COME TO PLAY, STAY TO PRAY © Duncan Graham 2006
On 5 November Hindus, including some from Bali, will return to the original heartland of their religion. Duncan Graham reports from Balekambang on the south coast of East Java:
The beach at Balekambang is a broad stretch of sand about 60 kilometres south of Malang. Not Kuta, though good enough.
From afar it looks as though the waves are worth testing as the land slides easily under the Indian Ocean with no apparent drop. But there are no sun-scorched surfies waxing their boards on this stretch of the coast.
Instead warning signs against swimming beyond the red flags, for this beach is notorious for its swirling undertow. Food stallholders say that in recent years at least 100 visitors have been sucked into the clear green waters and perished. Stay long enough and they’ll give ghoulish details.
Regency officials drowned the story, saying they can’t recall any losses. Maybe they don’t want to in case more tourists erase Balekambang from their itineraries – as many are said to be doing for fear of tsunamis.
Apart from the signs there are mobile lifesaver patrols and loudspeaker warnings against venturing far from the shallows.
Not all come to play. This is also a place of culture and religion, for there’s a holy place on one of the three little islands that lie just offshore.
Pura (temple) Sad Kahyangan has been built on rocky Ismoyo and is connected to the mainland by a concrete bridge. There are a few gnarled fig trees and tenacious shrubs, but otherwise it’s all temple.
The island was named after a character in the ancient stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata, as are the other two, Wisanggeni and Hanoman.
There’s also a bridge linking Wisanggeni with the beach, but the central section has been ripped out by waves.
Sad Kahyangan was opened in 1985. It has been modelled on Tanah Lot, the famous temple on the south-west Bali coast and one of the must-see attractions for overseas visitors. But few foreigners travel to Balekambang and the reasons are clear. (See sidebar)
On 5 November expect an influx of Hindus planning to take part in the Purnamaning Kalima purification ceremony. According to the resident priest Djuwarno there are two major pilgrimages to the temple every year – prior to Nyepi, the day of silence held this year on 30 March, and 5 November. Crowds of up to 10,000 can be expected.
“Most come from Bali and stay up to four days camping on the beach,” he said. “We also get many people from Malang and other parts of East Java where there are still Hindu communities. My ancestors have always been Hindu and maybe the family goes back to the Majapahit.”
One of the many great mysteries in the archipelago is why the remnants of the mighty Majapahit kingdom fled East Java and settled in Bali about 500 years ago.
Were they hunted out by converts to the new religion of Islam? Or did some devastating natural catastrophe such as a volcanic eruption drive them from their rich farmlands around the Brantas River where they’d mastered the art of irrigation?
Another theory has internecine warring among the royal families as the reason for disintegration and the flight east. The golden age of the kingdom was around 650 years ago when the charismatic and Machiavellian prime minister Gajah Mada was the power in the land, and the Javanese ruled much of South-East Asia. After his death in 1364 it was all downhill.
There are 32 Hindu temples in the Malang region. Some date back to the Majapahit era – a few have been restored. Others like Sad Kahyangan are recent additions, but such is the design and weathering that it could easily be centuries old.
Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be treated with the reverence of temples in Bali, for vandals have scratched their memorable names and profound philosophies on the walls, despite signs urging respect.
Access to the temple courtyard is restricted to Hindus who contact Djuwarno and his wife Sunarmi in their concrete home and office perched high on the mainland at the bridge entrance.
The couple then close their food stall, don robes, gather incense and accoutrements and together with the visitors make a little procession elbowing its way through the crowds of unbelievers to the locked temple.
Inside is a small courtyard and sheltered area for prayer and meditation. This faces west, so the sea can’t be seen. The thick walls and the surf drown out the noise from the people outside.
It’s even possible to imagine you’re alone, with just the wind, the tinkling temple bells and the low chants of those still faithful to a religion that once ruled Java for more than 1,000 years.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
Balekambang is worth a visit – but best not on weekends or public holidays. On these days up to 15,000 flee Malang, Blitar and Surabaya. If you’re a sensitive soul seeking solace at the seaside, stay away from this getaway. If you’re a laid back people-watcher, enjoy good cheap Indonesian food and chats everywhere, bring a deck chair.
The giggling couples say they’re escaping from humdrum routines and boring study – but many seem to be off the parental leash as they frolic in the foam. Circling them are the wolf packs of Honda heroes hoping for a chance encounter, or maybe an erotic moment as skirts are tucked into panties for a paddle, and the girls make their points in wet T-shirts.
By Western standards of beach party culture it’s seemly Victorian behavior, though prudes might consider it the final breakdown of Indonesian morality. The young together having fun in the sun? Oh, sin severe!
There are no bikinis and the occasional swimsuit is a neck-to-knee job. There’s no whiff of alcohol in the picnic hampers and the cheerful crowds swarm everywhere, so any hanky-panky will rapidly get a football-game audience.
The Malang Regency collects a Rp 5,500 (US $0.60) entrance fee off every visitor plus other small fees for vehicles and parking. Weekend incomes can exceed Rp 100 million (US $ 11,000), but little seems to be spent on local amenities and infrastructure.
Particularly bad is the road around the village of Sumber Rejo, 20 kilometres north of the beach. This meanders alongside woodland and cane fields. It’s pleasant scenery. The whole trip could be done in 90 minutes.
Sadly the journey becomes a gear-grinding ordeal as vehicles tip and roll their way through the sump-gouging potholes. Jagged limestone rocks wait to rip the rubber of the unwary. Business tip: Open a workshop here specialising in shattered suspensions.
As a major tourist road, let alone a regional link, it’s a disgrace. Regency officials say it’s scheduled to be repaired next year, but can’t say exactly when. Until that happens (if it happens) best stall your trip unless you’re driving someone else’s muscle machine and have topped up the tank with extra litres of patience.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 3 November 06 )