Meeting a “God” in Goa Gajah, Ubud

The title of the post probably sounds like the cheesiest Instagram caption about Bali ever. But it’s not. Because in Goa Gajah, Ubud, I actually met and received blessings from a man whose name pretty much translates into “lord.”

It all started when I arrived at Goa Gajah, Ubud and asked around about the availability of historical guides at the holy temple complex. Built as a meditation site during the 11th century and a place where the notorious strategic genius of a prime minister, Gajah Mada once sat and meditated, I was naturally inquisitive about the story behind the place and had hoped for someone to share it with me.

The people at the entrance pointed me downwards towards the area near the entrance of the main cave and said that there would be guides there. So down the stone staircase I went.

But when I got there, the only man who appeared to be a guide snapped “no guides!” to me before offering his services as a tour guide to a Caucasian couple. Well, I thought, I guess that’s that. I was left to explore the entire complex and trying to interpret the historical significance of every slab of rock by myself.

Frankly, there were several interesting areas at Goa Gajah’s complex anyone would notice directly. The first would be the bathing pools at the center with statues of gods as the fountainheads through which what is believed to be healing water would come out of. Upon reading more about Goa Gajah, I discovered that this pool is used as a place of purification before entrance to the meditation cave and devotees would wash themselves in its water. The water levels at the pool and the number of fishes inside have also allegedly remained the same throughout history.

Another thing one would notice are ruins across the pool, on the side of the courtyard closes to the first staircase. These ruins turned out to be those of several old temples which sadly, could not be reconstructed because there wasn’t enough of them to go on with. Thus, they were just stacked together, according to which ones belonged with each other in a sort of sad, scattered way.

But the sight that would capture anyone’s attention raptly the most when they arrive at the courtyard is the gate to the meditation cave adorned with intricate carvings which seem to show a face. The gate to the cave itself is actually quite tiny but the carvings surrounding it gives off the impression that it is quite massive.

When I entered the cave, the smell of incense was thick in the air and the darkness was only broken by several neon lamps a few meters apart from each other on the cave walls. The main area of the cave was still used as a site of meditation during my time of visit and there was even a man so deep in his meditation that I felt like I walked in on a special moment that I shouldn’t have been a part of when I got in. There was also an indent on the wall where three statues sanctified by devotees are located. The silence was deep inside the cave and seemed to echo from the walls as well.

I didn’t want to ruin the man’s meditation further by being inside the cave with him, so I walked back into the sunshine towards a building that looked like a Hindu temple to see what lies in it.

At this moment, I noticed a curious old man with a beard and walking with a cane he fashioned by himself watching me. I took note of him, thinking that he was probably a priest and walked away.

As I walked over towards the temple, I discovered more stone steps leading further down, towards an area where I could hear rushing water and see a lot of green from banyan trees and mosses. I decided to walk over to the steps and when I descended, saw a view that made me feel like I had traveled to another time altogether.

It was a forest of boulders and mosses and banyan trees, covered in green everywhere. The light was much warmer here than it was up the stairs and there was a strange wave of calm and quiet at the site. The boulders were huge and most of them had carvings or shapes that looked like pillars, which made me speculate that they were ruins from another time. The sound of rushing water turned out to come from a waterfall leading up to stream and how the large boulders were positioned made it seem like the water came from the formation of rocks.

It truly felt like I was in a different place.

After exploring the entirety of this area, I decided to get back upstairs since staying there without any idea of what everything was would only leave me imagining what had happened back then and with that, not truly enjoying the place because of that curse of not knowing. It was quite a tiresome climb back up since the steps were pretty unevenly spaced and there were loads of them. That’s when I saw a little pavilion where I could sit for a while and the same man I noticed had been watching me earlier sitting on it with his cane to the side. Since he looked like he was an honored elder, I figured I should ask him for permission before setting my butt down on the pavilion.

“Excuse me, would it be okay if I sit here?” I asked.

“Sure, no problem,” he replied. And for a while we sat in silence, not really acknowledging each other until slowly, he limped with his cane over towards me.

I decided to ask him some questions about Goa Gajah, hoping for some bit of information about the complex from someone who seemed like he could provide legitimate bits of it. “Pak, I just came back from the little forest below with the large rocks with carvings on them. Was that from another temple?”

“Yes,” he replied with a toothy grin, proceeding to point at the expanse of woods and ruins below us. “The waterfall, the rocks there, they were from a Buddhist temple that fell apart many, many years ago.”

I noted the fact that the complex was a place of worship for two religions, with kings who believed in both once building empires in the territory of Indonesia.

“Wow, and this whole complex, getting here meant going down a lot of stairs. All this used to be underground isn’t it?” I asked again.

He nodded and said, “The ruins here and the ones down there are from different times. But this entire complex used to be underground. And then people dug it up, found more rocks and built them back up.”

At this point, I became excited from the insights he’s been giving after receiving none so far about Goa Gajah. “What about the fountain in front of us here?” I pointed at the pool right ahead of us. “I heard it’s miraculous, is that true?”

“Yes, yes! It brings miracles! See my legs?” He showed his skinny ones. “I couldn’t walk at all because this leg was bad. So some friends, they brought me down there to the pool. I still need a cane now, but I can walk! I was brought there and I prayed and believed and now I can walk,” he exclaimed.

I thought about how this man has a bad leg and needs a cane and could still walk down the stairs, so I had to ask, “Do you live nearby, Pak?”

He shook his head and said, “No, I actually live quite far, quite far from here. Every day, I come here to meditate, to pray and find peace.”

“Wow, how old are you?”

“87 years old now!” he said, quite cheerfully.

“You definitely don’t look like you’re that old, Pak. You still look fresh and strong,” I said, to which he smiled. “You live quite far from here, what about your children?”

“Ah,” he said, “my children are all grown-ups now. They’re married, they have their own lives, so I’m here.”

We sat in silence for a while, I was trying to swallow how he was left behind by the children he raised, silently fearing that would be me in the future. At this point, an Indian couple asked him for a photo and he obliged. It made me really sad that they just took a photo with him and walked away, but I needed a photo with him too to commemorate the fact that I’d met him.

Pak, I’m sorry to ask this, but can I have a photo with you?”

“Sure,” he replied. And click, four photos were taken of us together.

“Thank you, Pak. And what’s your name?” I asked.

“Gusti,” he replied. “Where are you from?”

“I’m Mary from Jakarta,” I bowed my head to him. After a short silence, I thought that I had to get going since the rest of my family was waiting for me.

Pak, I’m so sorry, but I have to go now. Thank you so much.”

And then he said this: “That’s okay. I will meditate and pray for you, wish you safe travels and a long life and success ahead.”

I thanked him over and over for this and waved him goodbye before ascending the stairs again to exit the complex. When I got back up to the rows of souvenir stalls, it just hit me. “Gusti.” In Indonesia, “Gusti” translates into “lord, powerful one” though sometimes people say “Gusti” to call out on God. And somehow, the man I’d just sat with reminded me of bits of my personal idea of God: a provider of information, someone who just wants a real conversation with you without pretense of selling anything, that big man who wants the best for you.

I guess you could say I met a “god” in Bali and received a blessing from him.

2 thoughts on “Meeting a “God” in Goa Gajah, Ubud

    1. Hey Jesica! Thank you for dropping by. I completely agree! There’s so much more to Bali than beaches and bars and there’s definitely a lot of culture to take in too. Love your enthusiasm for the island!

      Liked by 1 person

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