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Escape to paradise

Tourists at the entrance to the Tanah Lot Temple

I lay in a huge, candlelit bath, filled with tepid ylang-ylang scented water, and frangipani flowers strewn all around me. Fragrant, ruby red rose petals and tiny magnolias completed the ensemble. I had just been through a revitalising experience of a Balinese massage and was in a state of nirvana.

It was meant to be a holiday of revitalisation and luxury and I was not about to let any opportunity pass me by. I’ve always dreamt of lolling by the sea, azure waves lapping at my feet, a chilled drink by my side with a good book for company.

An hour later, I lay supine on the silvery sands. The ice cold drink lay forgotten by the side as did the latest bestseller. I was beyond all realms of reality in my reverie.

A lush tropical garden in Bali

I was in Bali; the tiny tropical wonderland with magnificent temple celebrations, colourful processions and graceful dancers. It’s a small island of Hinduism within an Islamic country, its religious practices emerging from a fusion of Buddhism and Hinduism, creating a whole new idiom of belief. There is a serene acceptance that belies the breakneck lifestyle of the 21st century. The smile on Balinese faces seems set to defy the accelerated momentum that is killing people across the globe. Little wonder, people rush to the Utopia for a momentary respite.

This land of spectacular green rice terraces, temperamental volcanoes, crater lakes, tropical jungles and fantastic beaches seemed to have caught the fancy of travellers. Even creative people like Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Rudolf Bonnet, Walter Spies, Vicky Baum, Miguel Covarrubias and Margaret Mead had made it their haven for a while. Chaplin, who visited Bali in 1932, was said to have been captivated by the island and actually wrote a script for a film to be set in Bali, which was never made.

Bali’s silvery beaches are a great favourite with tourists

Caught in a time warp, it seemed unbelievable that I had landed only hours back at Ngurah Rai Airport of Denpasar. From spa to the beach to a turtle farm with some ancient and wise hard-shelled reptiles to hunting for corals and colourful shells, I had done so much in a day that it seemed I had been at Bali for weeks already.

Religion, rites and rituals — the inescapable three Rs of Bali overpowered all my resolutions to remain away from the temples (there were 20,000 of them at the last count). You can’t escape religion while at Bali. It is everywhere; in the quaint palm leaf baskets with the offerings laid thrice a day at every doorstep, in the umpteen temples at every corner and in the steadfast belief of every Balinese. It’s a way of life, with a string of ceremonies.

The Gunung Batur volcano

The Tanah Lot Temple brings it home powerfully. Poised on a rocky outcrop teetering on the ocean, the picturesque 15th-century temple is cut off from land during the high tide and I had struck the jackpot. A special ceremony was on, with hundreds of Balinese in their pristine ceremonial garb. The women, in pretty sarongs, carried baskets of offerings while the priests sprinkled holy water on the devout.

The climax takes me by sur prise. A pair of birds, a duck and a hen, tied together, are blessed by the head priest and tossed into a huge wave that swallows the unfortunate pair in a trice before my shocked eyes even as I enjoy the sublime effect of sunset. The terrified squawking of the birds seems to ring in my ears for eternity.

A holidayer goes parasailing

I have seen nothing so far, an Aussie gentleman assures me. “You have to attend the teeth filing ceremony to know what it is all about,” he informs me with a twinkle in his eyes.

Curious, I pester my guide for a ‘Tooth filing’ that defines the transition of a child into a teenager. The months of July and August are considered auspicious for tooth-filing ceremonies. The Balinese believe that the sharp edges of canines in particular are the symbols of lust, greed, anger and jealousy; filing the teeth eradicates those negative traits.

Definitely an extraordinary experience, I decide trying to recall what my friend had advised. “Visit a few temples, climb a volcano, walk through the terraced paddy field, loll at the beach and get a spa treatment and you’ve done Bali.” He had forgotten about the tooth filing.

I gazed at the verdant expanse of terraced rice fields that stretched endlessly, fringed by the ubiquitous temples. The tiered acres of nodding green shoots tumbled down gentle hills with palm trees standing sentinels; the quintessential Bali picture postcard.

An artisan at work

The urge to climb a volcano led me to Gunung Batur — an active volcano, the next dawn. Clawing my way up through rough rocks, I worked my way towards the moment of triumph.The efforts were rewarded many times over by the sensational view of the nearby Lake Batur and the mountains silhouetted against the clear sky as the sun rose majestically.

That the Balinese are a creative race is evident in the fine creations crafted on diverse mediums like stone, wood, cloth and silver. It is almost blasphemous to return from Bali without having seen the primitive studios where artisans display their expertise. A whirlwind tour through these left me breathless and my wallet lighter. It is impossible not to drool over the exquisite products or come back empty handed.

Little wonder Noel Coward, during his visit to Bali, scribbled an amusing ditty in the Bali Hotel complaints book:

As I said this morning to Charlie,There is too much music in Bali, And although as a place it’s entrancing, There is also a thought too much dancing.It appears that each Balinese native, From womb to tomb is creative, And although the results are quite clever, There is too much artistic endeavor.

Ready reckoner

Getting there: There are no direct flights, so one has to fly to Bali via Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Hong Kong. Singapore Airlines has very convenient flights to Denpasar.
Staying there: There are umpteen options available, especially around the Nusa Dua area where all category hotels and even villas are available.
Getting around: You can hire motorbikes, or take the mini-vans called Bemos. They are the cheapest mode of travel.