It’s a surreal experience. I am in a state of induced bliss. Warm and reassuring hands knead away the knots of tension in my back. A turmeric pack is smoothed on to me as I observe the emerald green rice fields outside the white-curtained windows. As I emerge from a flower strewn bath, and sip on a Balinese coffee, I am levitating! Sculpted rice terraces like amphitheatres, extravagant sunsets, ornate temples and velvety beaches — Bali is truly special.

Our hotel is an hour away from the Ngurah Rai airport, near the spectacular Tanah Lot temple. It’s a huge, sprawling property (about 103 acres), where the only sounds are the rush of waves and the sound of the golf club against the ball. There are three swimming pools, a spa, a golf course and two restaurants. For that extra touch of romance, there are the seaside ‘Bales’ — small huts with a thatched roof, open on all sides, and with a mattress and pillows.

Colourful dance

Bali is a unique cultural entity by itself — a Hindu-majority island in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. Our first stop is a Barong dance at a temple at Batubulan, a village famous for its stone carvings. The setting is the grassy courtyard of an ancient Balinese temple whose brick walls are covered by moss and ferns. The Barong dance depicts the eternal battle between good and evil. The dance is marked by colourful costumes and accompanied by an orchestra of gamelan musicians, including an instrument that looks like a xylophone!

The Balinese culture is steeped in religion and ceremonies. Prayers and offerings are a way of life. There are thousands of temples around the island, and every home has a family temple. Every day, we see people place carefully constructed small palm baskets filled with food and flowers with incense sticks outside the doors of homes, hotels and shops.

The Balinese have been Hindus for more than 800 years but the Hinduism they practise is quite different from what Indians do. The Balinese go to temples only on special occasions — the rest of the time, the temples are unused.

The idols are brought into the temples only at the time of special festivals. They use symbolic colours — red for Brahma, white for Shiva and black for Vishnu. The Batuan Temple complex, built around 1022, is one of the oldest temples on the island. The Meru shrines gleam with roofs made from the fibre of black palms and gold-painted woodwork.

Suri, our guide, takes us to the cultural heart of Bali — Ubud. The road to Ubud has rows of canvasses displayed in open pavilions and home studios. They are fascinating works of art dealing with subjects of daily life — such as a gamelan rehearsal, rice harvesting scene or a Balinese dance recital. Suri tells us that every person in Bali is an artist or an artisan. We believe him as we see weaving, dancing, stone and wood carving and painting almost everywhere. We reach the village of Tegallalang and see the verdant rice terraces. In between the rice terraces are small temples to which the rice deity Dewi Sri is invited!

Time to bargain

The Ubud art market is a treasure house of local crafts. There are rows and rows of stalls selling masks, puppets, local pottery, clothes, trinkets and silver jewellery. We hone our bargaining skills to perfection against the constant refrain of “Me bankruuupt!”

The capital city, Denpasar is a must-see for the urban Bali experience. Motorcycles, cars, dokars or horse carts and bemos (a hybrid Indonesian van) weave their way through traffic. There is a huge patch of green here with a bronze statue commemorating the ritual mass suicide or ‘Puputan’, where the Raja of Badung (as Denpasar was then called) and Balinese warriors attacked the Dutch rulers and then stabbed themselves.

The Bali Museum dates back to 1932, and its attractive grassy courtyards and buildings combine all the archetypes of traditional Balinese architecture. It’s a veritable visual feast of paintings, masks, ceremonial regalia and archaeological finds. It’s a short walk from the hotel to the iconic Tanah Lot temple. Its multi-tiered shrines on a crop of rock have become the enduring image of Bali. This temple is said to be founded by the Hindu priest Nirartha, who sailed to Bali from Java in the 16th Century. Legend goes that he meditated so hard that he pushed the rock he was sitting on into the sea and this became the shrine and his scarf turned into poisonous serpents that still guard the temple!

We see the shrine from afar amidst Polaroid-clicking photographers and the ubiquitous vendors. The view from sunset point, a short climb to the top of a cliff, gives us a breathtaking view of the temple and the Indian Ocean. We are just in time for an exquisite Balinese sunset, with the molten sun awash in a pink sky.

Published in the Hindu Metro Plus , 2009