Balinese spirituality is evident everywhere, as Sheriden Rhodes discovers.
Deep in the lush valley, sliced in two by the sacred river of Pakerisan, lies a 10th-century meditation temple carved in moss swathed rock. This astonishing temple lies concealed, and practically unheard of, off the well-worn tourist path. Our guide lights incense and sprinkles himself with holy water as I peer inside the ancient chambers carved into the side of the stone hill.
Inside these rock caves, overhung with ferns, the Balinese used to stay and prepare food for offerings. It's damp, humid and surreal to see these largely untouched chambers lying just outside of Ubud, which is crawling with tourists. The only sound is the trickle of running water and the only other person in sight is a farmer tending his terraced rice fields across the other side of the valley.
I was collected from a hotel in Seminyak in a restored and modified VW Kombi early that morning. The Beach Boys' Surfin' USA blared from the speakers as my driver and guide, Mangde and Made, bundled my luggage in the back and headed for the hills – the usually bustling streets free of tourists and traffic at this hour of the morning. We were headed for a small village, 20 kilometres north of Ubud, for morning tea with Enong Ismail, professor and curator of the Sukarno Centre, and leading expert on the recently World Heritage listed Pakerisan River area.
The softly spoken Enong has partnered with Australian expat Brett Morgan, who runs Private Concierge Bali and VW Limo Bali to offer the new Seven Temples of Enlightenment tour. This fascinating day-long expedition outlines the origins of the Balinese Hindu religion 'Hindu Dharma', tracing its evolution on a tour of Bali's most important temples and monuments – some of which even the locals don't know about.
We start our day with fragrant ginger tea and Indonesian sweets at Enong's private home, surrounded by rice fields on a ridge overlooking the Pakerisan River. Over tea, he talks about Bali's unique culture, which he has documented since 1979. Despite being born a Muslim in Java, Enong converted to Hinduism and spends his time giving back to the island he is so passionate about.
"Every part of Bali has their own inscription on the temples, which go back centuries. In every local village there are three beliefs, although the Balinese believe there is only one universal creator," he tells me. Enong explains how Hindu Dharma is a joining of Buddhism, Hindu and the Balinese belief in respecting your ancestor. Modern-day Bali Hinduism evolved over centuries, influenced by the Javanese empire.
After a sash is tied around my waist, we make our way to one of Bali's most significant and ancient temples, Jagasari, a complex of three mud brick temples, representing the head, body and feet. It is Bali's first Hindu temple, from the eighth century, and amazingly is still used regularly by the local village.
Gede, head of the youth associated for the world heritage listing Tampak Siring area and one of the knowledgeable team who runs the Seven Temples tour, tells me that important decisions are still made here. Not long ago his father, a priest and a pregnant, unmarried girl sat on a platform in the third temple. The meeting was called to determine who the father of the unborn baby was. In this case the man responsible was found, but astonishingly if no one admits it, the girl can choose her husband from the assembled villagers, whether they're married or not.
From there we head to a 10th century temple where the head priests meet to write the Balinese calendar on Niyepi day – (Balinese New Year) determining which days are best for harvesting, planting and important occasions like weddings or funerals. The temple is like a living museum and the thick verdant forest surrounding it has never been cut. Once again there's no one here but us.
Back in the village we walk a sealed path into the rice fields where a picnic lunch is laid out for us in an open-air community hall. As we eat, some boys from the village attempt to fly a large kite they have made themselves across the muddy rice paddy. Just behind us is another important temple with carvings from the tenth century lying haphazardly in a stack on a platform.
Our day ends in a large temple where, in the 12th century, leaders of the Buddhist, Hindu Shiva and "respect your ancestor" religions met and agreed to create one religion for all Hindu Dharma, or Balinese Hindu, as it is known today. Most of the sites we'd seen are not even known to locals, let alone tourists, and I feel privileged to have been given a rare insight into the Pakerisan world heritage listed area – a million miles away from the crowded temples of Tanah Lot and Besakih.
The writer was a guest of Private Concierge Bali and Double-Six Luxury Hotel Seminyak.
The new Double-Six Luxury Hotel Seminyak offers suites from $450 plus taxes a night, including breakfast for two. See double-six.com.
Garuda Indonesia flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Bali. See garuda-indonesia.com.
Private Concierge Bali's Seven Temples of Enlightenment tour costs $US295 pp. for two people (less for larger groups) including return transfers, expert guides, refreshments, lunch, blessing ceremony, entrance fee to all temples, tax and insurance, donation to the village and temples, coffee break, sarong and sash. See privateconciergebali.com.