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Fire and passion at Uluwatu

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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.

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Uluwatu temple’s clifftop setting

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Foaming waves

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Carved by the Indian Ocean

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Clinging on

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Uluwatu’s Kecak arena

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View from the top

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.

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The priest’s blessing

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A male chorus takes the place of a gamelan orchestra

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Rama and Sita appear

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Dance of the lovers

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Sita awaits the return of Rama

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Ignoring Ravana’s advances

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.

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Ravana, disguised as an old man, tricks and kidnaps Sita

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Jatayu to the rescue

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Ravana takes Sita to Lanka

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Rama presents Hanuman with his ring, to show Sita when he finds her

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The end of an act

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Hanuman pays homage to Sita

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.”

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Fanning the flames

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The crowd watches in anticipation…

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…as the monkey warrior prepares to break out

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Hanuman playing with fire

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. There’s that beautiful Bali again. Your pictures are lovely. I so want to go there.
    Leslie

    June 17, 2014
    • Toronto may seem a long way away, but I do hope you make the trip to Bali sooner or later!

      June 17, 2014
      • Me too. There was a Canadian painter who went there not so long ago and he did some fantastic paintings from there. He passed away a couple of years ago, but I still remember those paintings.
        Leslie

        June 17, 2014
  2. Oh James, your top row seats have given us an entrancing view of the performance at this idyllic site. I can relate to your amazement at the wandering audience – it’s something that always makes my blood boil, so disrespectful (both to the performers and other audience members) but is due to an extent to the ignorance of holiday-maker tourism and the siting and timing of the performances themselves, don’t you think?

    June 17, 2014
    • Thanks, Meredith – it was a fabulous vantage point although it did put the audience’s bad behaviour in full focus! Perhaps it is ignorance but some clearly left out of boredom, and there were plenty of blank looks and glazed eyes around the arena.

      Uluwatu certainly is out of the way, being at one end of the island, but anyone who goes for the Kecak dance should understand that it will involve a traffic jam and a slightly later dinner afterwards… Bli Komang himself told us to leave quickly after the performance via another exit to beat the crowds, but the emphasis was clearly on “after” and not “during”!

      June 17, 2014
  3. Stunning…the setting, the costumes, the narrative. As far as the crowd leaving early just terrible manners, sunset viewers or not.

    June 17, 2014
    • I agree completely, Sue – it seemed like everyone was in a hurry to return to their resorts and seafood dinners. I can’t imagine the same thing happening in a European opera house, although those performances cater to a different audience altogether.

      June 17, 2014
  4. Thank you for the explanation of the story. And wonderful photos. We only had a tourist brochure in ESL English to explain the story so we were a bit confused, though wonderfully entertained anyway – such gorgeous costumes and dancing, and the fabulous choreography and chanting of the circle of men. Having read your account I’m glad we went to a performance of the Kecak dance in Ubud, and went to Uluwatu only for the temple and sunset.

    June 17, 2014
    • It’s my pleasure, Alison. Bama did a great job of telling me the story in the absence of those leaflets, and it was good to have my hands free for the camera. Uluwatu was a wonderfully dramatic setting for the dance, but from your words it sounds like the audience in Ubud was a lot more respectful.

      June 17, 2014
  5. James, I really love that shot of Hanuman encircled with fire. It’s one of the highlights of the performance, which was sadly missed by those who left the site altogether before it ended. The attitude of the people sitting right in front of us was a perfect example of such disrespect and ignorance. All they cared about was taking selfies! However despite all of that, most people might not realize the fact that Pura Luhur Uluwatu, even though small in size, is one of Bali’s most important temples. Now we’ve been to one end of the island, we’ll soon be exploring the other end. 🙂

    June 17, 2014
    • Yes, the selfie-taking visitors were quite a funny sight, although they were far more preoccupied with their faces and hairdos than the actual performance! I really can’t wait to visit northern Bali – and I’m thrilled that we’ll be there in less than two weeks. 🙂

      June 17, 2014
  6. JMD #

    Bali is magic. You will enjoy the north as well. Much less tourists and dolphins.

    June 18, 2014
    • I’m glad to hear that – not sure if we’ll go dolphin-watching but I’m sure we’ll enjoy it nonetheless.

      June 18, 2014
  7. What an entrancing performance! The finale looks breathtaking….those impatient tourist’s loss. Intrigued by the circle of balladeers James, the sound effects must be equally mesmerizing. This is going into my list of must dos for a future visit.

    June 19, 2014
    • The sound of those balladeers is something I’m not likely to forget – it was so mystical and enchanting. I feared that Hanuman would be burned as he sat in the ring of fire… and then he rose and seemed to trample all over the burning coconut husks!

      July 2, 2014
  8. Love this post very much! All those beautiful pictures and descriptions. I have heard that the island of Bali has lots of attractive scenic spots but have not got a chance to see it myself. Really fantastic! I always feel deeply impressed by the sea–the waves, the mountains, and the rocks, just like heaven! And the unique culture and rituals–full of colors, laughter, and enjoyment–I’m looking forward to traveling there and seeing for myself! The local people are so lovely!

    June 25, 2014
    • Thanks for that! I feel the same way about the sea, there is just something deeply comforting about it and I’ve always loved being in the water. Hopefully you’ll get to visit Bali quite soon!

      July 2, 2014

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