Rsi Markendya, a wandering priest from Java found his “perfect” meditation spot at a place, where two branches of the River Wos meet in Ubud. Growing along the banks of the river were all kinds of medicinal plants with healing properties thought to be “Ubad,” which in Balinese means medicine and this in the course of time became “Ubud.” We are on our way to Ubud, the cultural and spiritual epicenter of Bali. Ubud was the hippies’ haunt of the '60s and the '70s which placed it on the tourist map. Today, it’s a new age paradise, with hedonistic spas and faith healers. There are myriad options for staying in Ubud -from exclusive resorts for the rich and famous to homestays, jungle retreats on stilts, and ecotourism villages.
Driving to Ubud, we pass many exquisite temples.Crumbling brickwork, walls covered with lichen, astonishing sculptural repertoire, the temples of Bali are awe-inspiring. The Balinese culture is steeped in religion and ceremonies. Prayers and offerings are a way of life. The Balinese have temples for every occasion: house temples, family temples, temples for rice-fields, even for monkeys!
As we drive through Batubulan village, gargantuan statues of the Buddha, Ganeshas, demons, monsters, and spirits waiting to be shipped to foreign lands, mesmerize us. Suri, our guide from a local village, takes us to the home of a stone carver and we watch him coax a deity out of pale black lava stone.
The other draw card of Ubud is art and craft. Every person here is said to have an artistic gene. There are open pavilions and artists’ homes lined with paintings dealing with everyday scenes from Balinese life like a harvest or a Barong dance, traditional masks, myriad kites shaped like animals and mythical birds, and beads and jewelry crafted out of shells.
Ubud pampers the body and soul. It has become the home of the “spiritual seeker” in recent times following the success of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love which deals with her emotionally shattering divorce and her travels around Indonesia, Italy, and India. There are natural healers, yoga classes, chakra healing, Reiki, and other holistic treatments which tourists flock to. Ubud has also become the venue for a very successful “Writers and Readers Conference” every year attended by well-known novelists and poets from around the world.
My home away from home is the luxurious COMO Uma Ubud on the fringe of Ubud, overlooking the Tjampuham Valley, framed by banyan and coconut trees, with my pool suite with four poster beds, looking down the green valley. The hotel is surrounded by rain forest with mossy paths, Indonesian-style landscaping, frangipani trees, traditional architecture, and a yoga pavilion that overlooks the forest and a gorge.
What is attractive about Ubud is that you can head out into the countryside in a minute from the crowded streets of the main town, with paddy fields, the sight of farmers laboring, the chirp of cicadas, and a pastoral vibe. You can do the Campuhan Ridge Walk, a 9 km trek in and out of a green valley with rivers and coconut trees, or trek through the Sacred Monkey Forest, a sanctuary with macaque monkeys. We head out to the emerald green rice terraces at Teggalang. The beautifully sculpted rice terraces of Teggalang looking over a valley form an age old Balinese irrigation system called subak dating back to the 8th century and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I traipse up and down the terraces, having a drink at small cafés called warungs. If you are an adrenaline junkie there’s even a jungle swing that takes you above the cascading rice terraces and forests.
Ubud also brims with dances and cultural shows. The Kecak dance, based on the Ramayana, dealing with Sita’s abduction and her rescue by an army of monkeys, is a pleasure to watch. Fifty bare-chested men act as both the choir and the props, and their vocal chants of chak, chak chak reverberate in the temple stage. We also see the graceful Legong dance, choreographed to the finest details, which tells the story of a princess who is held captive. Intricate hand movements and the young women in brilliant red and gold sarongs add to the drama.
We visit the famed Tirta Empul Temple, dedicated to the Hindu God of Water, a temple famous for its natural spring water. For thousands of years, worshipers have flocked here for its curative waters. With three courtyards, a line of carved stone water spouts, hundreds of baskets of offerings in banana leaves made to deities, and people having a bath in the crystal clear spring waters, it’s a lively scene inside the temple.
Browsing through the Ubud art market is a must. There are rows and rows of stalls selling masks, puppets, batik fabrics, pottery, clothes, trinkets, and silver jewelry. Tired by our shopping expedition, we rest our tired feet in the Lotus café -a picturesque restaurant inside a temple. There is a lotus pond framed by flowering trees and surrounded by an oasis of pavilions. The otherworldly backdrop is the Pura Saraswati, one of Ubud’s main temples.
Ubud is also the culinary capital of Bali. From small family-run restaurants also called warungs to fine dining, you will be spoilt for choice here. Many of them also have extraordinary settings like at the edge of the river or over a valley and use locally sourced ingredients and fresh produce. The food festival held annually provides a platform for the country’s most spectacular chefs, restaurateurs, and entrepreneurs to celebrate Bali’s diverse cuisines.
No trip to Ubud is complete without a massage. We have a traditional mandi lulur massage with a turmeric pack, preceded by a chocolate and seaweed wrap! The setting is ethereal -a small spa set amidst fluorescent emerald rice fields. The kneading and rolling weaves its magic on our tired limbs and the petal-strewn bath makes us linger. We have a Balinese Boreh massage another day, which has its origins in a scrub to ease farmers’ aching muscles, after a day in the rice fields! A warm paste made from ginger and other spices is applied over our bodies, and we are wrapped in banana leaves.
The locals say that they have not seen the world outside Bali. Most of them earn very little, and lead simple lives filled with rituals and ceremonies. By the end of our sojourn here we have bemused and untroubled smiles just like the Balinese.