Surely Temple

We had a total blackout one night about a month ago. I decided it was a great time to take my flashlight and stroll around this hilly jungle enclave. It was atmospheric and a bit spooky, as I hoped it would be. I hardly saw a soul. I took the trail that sinks down across the river and back up again to the older part of town. The short bridge that crosses the river there was especially dark and still. The trail rose up and I emerged onto the central street of another part of Penestanan. The cross street is straight, and tidy in both directions. Walled compounds line both sides behind the ubiquitous Frangipani trees, with their fragrant and beautiful yellow flowers that are picked daily and dispersed everywhere. Normally, even at night, the locals are out and about here: kids ride their bikes; men sit on the corner bale; women carry assorted things on their heads (I recently picked up one of the cinder blocks that the women -often over 50 years of age- carry on their heads 4 at a time. It alone weighed at least 20 pounds!). I strolled past the small PlayStation shop that is often packed with boisterous kids playing FIFA soccer on a large monitor. Tonight it was dark and empty.

However, a little further on, and across the street, above the tall compound wall, was the glow of light. Up the steep side street I went and found the entrance. I’d never noticed that this was a temple, as all you can see above the top of the wall is the common thatched roofs. Without my sarong and sash, I was not properly attired to cross the threshold, but in the bright glare of the generator-driven lights, I could see that some renovating of this temple was coming to an end. The recent sights and sounds and signs of an impending local ceremony suddenly made sense. Pura (temple) Ratu Ngrurah was first built in 1929. It is one of 6 temples in Penestanan. Each one gets an annual birthday party that alternates between 1 and 3 days long. But a newly renovated temple gets the works: weeks and weeks and weeks of preparation (coming on the heels of weeks and weeks and weeks of work for another ceremony of some sort. It never ends). The Gods must be pleased! The grounds and premises must be safe-guarded from evil spirits, which of course, is no small task. Pura Ratu Ngrurah’s ceremony would last for 3 days, starting late afternoon, in just a few days.

Early in that first day of ceremony, I returned again and climbed up that steep temple street. The offering boxes of the neighboring compounds were especially packed with fruits and goodies. The burning incense wafts the prayers and good intentions up into the sky to the Gods. Those placed on the ground appeal to the evil spirits below. Upon entering the temple gate, I was surprised to find myself practically alone there, but surrounded by a fantasy of pre-ceremonial riches. Piles and stacks and rows of beautiful baskets of fruits, flowers, and smaller hand-woven baskets of rice, meats, eggs, and assorted earthly-looking things I’d never seen. Gold banners and streamers waved everywhere. Temporary stairways led to varied deity-looking structures: dragons and sea turtles and lions. Hundreds of plates and trays of elaborately decorated food and assorted offerings filled the table tops: boars heads and skewered pigs and ducks lay strewn amid colorful and intricate sculptures of (?) dough and rice. Spirit, devotion, and reverence was everywhere, packed into a space that was almost gaudy with effort. Off to the side, in opposing covered pavilions, waited the varied gongs, drums, and wind instruments of the Gamelon orchestra.

Jennifer and I showed up a few hours later, on time -which means an hour or 2 or 3 before the official celebration starts. But already it was a fantastic scene, and crowded. The temple is split into 2 levels, and both were buzzing with different things. There were beautiful sights everywhere: dance troupes of young girls or warriors; frenzied Gamelon orchestras; everyone dressed in their dazzling ceremonial best; people arranging the zillions of baskets of fruit -still more being brought in; villagers sitting and praying; others smoking up a storm, staring off into space; and the vibrant buzz of friends coming together to socialize and people-watch right along with us. We were among a group of maybe a dozen foreigners there, and did our best to stake out a spot that would best offer a view of what was to come, and without getting in the way of anything. As night time enveloped the open temple, I stood leaning against a wall and marveled at the scene around me, which was even more magical now than when I had it to myself a few hours earlier. The photos don’t do justice to this shimmering golden spectacle. Aside from scenes of nature, it struck me as the most magnificent and beautiful scene I’d ever laid my eyes upon. The ceremonial details were stunning to behold, especially lit up under the dark sky, but combined with the colorful people and mystical and spiritual energy, it was dreamy and simply sublime.

We squeezed down against a pavilion and watched the main ceremony unfold. A few feet behind us sat the King of Ubud. In front of us, in rows, kneeled scores of women in prayer. Eventually a high priest arrived. He climbed onto an elevated platform and very slowly changed his clothes and performed a variety of long, private rituals before leading the crowd through songs and prayers. One phase in particular called for everyone to hold a flower in their hands. I felt a tap and turned to see a young boy -maybe 10 years old- offering me one. His expression was kind but also quite serious. His eyes rolled up into his head as he closed his lids to pray. Afterwards, most all of the kneeling woman rose to their feet and began a mesmerizing, beautiful dance among themselves that went on for 30 minutes.  it was all enthralling. we didn’t want the night to end -and it almost didn’t. The ceremony seemed to have many endings, and each one sent more people home. But we stayed and stayed and stayed and saw more rituals of group prayers and sight devotions that were fascinating. At the very end, we stood near the gate as scores of women walked out past us, carrying the full plates and towering baskets on their heads. It was a treat. We floated home.

We returned for day 2 the following night. It had much of the same surrounding elements, but with a different focus: humor, which was really interesting. From behind the curtain came a variety of entertainers and hired comedians. We could not understand the dialogue, but the delivery was fun and funny -and surprisingly included a lot of very risque material -which the crowd ate up. But it went on a loooonnnngg time, until rain sent people home. But earlier, there was an act that I’ll never forget. A group of 6 young local village men came out dressed and made up as women, and performed a campy dance routine that awkwardly imitated their women counterparts. The crowd went completely nuts, and stayed as frenzied as a Beatles show at Shea Stadium. Men, women, the kids, all screamed and laughed harder than anything I’ve ever seen. I felt so happy for this village, and so grateful to witness these events.

-matt

Photos will follow again once the internet Gods are pleased.

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