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Travel: At Bali's Uluwatu temple, dancers bring stories from epics to life

Located by the sea at the southern tip of the island of Bali, the temple is a great place to watch the Balinese dance form, kecak

Using sinuous hand movements and elaborate facial expressions, the dancers depict stories from the Ramayana at the temple in Bali.
Using sinuous hand movements and elaborate facial expressions, the dancers depict stories from the Ramayana at the temple in Bali. (Anita Rao Kashi)

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The sky is grey and stormy, with thick clouds hanging menacingly across a seething sea. Standing at the edge of a promontory, the drama is more intense below, a drop of 70m, where billowing and frothy waves hurl themselves against the craggy limestone surface accompanied by thunderous sound. In the distance, the horizon is lit with a halo of muted translucent light from a slowly sinking sun. On clear days, the sunset is probably a show-stopper but the thick cloud cover is a spoilsport today. It hardly matters, though. Something much more vivid and riveting is unfolding at the Uluwatu temple on the southern tip of the island of Bali, a province of Indonesia and a Hindu majority area.

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Uluwatu describes itself: It is an amalgamation of two words, ulu and watu, which literally mean edge of a cliff in Balinese. It is home to the Pura Luhur Uluwatu temple, which stands at the south-western tip of the island like a sentinel looking out to the thalassic expanse of the Indian Ocean. The temple is dedicated to Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, in his manifestation of Rudra; the former is a cosmic force and the supreme god in Balinese Hinduism, the equivalent of the concept of Brahman in Indian Hinduism. It is a fascinating amalgamation of Indonesian and Hindu elements going back to the 11th century, when a temple in some form is known to have existed at the location.

Within the temple complex is a pagoda-kind of shrine of Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, surrounded by smaller ones dedicated to a pantheon of deities. Built in black stone, the shrines and the signature candi bentar (typical elaborate split gate specific to Balinese architecture with elaborate carvings) are striking and eminently instagrammable, as evidenced by the crowds. But I am more fascinated by the legends surrounding the temple that Dewa, my Balinese guide, narrates.

“We believe the temple protects Bali from evil spirits that sweep in from the sea,” he says. “The temple is also a favourite with surfers and they come to get blessed for good waves for surfing.” As fantastic as that sounds, he has more, as he points to a few monkeys sitting on trees some distance away. “The temple is famous for its monkeys; the monk Dang Hyang Nirartha was helped by a set of loyal soldiers in constructing the temple. He transformed them into monkeys before he died and tasked them with protecting the temple.”

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I had heard stories about the aggressive monkeys who snatch things from tourists and return them when offered fruit. But as I dwell on the shape-shifting story, we arrive at the circular courtyard adjoining the temple complex that overlooks the ocean. Designed like an amphitheatre, it is semi-circular and has stepped seating, with a beautiful stone lamp in the middle of the well, its flames flickering in the sea breeze. I climb up a few levels and find a seat in the rapidly filling area. A low buzz hangs in the air, the culmination of collective chatter of the few hundred gathered there. The sound soon falls away and everything is silent as the well fills with dozens of bare-chested men, wearing chequered black and white sarong-style garments. The loud and rhythmic clucking sound they make as they surround the lamp with trance-like motions, moving their hands rhythmically and swaying to the sounds, is captivating. The famous Balinese kecak (pronounced kay-chak or key-chak; it is onomatoepic as it resembles the clucking sound itself) performance gets under way.

Once the initial jolt of the sound and hypnotic motion settles, it quickly becomes evident that kecak, also called monkey chant dance and performed mostly by men, is almost entirely based on the clucking sounds. There are no instruments, no songs, lyrics or words. Instead, the mood is set by the tempo and volume of the clucking sounds, accompanied by the sound of the sea. The performers are framed by the diffused light of the sinking sun that suffuses the cloudy sky and horizon. It all feels far too surreal.

Earlier, on the way to the amphitheatre, Dewa tells me the form is believed to have existed for centuries, drawing from Balinese trance and exorcism rituals. “But it was only around the 1930s that the form was specifically used to evoke the story of the Ramayan and has since only been performed with that storyline,” he says.

The clucking men settle on the ground in tight concentric circles around the lamp; the sounds reach a gradual crescendo and then wane suddenly. That’s when a set of three elaborately dressed dancers, in bright greens and yellows interwoven with gold and accessorised with jewels and crowns, dance into the centre. Using flowing, sinuous hand movements and elaborate facial expressions, they depict characters from the Ramayana—Ram, Sita, Lakshman. A lilting rhythm accompanies them, vastly different from the earlier staccato rhythm.

But even before the gentle strains and fluid movements can be savoured, the tempo jolts into a harsh one to announce the arrival of Ravan, dressed in black and red. The performer brings an ominousness and edgy darkness to the character with jerky hand gestures and fierce facial expressions. In contrast, the character of Hanuman, who enters soon after, is dressed in white and is a fount of antics. He skips, jumps and skitters up and down the steps amidst the audience, evoking laughter. He is especially a hit with little children.

Coincidentally, as the story progresses to its finale, the weather too is heading for a climax. Dark clouds have been gathering overhead steadily, unleashing thunder and lightning, providing the perfect backdrop to the epic. The incessant clucking, now at its highest volume, adds to the drama. Finally, when the whole stage erupts in fire, quite literally, and the epic battle rages on, the skies too open up, dousing the fires and bringing the battle to an end. And with it, the performance too.

In the darkness, there is a mad scramble to get out and take shelter from the downpour. The arena empties quickly and in the melee, I am separated from my guide. I follow the narrow winding path leading out of the temple. By now, it’s dark and the path is almost deserted. The sound of the rain on the thick tree cover flanking the path combines with the sound of the raging sea to create a spectacular symphony. Against this, the temple’s ceremonial split gate with its elaborate contours throws eerie shadows, like looming creatures. Together with the surreal performance I have witnessed, it’s an image that stays long after everything else about Uluwatu is a distant memory.

Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.

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