We leave our rented house in southwest Banyuwangi prefecture, East Java, just before dark. Our mount is a Kijang sports utility vehicle borrowed from a local Hindu man, big for the skinny roads. Fast. Nimble. Gold-embroidered sergeant's chevrons hang from the rear-view mirror. The car's radio doesn't work, but its suspension system is solid enough to propel us in relative comfort over the ruts and pits of the poorly maintained roads. To stay awake after a long few days of competitive surfing, Bob and I chain-smoke cigarettes and chat, leisurely, sweating in the evening heat. With a six hour round-trip drive ahead of us, not counting the time we'll spend at temple, our talk meanders from one topic to the next as he guns our ride past pushcart-vendors and men riding motorcycles with large bags of cut grass balanced on their heads. “Don't worry, bro, I'm not going to kill you,” Bob says when he sees how tense I am after a few narrowly-avoided collisions with other vehicles driving just as recklessly as we are. I adjust the belt securing to my waist a ceremonial kamben, or men's Balinese sarong, and light smokes for both of us.
Half-way there, we run over a cat, its pelt white with black splotches. From the driver's side darkness it leaps suddenly, directly in front of us, straight under our wheels. We pull over to check the undercarriage for signs of blood or fur. Nothing. Lights go on in a couple of the houses that line the road. We ask a resident if he knows to whom the cat belongs, but the man claims not to know of any cat, goes back inside, and turns off his porch-light. In the night sky above us, a full moon shines radiantly. We spend a few more minutes peering into the sparse and roadside bushes, but neither hear nor see anything. The faint aroma of fresh cat-shit hits me as we are getting back into the car, however, and I suspect that our journey to the temple of Kali, the goddess of destruction and renewal, on her birthday, under a full moon, required a death sacrifice of some sort. The Universe, as always, provides.
A few kilometers before we enter the national park within which Kali's temple sits we pass some dragon-fruit plantations, neat rows of small trees strung with lights, one suspended above each tree, eerie grids of brightness that stand out along the otherwise unlit road. The path that leads to the entrance of the national park is worse than all others before it, potholes a half-meter deep, thick paving stones that kick up and bang against the car's undercarriage. A cluster of eyes flash red in the darkness ahead, a herd of deer that quickly moves into the brush as we approach. “Where there are kijang, or deer, there are big cats that hunt them,” Bob says, “so while we're at temple keep an eye on the trees above.”
Once we've payed our entrance fee (around $1.50 each) and have parked in an otherwise empty lot near the temple grounds, a monk's attendant comes sleepily out of his quarters and approaches us, to see what we're after. I make the mistake of placing the plastic bag containing our temple offerings on the ground in order to shake his hand and bow to him properly, whereupon Bob goes into the concession stand to buy offerings, or upakara, untainted by Western ignorance. Somewhere nearby, a large diesel generator pumps out electricity; the temple sits at least 8 kilometers from the nearest settlement. After a quick wash of foot and hand in a nearby row of water basins, we meet the monk, or mangku, who agrees to be our psychopomp, and lead us in ceremony. The attendant, older than the mangku and nearly deaf, lights a kerosene lantern and walks us over to the outer temple while the mangku rides over on a motorbike so that he can open the door and have a look around. Faces peer out from the red-brick outer temple's swirling facades, and I pause, briefly, to feel if I am allowed to pass the stone threshold guardians, or raksasa; since my heart is pure and my body washed, I sense I am welcome, and follow the others up the steep stairs. In the outer temple's courtyard, which can easily seat 300 people, Bob speaks with the mangku in Indonesian, talking about family and religion, desires and wants, concerns and delights. I understand perhaps a third of it. Upon the monk's chest is a round, golden pin displaying a swastika, and while standing across from him and listening to them talk, I imagine that swastika – a more than 10,000 year-old symbol that brings good luck and repels bad – shining at my third chakra, the diaphragm. I settle down into a butterfly seating position and am soon overwhelmed with emotion. Memories of my dearly departed fill mind- and heart-space. First, visions of mother and father, then more, countless ancestors bubbling up through eons of genetic transmission, and I weep, quietly, there upon the uneven paving stones of an East Javanese Hindu temple. Once various things have been fetched from different parts of the temple and the accouterments of worship are prepared, incense has been lit, and Bob and I have arranged our upakara on the sandstone before us, the monk begins the first ceremony, his bell ringing into the still, dark night, his voice uttering Sanskrit mantras foreign to my ear but on some level comforting, protective. I keep crying as Bob coaches me through purifying my hands in the rising incense smoke and choosing the correct flowers from the upakara at the correct times, which we wedge above our ears once we've held them between the fingertips of hands pressed together in prayer. The attendant sprinkles first our heads with holy water and then our outstretched, cupped hands. We sip it four times, but on the fifth sprinkling the deaf man stops me from sipping, incorrectly, a fifth time. I follow Bob's lead and wash my face and neck with the water, instead. Then, we take grains of broken rice from a proffered woven basket and dab them to forehead and throat. Soon after, the mangku's bell stops ringing, and we rise. As the mangku puts all his tools away, Bob and I stuff donations into a box near the exit. The tears dry upon my cheeks, and the swastika in my chest has begun to spin, its colors turning from gold to black, gold to black.
Once again, the mangku drives off into the darkness. Once more, the attendant lights his lamp, and we follow him through the darkness toward, I assume, Kali's own inner sanctum. Above us, the brilliant moon winks and dances through gaps in the treetops. Somewhere in the forest, a bird starts up its song, then stops. The night air is pregnant with energy. Curiously still. And then it's into the main temple, this one far smaller than the first, room for maybe 20 people to sit. A massive banyan tree, or strangler-fig, grows from one corner, its black and white checkered sarong stained and frayed. The monk walks to a dark, irregular stone topped by a wooden framework supporting a golden curtain, which he draws back, revealing a row of smaller dark stones arranged atop the larger one. (During the drive, my companion had explained that the temple is one of the holiest shrines in all of Indonesian Hinduism, the stones the holiest of holy relics.) With upakara before us and incense lit, Bob and I sit down just behind our psychopomp. He launches into chanting and bell ringing a bit too fast for Bob's liking, who interrupts his labor to ask him to slow down. I settle into meditation and feel for the swastika, which is now spinning so rapidly it's almost torquing my torso physically. A few minutes into the ceremony, Bob, to my right, stars groaning and cackling. I slit my eyes and see him bent over at the waist, frothing at the mouth and speaking with a voice I've never heard him use before, a voice as old and dauntless as time itself. The beast-like grunts escaping him cause the hairs on my neck and arms to stand up as I shut my eyes and settle back into Self. I sense an profound agony in him and resist the desire to reach out blindly and pat his back in reassurance. Such are the whipping beams of null-energy lashing out of his fourth or heart chakra that all I can do is sit up straighter, bask in their tearing escape, and taste of their hue, onyx-black bands with brilliant white edges. The beams seem to be simply passing through the mangku, who in my mind's eye is but a fog of focused obeisance suspended in prayer. Bob's agony increases and I let a deep love for him well up in my heart of hearts. I'm shaking from the energy coursing out of him and into the swastika at my diaphragm, which is now completely black and seems to be exponentially growing in size. I summon up every ounce of loving compassion I can muster and feed that love into him, closing the circuit with whatever channel, whatever force or god, he opened, whereupon he stands up, shuffles over to the irregular rock, and falls to his knees before it, weeping and groaning anew. As the energies escaping him diminish, my swastika shrinks in size but not in strength. I feel it sear and settle into my soul's matrix, jet-black and brimming with power. The mangku enters the 'Om' phase of prayer, signaling its imminent end. Next to me, Bob starts breathing normally again, and the ceremony ends. As the mangku is gathering up his rite-making implements and chatting with Bob about the state of life and religion in Bali, I notice a change in the attendant, who turns on a hand-held torch with which to illuminates the treetops above us. I remember the warning about big cats but, for some reason, am not in the least concerned. After a haphazard scan of the canopy above, he switches the light back off and goes outside to lead us back to our car.
As we are driving back down the pitted track, I connect with something, or someone, out in the inky-black woods, that I cannot even see with my physical eyes, and the intensity of our exchange makes me smile. “What happened back there?” Bob asks after reminding me not to throw cigarette butts out of the window until after we've left the park. (I've been collecting all my butts in a small plastic bag the entire time and thrown exactly zero butts out of the window.) “I don't remember anything,” he says, “after we sat down in front of the stones.” I explain everything I felt and heard and saw and did, and he admonishes me for reaching into him the way I did, for completing the circuit, as, he explains, a part of my energies now live inside him, which could lead him to become sick, or die. I apologize to him, thank him for taking me along, and light up a few more cigarettes. The bright moon overhead gives us a dim sense of the road ahead, but we're no longer in a hurry, cruising along and enjoying the cool night air. The seed of something vast and immutable pulses inside me, its contours bent, black, old as mankind itself. I place a hand on top of my belly, smile, and silently thank goddess Kali for a strange and wonderful night.
© americanifesto / 場黑麥
blog updated Fridays, usually
I bicycle, write, surf, and strive.