Sunday, 11 April 2010

Light of the Gods on Bali's Peaks

The Lempuyung Temple and Mount Seraya, Eastern Bali

Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 31/04/10

The chain of steps, cutting a narrow band through the damp green forest, rose above me. Sweat dripped from the tip of my nose; rustling and chattering in the undergrowth hinted at unseen monkeys, and a cool, cloying mist rose from the rice terraces below. It was not long after dawn, and I was picking my way up the pilgrimage route to the highest station of the complex of temples known as Pura Lempuyang that stud the green flanks of the fractured volcano standing sentinel on Bali’s eastern promontory. Somewhere ahead of me, on the very pinnacle of the peak, was the Puru Lempuyang Luhur, 1060 meters above sea level and the eastern directional anchor of the Balinese compass. Some 1700 steps lead to the summit, but I had long since lost count of how many I had still to climb.

My first view of the mountain had come in the lavender light of the previous evening. Traveling north by motorbike from Amlapura, administrative capital of Karangasem, Bali’s most easterly regency, Gunung Lempuyang and Gunung Seraya, two cleaved halves of the same upwelling of basalt, rose like bruised knuckles above a rumpled rug of rice fields.
Bali’s overdeveloped south might leave many newcomers wondering just whether the luscious tropical island of myth really exists, but in this wilder eastern region I found no lack of green vistas and volcanic views. The area is dominated by the mighty cone of Gunung Agung, the 3142 meter lynchpin of Bali. But this evening Agung was lost in cloud and I was more interested in its smaller neighbor, Lempuyang-Seraya, the double peak that once overshadowed Bali’s most powerful Hindu kingdom. Karangasem today is one of Bali’s poorest regions, with drought-plagued agriculture and little tourism income. But in the 19th Century this terraced, volcanic territory was the seat of a mighty dynasty.

My first stop north of Amlapura was a pleasure garden laid out by the last king of Karangasem in 1947. Tirtagangga – the name means “Water of the Ganges” – was a place of clear pools and stepping stones. A mildewed pantomime of statues – gurning demons, bug-eyed warriors, belching boars and writhing royal nagas – spilled rivulets from artfully hidden spouts.
After spending the night in a guesthouse a stone’s throw from the gardens I woke at first light, and thirty minutes later was standing at the foot of that interminable flight of steps, bending their way out of sight towards the summit of Lempuyang.
The scattering of temples that make up the Lempuyang complex comprise one of Bali’s Kayangan Jagat, the nine directional temples which give the island its own unique set of cardinal points. Lempuyang is synonymous with the east in the Balinese scheme.
The rest of Bali seemed to fall away behind me as I climbed and when I finally reached the little temple compound at the summit it was drifting alone in the cloud. There were damp ceremonial umbrellas and altars wrapped in checked cloth. Shaggy palm trees rustled in the breeze. The temple was not totally deserted though; a local man, Pak Arya, had spent the night meditating at the temple. He told me that the name of this place – Lempuyang – was a contraction of two old Balinese words, Lempu and Hyang. It meant “the Light of the Gods”. As a mob of olive-colored monkeys emerged from the bushes and began a swaggering circuit of the temple, Pak Arya spun me a tall but tempting tale. When American astronauts on the first mission to the moon looked back on the Earth behind them they saw an unexplained light shining from one spot – Lempuyang.
“The Light of the Gods!” said Pak Arya with a grin, warding off a monkey.
Light of the Gods aside, there was one brief glimpse of the light of day as I descended, passing white-clad pilgrims struggling up the steps: for mere seconds the cloud cleared and Lempuyang’s giant neighbor, Mount Agung, loomed to the west in a deluge of bright sunlight.

At the foot of the steps I climbed back into the saddle and took a back road, skirting the northern flanks of the mountain. Agung appeared again against a pearly sky as I threaded my way through the fishing villages and low-key dive resorts around Amed. The sea was dotted with bone-white fishing boats under triangular blue sails. In Bunutan village I stopped to watch a crowd of men betting over cockfights in a shaded pavilion. The air was thick with the smell of clove smoke and feathers and tattered wads of money passed hands after each bloody bout.
The road led on, bucking over promontories and dipping into shallow bays. To my right the twin peaks of Seraya and Lempuyang loomed in the cloud, while offshore the dark hills of Lombok rose.
At the height of their powers in the 18th Century the Karangasem kings crossed that strait and annexed Lombok, placing its Muslim subjects under Hindu rule. So it remained until the end of the 19th Century when the Dutch appeared on the scene and wrested Lombok away, and then, not long after, conquered Karangasem itself.
Admiring the view as I rode I took a wrong turn and ended up in a little hamlet of yellow dogs and fighting cocks. A man called Gede called me over, and before setting back on the right road he plied me with roasted corn and sweet coffee. The blue waters of the Lombok Strait lay below us. Gede was a farmer, though in this hard, eastern landscape there is not enough water to grow rice. All that grows here, he said, is the corn on which I was chewing. The people here had little cash, and life was hard, so when foreign investors came sniffing out bargain plots for future villa developments, as they had recently begun to do, they took interest. But they were also wary, Gede said, and were doubtful about the merits of the kind of intense development seen in other parts of Bali. There are no luxury villas on this coastline – yet.

Bidding goodbye to Gede I continued on my journey. To the right the mountain emerged from the cloud again – it was Seraya that I was looking at here, 100 meters taller than its temple-topped twin. The mountain stayed in view all the way to Ujung, the final point on my circuit of Bali’s easternmost peaks. This was another water palace, built in 1919 by I Gusti Bagus Jelantik, the second-last king of Karangasem.
The sun was slanting away to the west now, with soft light shimmering on the water of the pool and on the white marble of the central pavilion, a private chamber where the royals had once retreated from the eyes of the world. Today there were no more fluttering princesses, only locals from nearby Amlapura, out for an afternoon jog around the pool.
I climbed a flight of steps to a skeletal folly of relief-covered marble. The water palace lay below me, white walls, Dutch shutters and Balinese friezes in a mass of green trees. And beyond, propping up a slab of milky cloud, stood the two-peaked massif that had been the fulcrum of my journey, Lempuyang-Seraya.

© Tim Hannigan 2010

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