Exploring the Past in Bali

By John Cooke

Bali, the ultimate island paradise, is a favorite destination for world travelers. Some come to soak up the sun on pristine beaches, brave the challenge of awesome surf or play golf within the crater of an ancient volcano. For others, the attraction of Bali lies in its magnificent natural beauty, and the unique richness of its remarkable cultural heritage.

 My wife and I spend several months each year there, sharing our knowledge of the island  with small groups of  friends. Bali's dramatic landscape is permeated by countless tracks and trails, which we love to explore on foot. Sometimes, as a focus for our hikes, we search for little-known antiquities, often traveling through remote and beautiful countryside rarely, if ever, visited by tourists.

 Little is known, with any certainty, of Balinese history before about the 16th century, even though fossil skulls from neighboring Java indicate a human presence in this part of the world for more than one and a half million years. Although a few artifacts extending back to the Stone and Bronze Ages have been found, evidence of these early inhabitants is not abundant. Wooden structures are ephemeral in the tropics, and even stone buildings seldom long survive the severe earthquakes that periodically shake this geologically active land. Moreover, what does survive is likely to be concealed eventually under layers of volcanic ash.

Yet one class of ancient monument unique to Bali has survived relatively well. Called candi (pronounced "chandi"), these are massive memorials to long-dead, deified rulers carved out from the living rock, like some of India's famous shrines.

The largest and most impressive candi complex is at Gunung Kawi and commemorates a dynasty that ruled a millennium ago. Unknown to outsiders until 1920, Gunung Kawi today deservedly receives many visitors.

 But there is a special pleasure in seeking out more remote and secluded ancient monuments, not least because there is always the possibility of discovering new sites along the way. In the gorge of the Kalebutan River near Pejeng, for example, there is a fine rock-cut candi and unusual associated structures. This was discovered only after a landslide in 1925 dislodged the earth and vegetation concealing it.

 More recently, archaeologists were drawn to a small man-made cave in the gorge of the Pakerisan River near Tegallingah. The entrance was blocked with mud and dirt, but digging within, they uncovered a stone staircase. This lead them on to a great complex of rock-cut candis and hermit cells concealed beneath massive accumulations of debris. Potentially rivaling Gunung Kawi in magnificence, the Tegallingah candis were partially destroyed by a tremendous earthquake before completion and the site was abandoned. For almost one thousand years the ruins lay lost and forgotten. Few visitors find their way to this enchanted spot.

Before Bali was conquered by the Majapahits from neighboring Java in the 13th century, the region around Pejeng was the center of a thriving civilization. Bounded East and West by the Petanu and Pakerisan rivers, this "Holy Land" holds many antiquities. Numerous statues and other sacred objects of great age are preserved in surrounding temples and reflect a diversity of cultural influences. Some, dating from the 8th or 9th century, show strong Indian Hindu and Buddhist connections. Others reveal links to the Bronze Age Dongson culture of Viet Nam. Sacred springs, holy caves, and rock walls covered in mysterious carved reliefs dot the area. Who knows what else still lies concealed behind curtains of fern and creeper in remote river canyons?

 At first glance the Balinese landscape strikes the visitor as neat and orderly. Terraced paddies, luminous with the brilliant green of young rice, range sinuously up every hillside. But the terracing conceals the true structure of the Balinese countryside. Shaped like a diamond some 60 miles from North to South and 90 miles across, Bali is dominated by a chain of dormant volcanoes rising to 10,000 feet. These peaks can attract torrential rains, which have created a multitude of streams and rivers. Because the soil is principally soft volcanic ash, laid layer upon layer, the rushing water has carved precipitous gorges, sometimes only a few yards across but hundreds of feet deep. Thus Bali consists of numerous ridges radiating down from the mountains, each effectively isolated from its neighbors. The walker in Bali must be prepared for some steep scrambling on trails that can be both muddy and extremely slippery.

One day last summer, inspired by a welcome break in the protracted wet season, I decided to hike along the Pakerisan River. My goal was a candi I'd not previously visited. The possibility of accidentally stumbling on new discoveries tempted me to approach it by a somewhat circuitous route. Pausing along the way to snack at a roadside warung in Ubud, I ran into Tony, a California attorney interested in Balinese music, whom I had met a couple of days earlier at a gambuh concert. Without hesitation Tony jumped at the invitation to join me, little realizing what he was about to undertake!

 We drove to a spot near the river where access was easy. The sun filtered down through a lush green canopy as we started to wade through the refreshingly cool water. Only two or three feet deep, with a gravel bottom, the river was easy to negotiate at first. I had been to this spot before. A couple of years before, Stuart Rome, a photographer friend from Philadelphia living in Bali, discovered near here a series of ancient Bodhisatvas, each carved into a niche and immersed up to the neck in water. Nearby, a man-made cave and remains of a large bas-relief with life-size figures hinted at other treasures probably hidden in the thick undergrowth. Today's goal, however, lay several miles farther upstream.

 Pressing on, the going quickly grew rougher and much more demanding. Fierce, swirling currents, large boulders and deep pits on the riverbed forced us to hug the bank, which soon became a smooth, slippery wall of shiny black vertical rock. Dangling creepers, an eternal tangle of spider webs and the occasional waterfall spilling from above slowed our cautious progress upstream.

 After a mile or two, we found a break in the wall of rock and were able to clamber up to a broad vegetated ledge and follow the river more easily. In Bali no piece of ground that can be cultivated is left unused. As our ledge became wider we found ourselves in a maze of tiny terraces, some only a few feet in width, reached by steep trails running down from the canyon rim several hundred feet above us. Suddenly, I felt I knew where I was. Crossing back over the river on a whim, we found a path and climbed steeply up and out of the canyon. There at the top I spotted a small temple and its beautiful sacred spring that I had chanced upon a couple of months earlier. It is always reassuring to recognize landmarks in seemingly unknown territory.

 The gorge of the Pakerisan is precipitous at this point, the waters roaring ominously as they swirled between steep rock walls. These were higher and more menacing than those we had traversed earlier, and I doubted the wisdom of trying to continue farther along the riverbed. However, I recalled having heard of a bridge not far below the temple. Perhaps this might bring us to a path that would lead towards our chosen destination.

 A steep scramble brought us down once more to the river, which tumbled between sheer walls only a few feet apart. The trail we were following indeed led to a bridge - of sorts: three old lengths of bamboo, each less sturdy than its neighbor, bound together with old vines. Bali abounds with such structures, which are usually somewhat stronger than they appear. With some trepidation we crossed safely back to the East bank.

 The candi we were seeking lay at the confluence of the Krobokan and Pakerisan rivers a mile or two upstream. To my dismay the trail began to climb steeply up the eastern wall of the gorge. Clearly another expedition would be needed to explore along the banks of the river itself.

Eventually, the trail led up and over the canyon rim to a small village, where the presence of two distinctive strangers was clearly an event of some significance. We had strayed far beyond the normal range of visitors and were objects of curiosity. At first our queries about the proper route to follow were met only with bewilderment. In part this was because the first farmers to whom we spoke understood no Bahasa Indonesia, the lingua franca, but only Balinese. Also, the "official" name of our candi was not that used by the locals. Once our destination was understood, however, we were given detailed instructions. Up the road, left through the rice fields and down several hundred feet once more to the river.

 Of all the monuments I have visited in Bali, none is more perfectly situated than the Krobokan candi, which is carved into a projecting nose of rock where the two rivers join. From here it dominates the idyllic canyon of the Pakerisan. The confluence of two rivers is considered by the Balinese to be a particularly sacred and auspicious location. Many ancient monuments are to be found in such places.

 Laborers in some distant age fashioned a huge, smooth face of rock that today peers out through dense vegetation that threatens to engulf it. Within a deeply incised niche stands the candi itself, a pyramidal structure some 20 feet tall carved in high relief. Symmetrically placed on either side are the characteristic oblong, pillared chambers that usually accompany a candi. What purpose they served is unclear. Some believe that they were hermit cells, in which lived ascetic guardians of the shrine. More probably they served some ritual function, possibly to do with disposal of the dead. Today they are empty and deserted.

Once protected by a tough coating of lime, the candi would originally have borne inscriptions and intricate decorations. However, time and the elements have gradually taken their toll, obscuring the finer details. Even so, the structure remains impressive. It has been dated, principally on stylistic grounds, to around the middle of the 12th century, about 100 years later than the great candi complex at Gunung Kawi a few miles upstream. Sadly, no inscriptions remain to identify the king so splendidly memorialized here, but he was manifestly a ruler of considerable power and importance.

 Sitting beneath the candi, reveling in the solitude and beauty of its setting, I could not help pondering the civilization that created this masterpiece. Who were these people? What were their beliefs? How did they live? What became of them? I have no doubt that further clues to their identity and their culture lie concealed in the surrounding hills and forests, waiting to be discovered by some happy accident.

 With this in mind I shall return again to explore more of the Pakerisan River. Next time, I've decreed, it will be much easier. Rather than battle upstream, struggling against the forces of nature, I plan to float gently with the current as it carries me through the gorges. Care to join me?



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