Bali and water are inseparable. In the rainy season, water falls from the sky in astounding quantities, for weeks or even months on end. It floods and irrigates the rice fields that produce one, two, or sometimes even three, crops a year. It flows in rivers, streams and watercourses, which the local people depend on for washing clothes and bathing. And it gushes from springs, or cascades down hillsides in beckoning waterfalls. Water is the very life of Bali. Small wonder, then, that water here is sacred, purifying, and healing. One of the first things I was blessed to do when I arrived in Bali, is take part in a melukat, a water purification ritual, which involves bathing at a water temple by immersing oneself in a sacred waterfall, in order to cleanse and purify mind, body, and soul. Since then, I have returned a number of times to the same site, with the same local friend and guide, Pak Eka. Eka is a manku, or Balinese priest. His job is to officiate at water purification ceremonies such as melukat, but he is also something of a geomancer. An even more important role of his is to intercede on behalf of humans with the world of the spirits, so as to appease and honour those that inhabit a given place. This is necessary to create, or preserve, harmony in a living space, to dispel bad energies where they have built up, to prepare a new home before the new inhabitants move in, to pray for success and auspicious energies in new buildings, at the locations of new ventures or enterprises, in short, to make sure the spirits are not offended, to enlist their cooperation and that of the ancestors in human ventures, and bring down their blessings on people and circumstances.
Pak Eka is an extraordinary being, who radiates boundless benevolence, warmth, and love. He is one of the most authentic people I have ever met, and is always entirely himself and exactly the same person whoever’s company he finds himself in. Whereas in Western, developed countries, many of us, regardless of our upbringing, seem at some point in our lives to need to discover some form of what we may describe as spirituality, be it in the form of teachings, a chosen philosophy and way of living, or what we may see as a path, Eka was born into a society in which the ordinary and the sacred, the seen and the unseen, go hand in hand, where the things of the world are not taken for granted and a sense of higher energies at work is ubiquitous, and for which goodness, kindness, and helping others are virtues worth cultivating not for profit or karmic reward, but simply because they are natural expressions of the human soul.
And so it was that a few days ago I found myself once more in the company of Eka and two Western friends, bound for the holy waters of Sebatu, a water temple some thirty minutes by scooter from the small town of Ubud. We park not far from the road, and make our way past the temple, a small and surprisingly nondescript building; but then the main place of communion with nature and higher forces is the waterfall itself. A few shops line the way to the “ticket counter”. A rickety table shaded from the sun by a faded umbrella, at which sits a sinewy man with a leathery face who will charge us the exorbitant sum of ten thousand rupiah (barely more than fifty euro cents) for permission to proceed to our ablutions. One shop sells poor, printed reproductions of Hindu Gods and Goddesses on cheap plastic imitation canvas, and also rents out sarongs – proceeding beyond the ticket man without proper dress is forbidden, and would be seen as extremely disrespectful. Not far on, at a stall selling water, snacks and incense, the Australian girl among us gets sidetracked by a black puppy. The tiny being takes to her at once, and both of them seem so delighted with each other’s company that I begin to think our group is already about to split. But A manages to drag herself reluctantly from her new love, and we begin to descend the long flight of high, steep, concrete steps, that wind their way down through the jungle towards the water. The vegetation here consists mainly of tall, close clumps of green bamboo, which cut out much of the sunlight, so that the further down we go, the more boxed in we become. But there is still a breeze, that carries the gentle sound of water, and far a feeling of oppression, there is a certain lightness, a sense of entering a hidden, special place, away from the noise of the world. We reach the bottom of the steps, just above where the waterfall casts itself melodiously into a clear, welcoming pool, and as the heady scent of incense fills the air and the smoke tickles our nostrils, Eka puts down his bag by the shrine area we have reached, and takes out the offerings we will use as we pray. He signals to us to sit facing the shrine, I disentangle my feet from my colourful sarong and we do as we are bidden. Eka sits up front, with his back to us, but not before handing us each a small, shallow, square box, woven from banana leaf, containing assorted flower blossoms and a single, smouldering incense stick. We begin as mere observers, as Eka recites prayers and mantras. Then it is our turn, and following Eka’s lead, we raise our joined hands to our foreheads, incense stick held between our fingers. As we do this, we think of unifying our soul, or Atman, with Brahman, or God, and emptying our mind of superfluous thoughts. We then take a pale yellow flower (sometimes it is white), hold it between our fingers with the incense, and once more raise our hands to our brow. This time we are praying to Surya, the sun, because it dispels the darkness and gives us clarity of mind. Then we tuck the vanilla-tinted flower petals behind our ears. A third gesture of prayer follows, this time with purple petals, and we pray for the spirits of the place, and to the ancestors, acknowledging their presence and including them in our wishes for shared well-being. We also reflect on our intention, the purpose of our participation in this melukat, which may be some physical ailment that needs healing, a heart that needs soothing, or simply a desire to wash away the cares of the world and rejuvenate our soul. With not much space left behind my ears, I watch Pak Eka and do as he does, squeezing the petals under the elastic with which I tie my hair. Finally, we address the ancestors and spirits in our thoughts, asking for their blessings, perhaps also for the usual good things humans tend to ask for (abundance, health, good fortune), and we give thanks with the faith that what is asked for has already been granted.
A while ago, when Eka had explained the significance of the prayer ritual, I had been surprised at his use of Sanskrit words, and on a subsequent occasion, detecting more Sanskrit words in the mantras, I had asked him if the ceremonial proceedings before entering the water were Hindu in origin. Eka had frowned ever so slightly, as if pondering my question, before breaking into a broad grin and slapping me vigorously on the back. “It is Balinese Hindu!” he had exclaimed, and I thought I had detected a mischievous glint in his eyes, for even he knew, of course, that ancestors and local spirits were not a part of the (already rather crowded) vast Hindu pantheon of deities, and therefore had no place in a Hindu ritual. But I had also, I thought, glimpsed a glimmer of pride, and perhaps a trace of minor heresy, so attached is my manku to the beautiful traditions of his culture, that combine a local form of Hinduism with animism, nature worship and an ancestor worship somewhat reminiscent of Confucianism.
I also recalled how once, when Eka had told us we could now pray for what we wanted, a Canadian friend had asked him, “Does it work?” Eka had been neither surprised nor offended, and had simply answered, in his simple but melodious English, “If you believe!” Such an answer is, of course, unsatisfactory to the rational mind, but in my experience the sacred water temples of Bali are so charged with an almost palpable and vibrant energy that believing or not believing seems like an irrelevant preoccupation. A person feels carried, their spirit buoyant, and anyway, what spirit or ancestor would gladly bestow favours upon one who does not grant them the respect of belief?
My American friend on this excursion, who has lived here many years, truly among the local people, once told me that for the Balinese, the unseen world is as real as the tangible one. On front door steps, outside shops, by the roadside, even on scooters or cars as blessings or to ensure safe travels, everywhere you see small offerings of flowers, with rice and sometimes betel nut, put out for the inhabitants of the world beyond. Spirits are prayed to in the early morning, and again in the evenings, and more offerings are placed at shrines in family compounds, and on small altars inside houses. Even to a first-time visitor, it rapidly becomes apparent that the Balinese are very spiritual, and their spirituality centres around this constant honouring of the invisible world and the beings that reside there, and also the understanding, in Balinese thinking, that this invisible world thoroughly informs our own, that nothing that happens here is separate and independent of it, and that a web of ever-changing connections is ever present between these dimensions. But even though there is a strong element of Hinduism within Balinese religious practices, theirs is not a religion of worship – it is a code of communication, and by extension, an act of communion. The people talk to the spirits and to ancestors, (“just like speak normally,” Eka once told me), and these, in turn, respond, through dreams, through telling or symbolic incidents, and through intuition and feelings. The spirituality of the Balinese is therefore very much alive, because in this interaction between worlds and entities, there is always something happening.
We get to our feet and proceed down to the pool. We leave our clothes and belongings in a makeshift shelter by the steps into the water, leaving us wearing only our sarongs over swim wear. We wade into the water, which reaches my mid-thighs, and though at first the water feels a little cold (more due to the contrast with the air temperature), we all quickly warm up. As we queue and wait our turn to plunge beneath the waterfall (a group of four, rather merry, Balinese, has preceded us), I reflect upon the fact that while the Balinese are mainly easygoing and open, their rituals are precise, sometimes quite elaborate, and essential to them. While women may wear jeans and a T-shirt, men shorts and singlets, nobody would dream of making offerings without changing into traditional or ceremonial dress.
S who is from New York, and A plunge in and then emerge from their ablutions. Eka offers to let me go after them, but I want to see how long he stays in and follow suit. The water spills over the fall from around eight or nine feet above us, Eka places both hands at shoulder height against the rock, then eases forward into the stream of white water. I count three minutes before he pushes himself upright once more, his long bedraggled black locks sticking to his skull. Then Eka takes nine quick sips of water from his cupped hand, puts his back against the rock as he goes into the waterfall a final time, and emerges. As I move forward, he gestures to me to untie my hair – there should be no blockages or constrictions that might impede the energizing and healing effect of the water. As I go under the fall, the water is cold enough make me catch, and hold, my breath, but gradually I am able to relax and breathe behind the curtain of water. I can hear nothing except the sound of the rushing cascade, falling heavily but pleasantly onto my shoulders and back, and after counting two minutes, I feel as though I could stay there forever.
The sense of well-being on coming out of the water is utterly blissful. None of us seem to want to talk much, we are too busy feeling incredibly good. We change as best we can – the water must dry naturally on our skin, so towels are not allowed – and begin the long, slow climb up and out of the luxuriant vegetation back to civilization. I cannot vouch for the healing powers of Sebatu waterfall. But what I can say is that the first time I went there, my left knee was so sore from a minor sprain that I could barely walk on it properly even on flat ground, and had to go down the steps left foot first so as not to have to bend said knee. When I emerged from the water, although my knee had not been instantly healed, the discomfort was almost gone, I could bend the joint smoothly, enough to climb the steps at least, and it never again caused me remotely such trouble as on that day. So, you might ask, had I believed? To which the honest answer is, I truly do not know.