The contrast couldn’t have been much starker. The romaticism promised by the offer of the seven sea temples of Bali was initially dampened somewhat by the carefully structured maze of trinket stalls and hawkers that led down towards the coast, but people need to make a living, via religious overtones or otherwise.
The thought of a temple hewn from the rocks in the Balinese waters conjured almost mythical images of peace and solitude in my mind. The place of respite of Nirartha, a priest in the 15th century, Tanah Lot had promised a certain solitude, a glimpse of a time that probably never existed, an existential contemplation bordering on fanciful. The timing of the visit, to coincide with sunset, was designed to heighten this experience – there is something primitive and magically regressive about the setting sun. However, our trip to Pura Tanah Lot actually offered a stark glimpse of the reality of the world. I had made the foolhardy error of having ‘expectations’. It was beautiful, but in an unexpected way, like much of Indonesia.
The sky was aggressively grey, laden with thick cloud, any light was barred. Passing through the elaborate gateway, typical of Bali, towards the land’s edge the wind whipped fiercely in the air, like the tails of a thousand snakes, venemously cold. The land poked out into the water in sharp shards, ragged and worn, ancient and tired but defiant and strong. The water was whipped into a foam, spray climbing up the cliff face and showering those brave enough to get close to the edge. Somewhere in the distance, thunder rumbled. To the left, the temple in the sea stood seperated from the mainland by a fifty metre shallow crossing. The few trees on the islet swayed violently, waves crashed against the pillars of rock, a group of monks in bright orange stood hesitantly at the shallows, faith and duty being tried by nature, by the Gods.
The temple itself was beautiful. I could imagine it standing in the sun, in calm water, being perfect. Entered either by a cave or by winding stone stairs, conical towers hidden amongst the trees, standing placid in the storm, it represented hundreds of years of faith and devotion. In spite of the dangers, the Monks began to press through the violent shallows, drenched, occasionally losing their footing but assisting one another when one fell. They did make it, their duties fulfilled they disappeared into the cave mouth, swallowed by darkness. Working together, bound by common belief, they had prevailed.
I had come expecting a sort of spiritual fulfilment, an experience of beauty and serenity. What I had experienced was the defiance of man in the face of the elements, how he finds calm and sanctuary in religion, his devotion to his cause despite the obstacles presented to him. It was enlightening in an unexpected way, and as the sun, somewhere deep within the clouds, passed the horizon and the world went darker, I left Tanah Lot with a sense of something valuable, but intangible, having been learned. Hand in hand we walked away.