’s death reached his beloved, she killed herself rather than surrender to the wicked king, and she was buried here with her slain lover.

Ketut concludes with the usual caveat of the Indonesian storyteller: “I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s what people say.” Some folks obviously believe: Inside the largest shrine, its low frame entrance shaded by marigold yellow silk parasols, two women straight from the fields, still wearing soiled work sarongs, purchase incense from the shrine’s wizened pedanda. The women light the sticks, hold them high in clasped fingertips as they chant a mantra, and plant the smoking incense in a pot of sand in front of Jayaprana’s grave.

I ask Ketut to explain. Jayaprana was a mortal man who died centuries ago: Why do people pray at his grave today? The ranger shrugs, as though the answer is obvious, and says, “Bali people pray to him because of his power.” The mojo of the martyred prince is undiminished by the passage of a thousand years, its magic power transmitted directly from an era of courtly legend to the age of social networks and sport drinks.

BALINESE MAGIC REMAINED rooted in the land until the mid-14th century, when a kingdom based in Java, the Majapahit, conquered the island and enforced Hindu orthodoxy and the strict caste system that came with it. A few isolated villages refused to accept the new regime and continued living in the old ways. They are called the Bali Aga, meaning “original Balinese.” From the jungles of West Bali I drive down a wide, shady highway, deliciously deserted compared with the jammed roads in Seminyak, to the island’s cool central highlands. My destination is a Bali Aga village called Trunyan. Continuously inhabited for over a millennium, Trunyan is a living connection to the world of Prince Jayaprana.

The village occupies the eastern shore of a deep, placid crescent lake that curves around the base of Mount Batur, an active volcano with several craters. When I surmount the western ridge and catch my first glimpse of Batur, it looks too perfect to be real, like a prizewinning science fair volcano, with its gentle southern slope gashed by a flow of black basaltic rock from an eruption in 1968. Driving down the switchback that leads to Trunyan, I pass cows dozing beneath soaring banyan trees, old women in straw hats tending gardens of tomatoes and chilies, and bunches of purple shallots hanging from the eaves of barns. When I reach Trunyan, I meet a shy, plump man in his 40s named Nyoman, who abandons a chess game to show me around.

Trunyan is famous throughout Bali for a monolithic idol, likely more than 1,100 years old, of the village’s guardian deity, known by several names, including Ratu Gede Pancering Jagat. Outsiders aren’t permitted to see the sculpture, but I know someone who did (or claimed to). I intend to try my luck, and ask Nyoman to take me there. We wander through narrow alleys, and busy family compounds where men squat in the shadows repairing fishnets. An elaborately carved basalt gateway admits us to the temple enclosure. A few thatch-roofed pavilions dot the grassy compound, surrounding a tall temple with a seven-tiered roof, the home of Ratu Gede Pancering Jagat.

The temple is padlocked. I blandly ask Nyoman who has the key. His silence is my answer: The Balinese hate to disappoint guests, but I can see in a moment that this is a line not to be crossed. Although I’m disappointed, I realize close contact with the great stone deity might have been even more of a letdown. Magic requires mystery to exert its power. I ask him to describe the statue. He hesitates nervously and finally mumbles, “It is man and woman in one.” That’s all he will say, except that the statue rises 13 feet tall, almost to the roof of the temple. A huge boulder guards the temple’s hobbit-size door. Nyoman says that the rock has a name, but he isn’t allowed to tell me what it is. It turns out that access to the temple is even more restricted than I thought. Nyoman says that no one is permitted to enter the temple except adolescent boys who perform a ritual dance as part of a full-moon festival. The coming-of-age rite for the boys doubles as preventive magic for the village.

At dusk Nyoman rows me in his perahu (canoe) to see the local cemetery, a mile along the lakeshore. No rows of stone grave markers here. In Trunyan, rather than being buried or cremated, the dead are exposed to the elements. I spot two corpses laid out under bamboo fencing beneath a fragrant sandalwood tree said to be as old as the village itself. At the tree’s base, cleaned bones and skulls form a neat pile—the community bound in death as closely as it was in life. I find my visit to the land of the dead not gruesome at all. In fact, I feel oddly tranquil. As Nyoman skims his canoe back to the village in the crimson-streaked twilight, I envy Trunyan for its stack of bones, its cultural integrity, its cosmic security.

THE FINAL DESTINATION ON MY JOURNEY takes me south to Ubud, where my friend Tjokorda Raka Kerthyasa, head of the ancient court of Ubud, has invited me to attend the cremation of an elderly cousin of his. Ubud has been Bali’s most famous village since the island was “discovered” in the 1930s by the glamorous first wave of world travelers that included Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Cole Porter, Margaret Mead (who shot a documentary film here), and the Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias, who wrote an illustrated 1937 book called Island of Bali, which is still a reliable guide to Balinese culture.

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Here, the royal court of Ubud—with its reputation for dazzling pomp and ceremony—has never lost its sway, despite the abolishment of the island’s feudal nobility when Indonesia proclaimed itself a republic in 1945. If Trunyan is Balinese magic at its most primeval, Ubud is the religion’s high baroque, its most elaborate expression. No ritual here is more spectacular than the funeral rites of the royal family; when a multiple royal cremation was performed five years ago, it made front-page news worldwide.

The mood at the temple grounds is festive, as spirited as a New Orleans jazz funeral. Why not? The deceased lived a long life, blessed with a great progeny. I sit with Tjok Raka, eating fried noodles from a buffet. In addition to his aristocratic status in Ubud, Tjok Raka is also a member of Indonesia’s national parliament; no one knows more about the challenges the island faces now. Yet he remains serene. “Bali survives,” he says. “We’re performing our rituals, praying and meditating, trying to find wisdom, the balance between the real world and the intangible. Anyone can experience that balance, Westerners the same as Balinese.” He looks me in the eye and adds, “Now you are on the earth of Bali. Even if you leave, Bali will be under your skin.”

Tjok Raka hurries off to supervise the impending ceremony. I ask his son, sitting on my other side, what to expect. Tjok Gde, an accredited homeopathic practitioner, says that today’s event will be modest by comparison with other recent royal cremations—a development he very much approves of. “Every culture reaches a tipping point as it approaches decadence,” he says, “and Bali has reached that point. Prosperity from tourism has accelerated the trend toward bigger and more lavish spectacles, pushing rituals beyond what they were originally intended to be.”

Hundreds of people have gathered in the street around two large constructions. First is an eight-foot-tall black bull made of wood, with gilded horns and harness twinkling with fake gems, which will hold the coffin when it is burned; next is a nine-tiered tower, twice as tall as the bull, painted in scarlet and forest green, flapping with pennants inscribed with magic charms written in classical Balinese script. The white coffin is loaded into the base of the tower, a marching gamelan begins its bright clatter, and the procession lurches to life. The bull, with Tjok Gde sitting astride it, goes first, followed by the tower, carried by perhaps a hundred men. Tjok Raka stands at the base of the tower, wearing the red sash of mourning and banging a brass gong on his hip to encourage the carriers. The procession hurtles at a headlong pace toward the cremation grounds, nearly trampling tourists who are trying to get good photos.

Living in Bali, you become accustomed to the islanders’ clear-eyed, unsentimental acceptance of death. In Trunyan they do it by keeping thousand-year-old secrets, in Ubud they put on a fabulous public show; both are expressions of the indestructible core of magic that keeps the island whole.

As I drive back to Seminyak, descending once more into the coastal heat and heavy traffic, I feel hopeful. My friends in Bali worry about the impact of the tourist boom on the island’s social fabric and environmental resources, but I’ve seen now how the mystical thread that connects the modern island with its legendary past, delicate yet resilient as the filament of a spider’s web, is spinning into the future.

As for me, I have Bali under my skin.

JAMIE JAMES is author of several books, among them The Snake Charmer, and is at work on another about expatriate artists and writers. Photographer RAYMOND PATRICK shot “New Yorkers’ New York” (April 2011).

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