20 July 2014
Children of peace
“You attack people like us in your country”, the young lad told me angrily at the entrance of the sanctuary of Pura Besakih, the largest and most important temple on the island of Bali, perched high up the misty side of Gunung Agung, Bali’s iconic volcano. I was indeed trying to get access to it, forgetting on the instant that this specific temple was unlike all others on the island as regards to its admittance rules, for whatever reason.
I was not ready to cough up any undue money, even for some coerced “offering”, which was evidently expected by some of the unscrupulous and often fake guides. I had been warned by the guidebooks but I still tried my luck – I don’t easily give up.
“You attack and kill us people in your country”, the youngster continued to shout. I had however not told him where I was from and even if he had guessed correctly, it was a strange reason to use for forbidding me to go past him. It was obvious he was short of arguments – but if rationality was governing things, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in and children, at least, wouldn’t die.
I always found it ironic that most religions preach openness and fraternity, while being prone to accepting double standards when it comes to closing its doors (literally and not). One of the most glaring examples is Mecca in Saudi Arabia, a city forbidden to non-Muslims, although I can perfectly understand restrictions when prayers are ongoing (and they’re always ongoing around the Kaaba as far as I know). In the case of the "mother temple" of Besakih, a Hindu sanctuary, I wish I could have debated with the real “owner”, if any, on his right to discriminate people who are allowed to enter or not. I’m just smirking at the contradiction between (claimed) theory and practice, and since I purposefully used the masculine pronoun “his”, I’m not even mentioning the insult professed towards menstruating women banned from entering temples and mosques. Restricting access to tourists seemed all the more absurd that it’s not the brainless nor beach-driven tourists (I didn’t say they were the same, did I?!) who are likely to have any interest in the architecture, the beliefs or the rituals of fellow human beings.
“I come in peace”, I retorted with a sad smile. “Do I look as if I’m going to attack you?”. I was getting nowhere. So, in a last attempt, I dared a provocative “and what if I want to pray? May I go in?”. Who was he to decide what qualified as a prayer? I need not take pictures everywhere, I can also be silent and discreet, just ask me or put up a sign, it’s not that complicated, is it? It of course didn’t really matter if I actually entered the temple or not, it was a question of principle – but not all battles are worth fighting for.
I turned my back to the main split gateway and to the guy now crossing his arms (at least body and verbal languages were in harmony). I descended each of the six decorated levels of the temple via the central staircase. I felt disappointed, the mist and the cold atmosphere, being at an altitude of about 1,000 metres, not helping to raise my spirits. But I had ridden my scooter an hour long to reach that holy place, usually the spot for frequent festivals (it was obviously not one of those days), so I would make the most out of it. I pushed slightly-opened gates and it wouldn’t matter if I got further impolitely brushed off in one of the twenty-two other temples of that Hindu complex: I would try to find ways to take some good pictures nonetheless – and I could always take revenge in my writing, lol.
As if to help me see the brighter side of things, the sun started shining through the mist. A timid blue sky showed through the clouds, giving me the opportunity to shoot some decent pictures of pagodas overlapping on multiple levels, of a half-dressed statue, of red flowers with a pagoda in the backdrop, of smoke curls rising from the offered incense.
And even if Besakih was where I probably encountered the most unpleasant people, it’s also where I met my delightful Balinese sister Rista. Coincidentally, I wrote about her exactly a year ago today. Time flies… have I already written this too many times before? I wonder if Litsa is still roaming the staircases of the temple complex, trying to sell her postcards for a meagre dollar… She most undoubtedly erased me from her memory – but I’ll never forget that sweet innocent girl.