the village banyan tree
When looking across the Balinese countryside from a high vantage point, its easy to spot the location of various villages no matter how secreted their houses might be. The distinctive huge dark ragged canopy of the banyan tree rises head and shoulders above any other kind of vegetation on the island. Invariably, these trees grow right in the heart of the village, usually at a cross road or temple. I imagine these sacred trees are the remnants of the dense jungle that once covered Bali before the Hindu kingdoms fled Java in the wake of Islam. The tendril-like aerial roots of a giant banyan catch late afternoon sun. This small village high in the mountains above Amlapura is a long way from any town. The pink rombong is deserted at the moment but later in the evening an acetylene lamp, gritty sweet Balinese coffee, clove cigarettes, good company and some tall tales will make it become the focus of a village night life of simple pleasures.
The splendid banyan tree above grows in the grounds of a temple in Bangli. From its branches hang the 'kul kul', hollowed out logs which resonate when struck with a hammer. The sound of a kul kul carries far and wide. Both haunting yet comforting, it is one of the most memorable sounds when living out in the countryside. The rhythm and the manner it is struck tell people of emergencies, informs them of village meetings, or calls them to prayer. Even the buttress roots of the banyan provide a sheltered environment for other kinds of plants to flourish. A man hauls two heavy bags of rice up a rutted steep village track on his bicycle while nature drips verdant above and around him.
The gnarled roots of this bayan tree (below) in the forecourt of a temple worn smooth by centuries of human traffic makes a pleasant dry and shady place to sit and while away time and for a peddler of toys to conduct his business from the back of a bicycle.
After scrolling down through the green canopy and subdued colours of
the natural world (above), did the gaudy splash of raw colour in this
photograph come as something of a shock? I hope so. When I first came
to Bali in 1972, what immediately struck me on the drive from the
airport was that there only seemed to be two kinds of colours in the
exotic world that I now found myself in. The view from the old clapped
out American 'yank tank' as it wallowed along the narrow road was
completely alien to me. I had no reference point for it but was as
excited as a child who could hardly contain itself.
The street was narrow and either side were brown mud walls crowned
with thatch that surrounded the compounds of each house. Above these
were the tops of the green trees in their gardens. Occasionally through a
gap between the houses there was the glimpse of bright green rice fields
beyond. Brown and green, green and brown. But within this restricted
palette, there was every shade and tone of these two colours imaginable.
Even the beautiful honey coloured skin of the people made it look as
though they were born of the earth itself. One reason was the complete
lack of advertising hoardings. The majority of Indonesians were still far
too poor to warrant the promotion of consumer goods made by
international conglomerates. All that has changed now of course.
I could do a number analysing the composition of this picture. In fact, I will. Indulge me, let's put it on the couch. Colour splits this photograph in half, symbolically dividing it into two worlds, the Bali of old with its rituals and tradition, and that of the new. The old man at the extreme left of the picture is gazing out of frame towards the village temple in the background, to those things of the spirit. Facing the opposite direction towards the toy seller's bicycle and all the wondrous delights piled high above its back wheel, the children in centre frame are actively engaged in making a purchase; the seduction of things material. In is not as though there is anything particularly expensive on sale here. The toy cars wrapped in plastic are made of cardboard. Such peddlers always tailor their stock to suit the economic circumstances of their customers.
The elder boy sitting next to his grandfather on the left, seems caught between these two worlds. Although he is physically placed in the sphere of the spiritual, his mind seems attracted to things new and shiny. And why not? Meanwhile, the ancient banyan tree has borne silent witness to a traditional life played out beneath its shade and amongst its skirt of roots which has, until the past three decades, remained unchanged for centuries. It is not so much tourism but the greed and insensitivity of what seems to be Bali's new colonial master, the corrupt Javanese businessman out to make a buck at all costs, which challenges this beautiful island.
Bali has handled the pressures of this phenomenal onslaught of change more accommodatingly, with more wisdom, grace and resilience than one could ever think possible.
But enough of this nonsense.
Its 4am in the morning and I'm rambling.
I simply must go to bed now.
(I'll like to try and connect a
rollover sound to that picture
of the kul kul one day.)
or a shady tree in Sri Lanka
created 28 october 1998