In which photographer Rio Helmi sneaks away from worldly duties to get a glimpse of the massive procession on foot from Batukau high up in the western mountains down to Tanah Lot, and back. *NB although the official government name is Batukaru, elders and priests from the temple insist it is Batukau, as the mountain resembles an upturned half of a coconut shell traditionally used as a bowl.
For several months now my friend Surya Anaya has been disappearing up to and reappearing from his mountain birthplace, Wongaya Gede, just under the jungle cloaked temple of Batukau, for various ‘spiritual’ tasks. To be honest, it really isn’t something out of the ordinary, in the sense that “Dogi” (as those close to him call this vet, due to his natural affinity with dogs) seems to be always implicated in the spiritual goings on at Pura Batukau.
Unlike the norm in the modern, spiritually inventive expat world of Bali, these are real community obligations with deep historical roots and very pervasive implications for Bali’s agricultural society. Pura ‘Luhur’ (‘exalted temple’) Batukau holds a very special place in the Balinese spiritual order of things, particularly for the region around Tabanan as it is tied to the watershed of said region. Ceremonies there are always intense; heavy trances are the norm. And there is always a procession of high ranking, worldly bigwigs heading up there trying to tap into its other worldly influence. Standard Batukau response: “We don’t recognize caste up here”.
Trance in Batukau Temple can be very intense
There has been a several months long set of ritual ceremonies going on up there. The ‘Karya Agung Pengurip Gumi’ (The Great Rites to Revitalise the Earth) is complex in ways that Balinese ceremonies excel in. There is huge amount of organization; and then the orderly chaos of execution when planning meets real-life logistical complexities. Yet where there is a will there is a way, the Balinese always forge through and get the job done in one way or the other.
Dogi is nothing if not completely Balinese in this respect. I for one always invite him to dinner at least one hour beforehand. Please note: his tardiness has nothing to do with being disrespectful or inconsiderate. It’s simply the price of the intricacies and complexities of this man’s life: balancing intense traditional “adat” life with that of being an extremely engaged public health consultant; being a family man not only to his patient and accommodating wife, but also in the full on sense of Balinese extended clans; not to mention the odd creative building projects that always seem to be bubbling in the background.
If anybody is expecting this to be a detailed anthropological exposé about Balinese ceremony, adat or otherwise, now would be a good time to bail. I bring up this “tardiness” in relation to Balinese ceremonies because in reality it isn’t about tardiness, it’s about accomodating many complex and mostly unpredictable factors. When you are dealing with multiple (okay in this case scores) of gods, and possibly hundreds of trance mediums, things just aren’t going to be that straight forward – they are, after all, the stars of the whole show. To be honest, unfortunately I don’t have time to follow the whole thing, but I want to at the very least witness the procession before getting back to urgent matters at home. It’s going to be tight.
The day before the first day of the procession, I pester Dogi as to what time they will leave Batukau. Let’s be real, 50% of photography is about logistics and preparation, the rest is still somewhat of a mystery to me – things just seem to pop up, especially on a good day. But you have to be ready. Dogi says the priests want to leave the temple at 6. Ok, I need about 30-40 minutes on the bike to get there, add another 10 for negotiating road blocks. (The Balinese love adapting ‘modern’ terms, so they said the road will be “steril”. All very Secret Service.)
Then I do a very silly thing. The night before I binge watch a historical Netflix series on the siege of Constantinople by the Ottomans. Fascinating: I had no idea Sultan Mehmet was only 21 when he led the first army to succesfully lay siege to the capital of the Roman Empire – though at a huge cost. My Turkish side really got hooked – my grandfather on my mother’s side was after all part of that empire.
Ok I’m just trying make excuses as to why I got up later than I wanted to – and find myself unorganized at 5:30 in my garage. I somehow manage to get out the gates at 5:45 with cameras packed, then take the short cut to Marga. Except that something happens to my brain after I cross the Bedugul highway and I end up taking the wrong turn (imagine, even with a GPS glowering at me in the twilight). Several kilometers up a forest road, cursing myself, I finally meet a farmer on a bicycle. When I mention Marga his eyebrows shoot up. Back I go. By the time I get to Wongaya Gede it’s around 6:40. But funny enough besides all the talk about “steril” I just cruise through. What is great though is there are almost no cars or bikes parked on the road. I pop off a shot of these magnificent, “furry” penjors and post it to the UN&T facebook page.
The magnificent “furry” penjors in Wongaya Gede.
Dogi isn’t responding to his WhatsApp, so I do some reconnoitering. The lower temple parking lot (where there really is a roadblock manned by men in all kinds of uniforms) is a bust. No vistas, no long shots. OK back down the hilll I go as far as Tengkudak. I’m looking for a place where I can discreetly launch the drone and have panoramic possibilities. I consider various options, then go back up and find a parking lot just off the road right at the southern end of Wongaya Gede. It’s in the shade, there’s even a perfect slot for the bike and a nice piece of flat pavement for the drone’s landing pad. It’s 7:45. I ask a passing policeman, he says they will leave at 8am, hmmm. The pecalangs say 8:30. By 8:30 Dogi finally responds :”Yes we’ve left already.” Pacing out to the road with a long lens, I don’t see much. I finally send the drone up and see them coming out of the jungle.
With the drone I try and maintain a discreet distance and height off to the side. But ultimately my favourite shot is taken from the ground with a very long lens as they come down the hill, framed by the penjors. It’s almost 10 am, and the light is horrible. There is another drone in the air flying quite erratically, I start visualizing a crash in the air. Paranoid I bring mine down. Then they stop at the crossroads.
Finally they come down from the temple into Wongaya Gede.
What Dogi didn’t tell me is that the Gods are stopping at all the temples on the way, and in many of them further down the road they ignore the organizing committee’s pleas to keep the welcoming rituals simple. In his words “It’s as if local villages came out to welcome the President of Indonesia…”. And then there’s the trances… Tick-tock, tick-tock. Ok time to go home. I head down the relatively “sterile” road nodding to the odd traffic policeman. I’m actually jealous of the photographers who are following the whole thing.
As I turn up towards the Tajen road I run into a procession of local deities, complete with trance mediums slowly slipping into another world. It feels like then all the southern slopes of the western mountain ranges are on the move to join the main procession.
Above and below: Processions of deities and half tranced mediums pour out of the western mountain villages to join the procession.
On Thursday, Dogi says they are leaving Tabanan (where they stayed after a very late, wet night in Tanah Lot because the extreme weather delayed the proceedings) at 5 am the next day. I decide I’ll get there at 6:30 and play it by ear. I’m more relaxed, and I don’t goof up the route again. Around 7 am nothing seems to be happening at the temple in Tabanan, and there are people still sleeping on the carpets in the Mario building . As I am getting my cameras ready on the bike, a man walks by and, palms together, greets me formally: “Om Swasti Astu”, which alerts me to the fact that he might know me, but I have gone blank. We chat, and as it turns out he used to work for my friend, the late, legendary Made Wijaya. We have a long chat, some of it gossip to be sure.
Above: Sleeping in the Mario Building in Tabanan. Below: Devotees having coffee in front of the temple in Tabanan, waiting for the procession home to start.
Below: boys in a gamlean group in a village near Tengkudak preparing to join the procession when it comes by.
After snapping some atmospheric shots, I head up the road a few kilometers and wait. A woman comes by with her granddaughter, and starts the usual Balinese interrogation. “Where are you from, where do you stay,..” etc. It turns out she is originally from Ubud, from Br Taman in fact, and is closely related to the Lempad family who I was very close to in the late 70s and early eighties. Hmm, two ‘from the past’ encounters in one day – what are the chances?
The procession finally comes through, some of it stately, with mediums quietly in another space, some of it raucous with gamelans furiously beating out stirring rhythms, some of it strung out far along the asphalt with people chatting on their phones. The gamut of Bali. It’s 9:30.
The procession heads home, halfway up the mountain in the background on the left. This represents roughly a third of the entire procession.
Suddenly I become aware of a eerie, gentle tinkling sound which grows slowly louder. It’s a processions of pemangku priests ringing their bells as the walk, the vanguard of the deity they are escorting. I manage to shoot a short video.
Then I have to head home, annoyed that I have so many obligations that I can’t postpone, but grateful that even with all these worldly duties I can still slip away for 3-4 hours and be witness to the spirit of Bali.
text, images and video ©Rio Helmi
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