Dancing Queen Indonesian journey

| July 1, 2013

In the ancient temples of Java and Bali, Art Tours lecturer Denise Heywood, discovers history repeating itself.

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Serenely contemplating a new dawn, Buddha’s image emerges from one of the 72 stupas atop the magnificent Borobudur temple in Java. As the rising sun touches the stone, I marvel at the skill of the unknown sculptor who gave the image such an aura of transcendent calm. And such was the intention, for this statue would have only been seen once a pilgrim had circumambulated the vast, circular monument’s eight levels, studying each of the 1,460 sublimely carved narrative reliefs on their spiritual journey to enlightenment, from the terrestrial to the celestial realm. I’ve rushed past them all to reach the top for sunrise, yet even I feel the effect, suffused with their calm.

Borobudur is the largest Buddhist monument in the world. Created from 1.6m blocks of volcanic andesite, it was built during the Sailendra era and took 75 years to complete, from 770 AD. Initially Hindu, it was Buddhist by completion but abandoned soon after. These days it remains shrouded in mystery, few inscriptions offering clues as to its complex imagery. Borobudur almost certainly derives its name from the Sanskrit Vihara Buddha Uhr, meaning high Buddhist monastery, and is a replica of Mount Meru, Hindu kingdom of the gods. Looking up, I just about catch sight of the highest central stupa. It is empty, possibly suggesting nirvana, the ultimate Buddhist state of nothingness.

It’s a beautiful setting. In the distance, Gunung Merapi (Fire Mountain) rears up out of a purplish mist, along with three other volcanos. Its eruption every few years feeds the lush Kedu plain’s volcanic soil, making it perfect for growing rice. Today, as the sun rises higher, it catches and shimmers along the water-steeped green rice terraces: a verdant landscape of luxuriant vegetation, coconut groves and flowering tropical trees, like the fragrant white frangipani. When Merapi erupted in 1008 it engulfed the temple to the extent that it wasn’t uncovered until 1814, when Sir Stamford Raffles – the brilliant Lieutenant-Governor of Java, the first to be interested in Java’s antiquities – brought a team to examine the ruins. Raffles was awed. “We are at a loss,” he wrote, “whether most to admire the extent and grandeur of the whole construction, or the beauty, richness and correctness of the sculpture.”

The exquisitely carved narrative bas-reliefs paint a vivid picture of daily life in ancient times. They act as an evocative census of everything from villages with trees and birds to ships in full sail on high seas; royal courts with regally attired princes in bejewelled pavilions and saints and priests and ascetics, culminating in the 504 mystical buddha statues in meditation. The details of their gentle, serene faces, expressive hands and feet, appearing beneath crossed legs, are sculpted with extraordinary sensitivity and realism.

But what captivates me most are the bas-reliefs of dancers, accompanied by musicians: delicately sculpted yet rhythmic and balletic, caught in cosmic harmony. Here, and in the magnificent nearby Hindu temple of Candi Loro Jonggrang on the Prambanan Plain (built between 900 and 930 AD for King Balitung of the Mataram dynasty), these flowing two-dimensional carvings seem to anticipate the stylised sacred dances of Java’s royal courts and ultimately those of neighbouring Bali in modern times. The stunning Shiva temple of Loro Jonggrang rises as a tower, six diminishing storeys 50 metres high. Its panels of lavishly sculpted reliefs rival those of Borobudur in iconographical detail, depicting scenes from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, interspersed with niches of apsaras, celestial dancers, musicians and images of Shiva as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. What influence did these reliefs have on ceremonial rituals? When the courts of Java fled to Bali to escape internal conflicts, their performances, captured in these carvings, went too.

And so, as night falls on Puri Saren, ubud’s royal palace in Bali, I sit by the light of a candle and soak up the gently tinkling sounds of gamelan music. Suddenly, in a burst of radiant colour, shimmering with gold and silver, a Balinese dancer steps from the darkness on to the courtyard stage. The drama of his stylised movements, in time with the orchestra, is heightened by the extravagance of his colourful, swirling costume and headdress. Widening his kohled eyes, he shakes a crown of iridescent shells in a ritual baris (warrior dance), with slow, expressive grace. A legong dance follows: nubile young girls shimmer, resplendent in silken gold-spun tight-fitting costumes of crimson and turquoise, decked with head-dresses of gold leaf and frangipani flowers. The effect is electrifying and beautiful, each gliding across the floor with steady, meditative grace: their elegant movements and ethereal expressions like the temple’s sculptures brought to life.

As in Java, dance is an intrinsic part of Bali’s rich cultural life, performed within some 20,000 pura (temples) throughout the ‘island of the gods’: a Hindu ritual in an otherwise Muslim Indonesia. Consequently there are some 60 religious annual holidays, with each temple celebrating an odalan or anniversary, every 210 days, in co-ordination with the Balinese wuku (lunar) calendar. In fact, on my first day in Bali I arrive in time for an odalan.

My hostess, Sumadi, welcomes me with an armful of frivolous looking clothing. “Put on this corset right away!” she insists, handing me a frilly white garment along with a batik sarong, transparent white embroidered shirt and sash. No sooner have I squeezed into the traditional outfit, I am ordered to sit side-saddle on the back of her motorbike, Bali’s most ubiquitous form of transport, we whizz off to a pura just as an exuberant harvest festival gets underway.
Throngs of women arrive in similar colourful garb, balancing elaborate bowls of tropical fruit on their heads, while in their hands they carry canang, meticulously arranged offerings of flowers. Bali has more than 2,000 dance troupes (within a population of 3 million) to perform at these ceremonies.

Dance and music fuelled the early 20th century notion of Bali as an idyllic tropical paradise, a seductive land of bountiful natural resources and exotic landscapes of emerald green rice terraces etched into winding hillsides against backdrops of cloud-capped volcanoes. But above all it was, and is, a place of spiritual harmony.

As the performance ends under a star-filled sky, I reluctantly leave the palace. I contemplate the influence of Java on Bali: of the relationships between temples and dance; the rhythms of the cosmos recreated in these rituals, which has been handed down and celebrated through the ages. As I stroll along the balmy moonlit streets of ubud, the dreamlike gamelan music echoes in my mind. It evokes the magic of Balinese dance, rooted in the ancient Javanese temples where, in a few hours’ time, images of the Buddha will again emerge in serene contemplation as a new day dawns.

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