Fire and passion at Uluwatu
The brand new toll road rose over the middle of Benoa Bay, passing mangrove swamps, a lonely spirit house in the tidal flats, and the airport runway at Ngurah Rai. It deposited our guide Bli Komang, Bama and I onto the top end of the Bukit Peninsula, where a traffic-snarled road lined with billboards would ultimately lead to the temple of Uluwatu.
Bli Komang described Bukit as “the tail of Bali”, as though it was a remote, forgotten corner of the island. But to our left a sign pointed the way to the high-end enclave of Nusa Dua, and soon we drove past the cave temple at Goa Gong through an overgrown landscape, sprouting with pockets of luxury. One boutique hotel by the roadside was proudly named ‘Beverly Hills’, while whitewashed villas stood on hillsides with commanding views of the Indian Ocean. But Bli Komang saw something else. “This land is not fertile,” he said. “It cannot grow anything – only hotels.”
Bali has a complex, love-hate relationship with tourism, and the Kecak dance reflected this almost perfectly. Born from the sacred sanghyang trance ritual, it was developed in the 1930s by German artist Walter Spies and Balinese dancer Wayan Limbak, who adapted it for the Ramayana Hindu epic. From the outset it was intended to be performed in front of an audience of Western tourists.
Just off Uluwatu’s temple forecourt, the Kecak dance venue rose precipitously close to the cliff edge, sporting a still unfinished portion of rough, uneven concrete. Bli Komang told us it was built only two months ago, while Bama said it was double the size of the previous arena which he visited in 2011.
We sat down on the stone steps across from the unmarked ticket desk, a u-shaped counter in bare concrete ringed by metal railings. One officer showed up with the slogan “Wonderful Indonesia” written across the back of his shirt, and he was soon joined by several others who trickled in on foot and on scooters through the growing crowds.
Eventually the tour guides clamoured around and threatened to perform a kecak dance of their own, arms raised clasping fifty- and a hundred thousand rupiah notes as they called out “cak cak cak”. Bli Komang stood patiently in second row, being jostled by those around him once the officers began issuing tickets for the show. We waited anxiously as the first batch of lucky tour guides grabbed their tickets and waved handouts above their heads, grinning in victory.
Then it was Bli Komang’s turn, and as he emerged from the melee he rubbed his arms and shook his head. “Sakit, sakit,” he said – “It hurts.” In the chaos he had not been given two handouts, and when he quickly realised the mistake, Bli Komang began to make his way back towards the scrum. But with the clock ticking, we chose to forfeit the handouts for a spot at the top tier of the arena, facing the setting sun.
From our high vantage point I sat in awe, admiring the exquisite costumes, the skillful restraint of the dancers, the expressiveness in their eyes and facial muscles, and the haunting sound of the male chorus, whose voices ebbed and flowed in unison as they chanted “cak cak cak”.
We observed the love between King Rama and Queen Sita, then the jealousy of evil Ravana, ruler of the rival kingdom of Lanka. Ravana hatched a plot to kidnap the beautiful queen, and after she resisted his advances, he took the appearance of an old man to lure Sita out of Rama’s circle of protection. The vulture Jatayu tried to rescue her but was killed by Ravana in the process, and Rama enlisted the help of Hanuman, the loyal monkey-like warrior.
Laughter erupted around the arena as a clown and two demons picked an unlucky member of the audience to come up and dance in his sarung. Hanuman himself bounded into the stands, searching for food in the hair of nearby spectators, his mask forever frozen in a cheeky grin.
What was less entertaining though was the fact that visitors still trickled in halfway into the performance, even as the venue was bursting at the seams. Still others chose to leave early, long before the dramatic climax when Hanuman meditated in a ring of fire, arising in fury to kick the burning coconut husks and give chase to his captors.
And then, with the final act still several minutes from closing, half the arena suddenly stood up to leave. I was incensed. Could they not sit through just three more minutes until the end of the performance? How difficult could that be?
Back in the minivan, Bama relayed what we had seen to Bli Komang. He seemed nonchalant, as though he had witnessed it a thousand times over. “Only half the people who come are actually interested in the dance,” he replied, “the rest come only to see the sunset.” ◊