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Sacred Waterways of Bali Archives - Dive Indonesia

Sacred Waterways of Bali

March 18, 2014 |

5-star resorts the world over are often beautifully designed, but on Bali the 5-star vacation experience is different. Here it is not necessary to insulate yourself in luxury establishments in order to avoid the outside world, as is unfortunately necessary in the capital Jakarta. The beauty of Bali’s rice terraces can not be adequately described in words or art and must, like those in the Philippines’ Banaue, be seen with the eyes. These landscapes, sculpted by human hands, sometimes feel too man-made to be real and almost like journeys inside a painting, in which a careful artist has skilfully enhanced the bounties bequeathed by nature to maximum effect and optimal proportion. The serried rice terraces compete for the eye’s attention with burbling irrigation canals and with the jungle-shrouded rivers which sometimes form a convenient path-way for Balinese women to sway gracefully beneath improbably precarious loads perched on the top of their heads.

In a society where art is regarded as so fundamental a part of a person’s life that the local language does not have a word for it, the entertainment is also stylish. Balinese dance is justifiably world-famous for its subtle sign language and beautiful costumes, but not so well-known are the coming-of-age dances in which one teenage girl at a time dances surrounded by a circle of up to a hundred boys. After she taps a boy with her fan, he dances with her, but in a very different style to hers. Whilst she is attempting to maintain grace and elegance, his sole objective is to squeeze her bum. It sounds uncouth, but is just hilarious, as she vigorously defends herself, often by jabbing her fan, to painful effect, into the most sensitive parts of the boys’ anatomies.

In a deeply religious Hindu society, everybody pays great attention to the ceremonies that mark life’s major events, with funerals in particular being very grandiose events full of colour and excitement: a Balinese’s last journey takes so long to organise that bodies must be temporarily buried while the myriad arrangements are made. All Balinese bear one of only four given names, Made, Nyoman and Ketut. A family’s first child is always christened Putu/Wayan, with the second known as Made, the third as Nyoman and the fourth as Ketut. From the fifth child on the naming cycle starts afresh, with any fifth child that makes an appearance known as Putu/Wayan.

The latest threat to the lovely rice-terraces, after the solution of the pest problems caused by the Asian Development Bank’s ‘Green Revolution’ project, comes from an unlikely quarter: prosperity. Balinese farmers, especially young ones, are leaving the land in droves for better-paid and physically less demanding jobs as caddies and waiters. It is hoped that some of the huge numbers of tourist dollars flowing into Bali can be spent subsidising rice farming, in order to preserve this unique landscape and its aquatic traditions. The best time to see the rice paddies is during the hour before dawn, the hour the Balinese call “the silk time”. But, even for the chance to experience heaven, that is a little too early for most visitors, who prefer the twilight hours.

The night was balmy and, after supper, the moon rose, yellow and huge. After a short walk along a tree-lined lane we came to a gap in the trees. Water chattered and laughed in the gullies all around us and, spread out before us, was a blue, moonlit valley. The terraced paddy fields hugging the contours of the hills were filled with still water, drained of colour by the night. Each patch of black water reflected it’s own little moon. A breeze crinkled the satin-like surface and scattered the golden moon-beams. Then the breeze died, the gold reassembled and the moons settled back into their pools. Frogs croaked. Water gushed. Briefly we mourned the loss of all those moons until our eyes adjusted to the dark and the banks of the terraces came alive with more light. Sparkling sequins of white light flashed around as our minds reeled in the attempt to take in such beauty. Whether the moons or the fireflies were the most beautiful is impossible to say, as both art and words are inadequate to the task of framing such serenity. If heaven exists then maybe it looks a little like Bali.

Water is sacred in Bali. Everywhere you go, you hear it bubble and gurgle and giggle and splash. The ancient irrigation system consists of a network of gullies and channels, dykes and runnels that carry the precious fluid from the river and through the sinuous, rice-paddied, terraces. Water is so vital to rice, and so to life, that in Bali the temples control its flow. The priests are the experts in how the waterways work. They know where each channel runs and when each sluice needs opening, and it’s their duty to ensure that every terrace gets filled and that every farmer gets an adequate flow. Every day, in the late afternoon, all over Bali, you’ll see villagers, in their sarongs, sauntering down to the rivers to bathe. The women gather in one place, dipping and laughing, shampooing their long black tresses. The men gather in another, splashing each other and playing with their children. “They want to give us taps,” I heard one man exclaim, “they say it will make life easier. But we don’t want water from taps. It contains chemicals. We have this beautiful river, how can anybody improve on this?”

Tirtaganga is a special place where, in bygone days, Balinese Kings built a great Water Palace. The kings are long gone, but there is enough grandeur left to enable you to imagine attendants in vivid sarongs laying gold cloth on gleaming stone steps to aggrandize the journey of the king and his courtiers to the three jade-coloured swimming pools. These days the steps are mossy and the spirit statuary is mottled with lichen. Instead of gilded princesses, rice farmers wallow and chat while their wives offer flower-filled palm-leaf baskets to the Gods. It is unsurprising that Balinese love their island, but it might surprise some readers to know of the lengths to which these gentle people have in the past gone to defend it. In the 1840s the Dutch established a presence by playing various distrustful Balinese realms against each other, before mounting large-scale naval and ground assaults, first against the Sanur region and then against Denpasar. The Balinese were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, but rather than face the loss of their island, 4,000 of them marched to their deaths in a suicide attack on the invaders. Afterwards the Dutch governors were able to exercise little control over the island, and the religion and culture remained intact.

When Japan occupied Bali during World War II, a Balinese military officer, Gusti Ngurah Rai, formed a Balinese army of freedom fighters. When the Dutch returned to Bali to reinstate their pre-war colonial administration, they were opposed by the Balinese rebels. On 20 November 1946, the Battle of Marga was fought in Tabanan in central Bali. Colonel I Gusti Ngurah Rai, 29 years old, rallied his depleted and nearly beaten forces in east Bali at Marga Rana, where they made a suicide attack on the heavily armed Dutch. The Balinese battalion was entirely wiped out, breaking the last thread of Balinese military resistance. The well-developed infrastructure for leisure activities, including golf, sailing, diving, dancing and partying, complements the island’s idyllic landscape and turns Bali into, for many holiday-makers, the best destination in southeast Asia if not the world.

If dancing is your way of reviving your energy and spirits after an aeon behind a desk, then you will be pleased to hear that Bali has the clubs you need. Try the 15,000 watt Double Six, where DJs from across the world play eclectic and variable mixes that have only one thing in common: the ability to make you want to shake your bits till dawn. If you get bored of getting on down to the music then get on down in a more extreme way, courtesy of the club’s bungee jump. KUDOS, the hippest place on the island, prides itself on a computerized colour mixer that synchronises the music with pre-arranged lighting sequences of the bar and interiors.