Such a spectacle

Such a spectacle. Samuan Tiga is a ‘Mother Temple’, one of five in Bali, and it is in Bedulu, about five kilometres from Ubud. Today is the third day of of an eleven-day annual ceremony that will culminate in a march to the sea by thousands of people, to put the ashes of their recently departed in the final resting place.

Today was the circling of the temple eleven times by some of the local women (I estimate about 100) followed by the men (about 400) , a mock battle among those men, blessing by the head ‘mangku’ (priest) finishing with a march by the women back to each of their villages.

When we arrived it was like a carnival; food-stalls, flags, balloons and trinkets for sale, and a casino in full swing to the side of the temple. A friend emerged from there as we came in, smug that he had recovered his losses from yesterday (the equivalent of $12) and walked away despite the organisers’ pleas to play on. Tomorrow will be another story I suspect.

As we moved to the inner temple, the sweet sound of gamelan increased, swelling and receding with those complex rhythms that bewilder western musicians. Kadek tells me they rarely read the music; just practice what the leader shows them for each instrument until they sound good enough. It helps that most of the men had started playing when they were barely more than toddlers, but that doesn’t account for the new music they had learnt for today, all by ear. The sound was so well coordinated it seems impossible they got it down in less than a week. I’m talking about a new piece more than 10 minutes long.

Kadek asked us to kneel, which proved tricky in my temple dress, and then surprised us by asking us to pray. I’ve tried to avoid this bit in the past, because I’m not religious, but I couldn’t think quickly of a way not to offend, so I went through the motions—even down to the flowers behind my ear and the rice on my forehead and neck. After a silent apology (not sure who to—me?) it was awkwardly up again and moving to the outer area.

And here were the women beginning their journeys around the temple; mostly over 50 is my guess, some very old. But all obviously picked as fit to complete the ceremony in graceful style, despite crushing heat, and surrounded by several thousand spectators. By about the fifth rotation they were sweating visibly, but still moving as smoothly as air, with perfect poise. Dressed all in white, I saw that they picked up flowers for the back of their hair on about lap seven, then more behind their ears a few minutes later. The last two times, they were moving quickly, almost running, while making sure they put their foot on each corner of the temple as they passed-a tricky manoeuvre when you’re being pulled along quickly in a sort of daisy chain. Last, by now after more than half an hour of constant effort, quite a few looking exhausted, they kneeled in front of the mangku and prayed soundlessly.

Time to get out of the way of the men, who also did a few laps, but running madly and shouting while trying to hold hands, which lead to many near accidents involving the pressing crowd. The average age seemed younger, which might reflect the greater stamina required. Then they grabbed a sort of switch broom, short and not too stiff, and stated beating each other. The testosterone was getting a bit out of control now, with some of the men laying into each other with screams and apparent force. We stood well back, but many tried to get closer only to be pushed back by the yelling temple wardens. Suddenly, the chief mangku appeared on some steps, and all knelt and began cheering him. Everyone jostled to make sure they were sprinkled by the holy water delivered by three assistant mangkus, becoming steadily calmer in the process. I’m no reader of ancient Sanskrit, so I (and I understand almost all of the worshippers) have no idea what he said for a minute or so, but the effect was electric, and peace reigned again for a time.

Now friends and family started mingling, admiring new babies, praising the enormous offerings that had taken weeks to prepare, and pausing to pray in front of the ‘barong’ that is brought out of the sacred heart of the temple on occasions like this. The star offerings are the two huge statues, one made entirely of pork (yes, pork) and the other of coloured icing. I noticed this year that the pork one was not crawling with maggots—Kadek explained that it was sprayed with insecticide. Another small modernisation that makes sense I guess, but which slightly disappoints this romantic tourist.

As we were leaving, the lines of women began to form for the walk back to their banjar (village), all wearing their best temple clothes. The impact of the combined colour of these outfits inside the temple is hard to convey; quite overwhelming to the senses. Walking beside the road, the beauty is heightened by the bearing of the women, all moving smoothly with straight backs that no amount of pilates could achieve.

I asked Kadek how much work was going on in the community while thousands of people were at the temple for eleven days. ‘Not much Pak, this is a very important ceremony.’ As a non-believer, I guess I’ll never get my head around that word ‘important’, but the level of commitment required in Bali is extraordinary. I’ve heard it said that the average is a day or two a week over the whole year. Of course, the result is the experiences people like me have when we come here, which are gob-smackingly lovely, and it certainly is a key attraction for tourists, but it’s a wonder this is holding on so firmly with most young Balinese in modern times.

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