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Travelling by sun-bird: Bali in Indian sight

Tani Bhargava
31 October 2002

In modern times, Indians have travelled to England out of choice or habit and only reached other parts of the globe out of compulsion. I had no particular interest in, desire for or curiosity about any place to the east of India – not even China, least of all Japan. Without knowing or suspecting it, like all middle-class Indians, I was shamefully Eurocentric.

All Indian children read about Ayutthaya, Borobodur, Prambanan and Angkor Wat, when they are taught medieval Indian history and the ‘Glories of Greater India’. Of course, I knew them.

As a young girl, while reading Simone de Beauvoir, I remembered my shock at the discovery that she found even Vietnam and Cambodia, in fact the whole of south-east Asia, preferable, more fascinating than India. Her English must be inadequate; I put it down to the French colonial connection.

This, then, was the personal and generational prehistory involved when, in 1994, I (with two children in tow) reluctantly consented to meet up with a husband away at a conference somewhere in south-east Asia. The plan was to meet him in Bangkok to travel in Thailand and further up, or was it down, to Indonesia? Preparing for the trip, my phone book seemed full of friends who had been to the Alhambra, to the Coliseum, the Acropolis, the great pyramid of Cheops, to Machu Picchu. How come I hardly knew any Indians who had been to Java or Bali, or wanted to?

Hinduism, coarse and gentle

I found the sea in Thailand too aquamarine, the lush too green, the food divine and the sights spectacular. The chaos, smell and colour did not disorient me. Many names sounded like distortions of commonplace Indian names in a different accent. Even the script looked vaguely familiar. Thai guides blithely claimed the Ramayana and Mahabharata as their own, and patronisingly told me that they had heard that India too had an Ayodhya…implying that India had pinched the name from Ayutthaya. Reeling still from the Ayodhya movement that had torn down the Babri Masjid, I was more than willing to grant it to them! I was anything but prepared for the culture shock lying in store for me.

Indonesia, almost entirely Muslim and with clearer boundaries, felt safer. Yudhister, a taxi driver with a name from the Hindu epics abandoned as old-fashioned in India, stopped his taxi on the highway to say Islamic prayers. The national airline in Indonesia is Garuda and they continue to call their defence minister, never mind its archaic ring, ‘Sena Pati’ and their prime minister a ‘Pradhan Mantri’. Hordes of women in veils paid obeisance to the Hindu trinity of Brahma–Vishnu–Shiva, and in neighbouring small temples also to their somewhat incongruous vehicles – a swan, a bull (the Nandi) and a sun-bird (the Garuda). Sumatra, Java, Bali, Kuta, Sari – all sounded, looked, felt and smelt like they could be Indian.

A part of me, still reluctantly ‘western’, was challenged by Indonesia; it was the encounter with Bali, and its form of Hinduism, that triggered the deepest reflection on my sense of being Indian. Here, lines between religion and art were blurred, both permeate everyday life and worship with charming simplicity, giving it the elegance of classical dance. Bali appeared so unpolluted by the disfiguring caste system and its associated notions of untouchability that characterises Hinduism in India. Its beauty and serenity just took my breath away.

Like a violent blow to the stomach I realised that, more and more, the official Hinduism of north India does not even faintly resemble the gentle beauty that it imbued to Thailand and Indonesia. In India (north India especially), the exact opposite has happened. Here, Hinduism has indiscriminately embraced the world’s ugliness. It has imbibed violent, thumping music and pelvic thrusts from alien traditions; its new temples mimic Disneyland; its religious channel on TV is a grotesque caricature and its worst possible aesthetic variation is projected in gargantuan proportions on multi-screens in the Akshardham Temple attacked recently by terrorists in the wake of the pogrom in Gujarat. Its political exponents froth, fume and fulminate against the lower castes, lynch untouchables, venerate the obnoxious practice of Sati, vilify Christians as foreigners and Muslims as invaders. Its leaders use foul language full of abuse and innuendo; exhort their followers ‘to form suicide squads to teach the minorities a lesson’. Those who cite the Indian constitution are derided as unpatriotic, pseudo-secular and anti-national.

Bali, violence and gentleness

Where have all the ‘real’ Hindus gone? More than 1.5 million Balinese live on this tiny paradise island set in picture-postcard crescents of white sand and blue water. Going to Bali and Java was like peeping through a keyhole on the bolted door of a locked room. Much like Allah-uddin’s Cave, it was dimly illuminated from the shine and sparkle of thousands of glittering, gleaming jewels.

It is important to remember that in Bali, electricity is only forty years old and the telephone only thirty. Balinese culture has been amazingly resilient, surviving and adapting to Hindu influence in the 10th century, Islam, Dutch influence from the traders of the 16th to the colonists of the 19th century, Japanese occupation in the 1940s, the anti-communist bloodbaths of the mid-1960s. Not forgetting the eruptions of Gunung Agung, periodic lava flows, explorers and casualties of the hippy trail.

This is also the paradox of Bali – a place of gentleness, beauty and elegance, which has also known extreme violence. In 1830, Kuta was first visited by a white man – Mads Lange, a Danish copra trader who tried to organise the local Rajah to resist the Dutch, but was eventually poisoned and buried there. In 1906, the Dutch begged the people to abandon their hopeless, suicidal puputan – a battle to the finish, in the belief that honourable death is preferable to peaceful capitulation. Wave after wave of Balinese nobility and priests dressed in fine cloth and jewellery and holding gilded krise were mown down by the superior modern weapons of a Dutch naval bombardment that killed 4000 and burnt two palaces to cinder.

Another form of colonisation came to Kuta in the 1960s, as warung (restaurants), losmen (hotels) and gangs (alleys) overran it. Mass tourism needs buildings, fast; buildings need cement; cement needs lime. The helter-skelter boom in the island’s south alighted on precious coral as a cheap and easily available substitute for lime, ground down or hewn in blocks that grow to lock together. Much of the Candidasa Reef was ripped out.

The Bali Hyatt hotel at Sanur, the Bali Oberoi at Legian, Poppies Cottages at Kuta have been prime culprits in tearing off this immensely valuable ecological resource, causing irreparable damage. Beautiful beaches simply disappeared into the sea. The beautiful people – led to Bali by travel and ‘reality’ television shows – simply moved further up to Nusa Dua, soon to become an even more commodified and cannibalised enclave for the global tourist in search of exclusivity and ‘authenticity’.

After tourism and terrorism

The coming of visitors, even in large numbers, can in principle involve the celebration of a place’s distinctiveness. It can give enjoyment to guests and employment to hosts. If it is sustainable or ecologically-friendly in design, it can even help preserve bio-diversity or endangered environments.

It can also transform a place with hurricane force. Mass tourism has disfigured the face of Bali. An identical process is underway in Goa, where some beach resorts are signposted Not For Locals. Now, after Arundhati Roy wrote about Kerala, God’s own country is feeling the heat too.

This resortification, notwithstanding the complicity of some local people and the meagre economic benefits to others, carries a high, even violent price. The outcome of globalised travel, television and literature (and, why be coy about it, commerce, too) is usually an ephemeral, exploitative encounter with destinations without caring to understand the people or culture that inhabit them.

Now, with traumatic suddenness, has come a terrorist bomb, which killed nearly 200 people in an instant and mutilated many more. This tragedy is felt not only by thoughtless tourists or attendant locals, but sends a frisson of fear to the hearts of blameless bystanders in all corners of the globe.

What kind of Bali will survive this latest assault? What kind of world will survive the hunt for its perpetrators?

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