by Jacob Jarvis
Tentatively creeping my hand forward, I am coerced by my friends to stroke a supposedly lucky holy sake in a dimly lit cave at Tanah Lot, one of Indonesia’s most intriguing cliff side temples.
The reptile appears unfazed, as does its guardian, who oversees the countless visitors who visit each day. I’m in no way religious, but the sense of calm, perhaps more aptly described as relief, which flows over me once I’ve brushed across the creature’s scales is immense. Though it may be somewhat of a placebo, caused by a sudden rush then drop of adrenaline, but it feels profoundly spiritual. The snake’s keeper smiles at me, and I feel welcomed by him, regardless of any spiritual differences.
After this I walk over to a holy spring, I’m ushered forward, alongside clearly religious locals, and treated just the same despite blatantly looking like a western traveller. Though I feel somewhat voyeuristic, nobody acts like I am.
No words are spoken but I’m urged to wash my face with the water, then I stand still to have my hair brushed out of my eyes, and I’m blessed with grains of rice stuck to my forehead and a flower placed in my hair.
In these instances, I see the appeal of organised religion and collective spirituality. I feel at ease, grateful to be accepted during these rituals. The two fleeting moments both give me a sense of seclusion in which to think, while simultaneously they feel like bonding experiences with those around me.
Leaving the small unsuspecting caves behind me, I scramble across the rocks of the shoreline to watch the sunset. Waves crash beneath me and the sound lulls me further into a state of relaxation. Around me couples embrace each other in the golden glow, while parents lift their children into prime positions to see the temples majestic silhouette, backlit by the delicate glow of the receding sunlight. Everyone seems in awe, religious spectators and curious tourists alike, as they sit to be serenaded by the sea and to be entertained by the glorious skyline.
Though I never expected it, and it took me a while to realise it, I’ve been pulled into an informal and indistinct act of collective worship. No preacher, no songs or sermons, just a collection of people, joined together by acts of kindness, a curious piece of architecture, and the delicate aesthetics of nature.
Faiths often divide us, as do our many associations and credences. At Tanah Lot, without warning or ceremony, I saw how with openness and curiosity, they can bring people together. If each of us could see that more often, I’m sure we’d be much better off.