The sun starts to slip into the horizon, slowly giving way for night to crawl in. The blue skies turn orange, then red, and purple before darkness takes over. Meanwhile under the velvet sky a grotesque-looking character lights up dried coconut husks, encircling a lone personage clad in white monkey costume. He does not seem deterred and remains sitting cross-legged in what appears to be a meditative state. As the fire grows bigger he stands up and starts kicking the burning husks frantically to all directions.
Hanuman, the warrior monkey, sets himself free from Ravana’s indomitable spell, an enactment of arguably one of the most dramatic chapters in the millennia-old Hindu epic Ramayana.
* * *
Two hours earlier our driver, Bli Komang, drove us to this southermost corner of Bali, away from the lush forests, picturesque rice terraces, and clean rivers at the heart of the island. We passed by barren limestone hills on our way to Uluwatu, sparsely dotted with trees and shrubs. “This land is not fertile,” Bli Komang said. “It cannot grow anything – only hotels.”
Bali’s southend, a bulbous peninsula connected to the mainland by an isthmus, is in fact much drier than any other parts of the island. Yet it is where some of the most luxurious hotels and villas are located, perched on limestone hills with a dramatic view of the Indian Ocean. But they are not the main reason for people to come to Uluwatu; Kecak dance and the sunset are, ensuring a steady stream of tourists on a daily basis.
Contrary to what many people think, Kecak is an invented dance, specifically created as a tourist attraction by a German artist, Walter Spies, who in the early 20th century had already seen the island’s potential in luring art enthusiasts beyond its borders. Incorporating some of Ramayana’s most renowned chapters, Kecak is performed by dancers wearing costumes and cloths richly embellished with distinctively Balinese ornaments and patterns.
We arrived one hour before the performance started, but there were already a large number of local and foreign tourists flocking to the place. Just a few meters from where we sat a group of curious Indonesian tourists mobbed two unsuspecting blond-haired women for photos. In many parts of Indonesia local people often see white tourists with fascination, which often ends up with gratuitous photo ops and selfies, making any westerners gain a celebrity status overnight. “I’m glad I don’t look like a bule,” James chuckled, referring to the casual term for white people.
On the other hand, I was more anxious about the monkeys, thanks to my previous two visits to Uluwatu when I witnessed the notorious long-tailed macaques in action: stealing visitors’ belongings, from shades to flip flops. But fortunately that day most of them gathered on the far end of the hill, away from the unaware tourists.
Apart from some minor renovation works, Pura Luhur Uluwatu retained the look as how I remembered it from my second visit to the temple in 2011: unassuming and seemingly deserted. However in spite of its modest size it serves as one of Bali’s most important temples, keeping the island and the universe in balance, a fact many non-Balinese don’t realize.
James and I decided to explore the temple’s surrounding while waiting for the ticket booth to open. We walked down the cobbled pathway, fenced from the sheer drop against the tempestuous Indian Ocean with its big, thundering waves. At the end of the pathway a troop of monkeys were lazing down, obviously more interested in grazing than harassing us. On the far left, facing the afternoon sun was a bigger, upgraded Kecak arena, presumably twice or even three times bigger than the old amphitheater. Clearly this part of the island also embraced mass tourism in full swing.
As the sun crawled closer to the horizon, the ticket counter finally opened – a rectangular open table staffed by a few locals. Like Kecak dance itself where male performers encircle a center spot, people moved closer to the counter, surrounding the overwhelmed ticketing personnel like moths attracted to a light bulb. Bli Komang voluntarily joined the crowd to get us two tickets, which ended up with a painful grin on his face as he was pinned by people taller and bigger than him.
We secured our seats on the last row of the half-done amphitheater and watched the audience grew bigger as more people constantly trickled down from the narrow entrance. Half an hour before sunset a Hindu priest in plain white attire entered the main stage, performing rituals in front of a black object which I perceived as the Balinese version of menorah. Moments later the first dancers entered the humans-packed arena, opening a series of acts inspired by one of two most popular Hindu epics, Ramayana.
* * *
Rama was the king of Ayodya (Thai: Ayutthaya), a mythical land where people lived in harmony and prosperity – a utopia believed to be somewhere in the Indian subcontinent, or so I had been repeatedly taught. In real life, the northern Indian city of Ayodhya is believed to be the birthplace of Rama and served as the capital of the 6th century BCE Kosala kingdom. Ravana (Indonesian: Rahwana), on the other hand, was a merciless and greedy king who ruled a land called Lanka (Indonesian: Alengka) just across the sea from where the people of Ayodya lived in peace. An unfortunate twist of events, however, forced Rama to be exiled to the forests of Ayodya. His beautiful wife, Sita (Indonesian: Shinta), and his brother Lakshmana accompanied him during a fourteen-year period of banishment.
One day Surpanakha, the sister of Ravana, came to the forest and seduced the two young brothers. Frustrated by her failed attempts she then threatened Sita instead, resulting with Lakshmana cutting off Surpanakha’s nose and ears. When the news reached Ravana, the angered brother was quick to plan a kidnap of Sita to weaken Rama, Ayodya’s rightful king.
On an uneventful day Rama, Sita and Lakshmana were walking inside the forest when Sita suddenly spotted a playful golden deer with bells hanging around its neck. A split second later the whimsical animal disappeared, its brief appearance managed to pique Sita’s curiosity. Rama, out of his love to his wife, chased the deer deep into the woods in hope for catching the four-legged creature to be presented to Sita.
Sita and Lakshmana waited, until an abrupt call who sounded to be Rama himself broke the silence. Worried for his safety, the concerned wife asked Lakshmana to find his brother. But the ever-vigilant prince was cautiously hesitant. There were more in the forest that met the eyes, he believed. Sita was not convinced. Lakshmana relented and unwillingly left his sister-in-law after creating a protective circle to prevent anyone from touching Sita, let alone causing harm to her.
He, too, then disappeared into the dense Ayodyan forests. Alone, Sita patiently waited for Rama and Lakshmana to return. But her loneliness came to an end when an old ascetic appeared out from nowhere and limped heavily as he moved closer towards her. He asked Sita for water for he said he’d been walking a really long distance. She remembered what Lakshmana told her to not leave the circle or bring anyone in for whatever reason, but she couldn’t let the old man fall before her eyes out of exhaustion and thirst. She reached out to the old man, letting one of her hands out of the protective circle. Once he grabbed Sita’s hand the weak and skinny arm all of a sudden turned into a big, brawny one. Ravana transformed into his true appearance and grabbed Sita to immediately return to Lanka with the hapless queen.
Rama was devastated when he found out his wife was abducted by Ravana, but the grieving exiled king was not consumed with sadness and regret, rather he made a rescue plan to save his kidnapped wife. With the help of Hanuman, the mighty monkey warrior, and powerful monkey soldiers the rescue mission came into full force. A land bridge was constructed bit by bit using large boulders to connect the subcontinent mainland to the island of Lanka.
Against all odds, Hanuman and his monkey soldiers eventually reached Lanka, one step closer to freeing Sita from Ravana’s hands. But at one point as he advanced towards Ravana’s palace Hanuman was captured, chained, and held captive in an enclosure guarded by infernal walls. However Rama would have never asked Hanuman for help if the monkey warrior did not possess a formidable power and strong determination. In spite of the indestructible chain, Hanuman broke his tie and breached the seemingly impenetrable fire walls, then went straight to where Sita was kept.
He successfully rescued Sita and brought her back safely to Ayodya.
* * *
The contracted version of Ramayana is what the dancers at Uluwatu perform everyday, with figures like Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Ravana (both in his true face and as an old man), and the golden deer captivating those who are familiar with the epic. The troupe of barechested Kecak dancers themselves, with some faces I didn’t see on my previous visit to Uluwatu, epitomized the monkey soldiers’ tenacity in helping Hanuman to free Sita.
But clearly not everyone was eager to follow each act. On the row right in front of me a group of people were busy taking selfies and photos of the sunset instead, so were some other spectators across the arena – sitting at the highest point of the amphitheater provided me with the best view of the performance, the sunset, and the people, both who were interested in the story and those who had no clue at all why they were there.
Then came the most anticipated act of the afternoon: Hanuman kicked the burned coconut husks away to set him free from Ravana’s circle of fire. The sky’s changing color was a dramatic backdrop to the spellbinding performance.
As soon as the act was over and the skies became darker, a lot of people started to raise from their seats and walked towards the exit, but the performance was not over yet. I wonder what the next dancers had in mind when they saw most of the audience had left when they entered the stage. Was it so hard to wait for a few more minutes? Was it so hard to respect all the performers?
Later Bli Komang confirmed to us that most people were only interested in the sunset, not in the dance itself. They should not have spent the money for the ticket if they were not interested in the show at the first place, so I thought. But in the end the money went to the dancers and provided them with extra income they might desperately need to sustain their lives in this harsh part of the island.
The tourists left Uluwatu only to find themselves stuck in the perennial traffic jam on the main road from Uluwatu to Jimbaran, Kuta, Seminyak and beyond but with a satisfied feeling of having witnessed Uluwatu’s fabled sunset. The dancers, on the other hand, went back to their homes with that extra money and took some rest before starting another day with another afternoon performance to carry on. No one won, no one lost.