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Exploring the caves of Bali

As a child, I Ketut Sunarta was told by his parents that Goa Maya or the Hidden Cave and ancient irrigation tunnels that lead to the cave were “dangerous”.

Ketut is the general manager of a resort and eco-adventure business in Bayad in Gianyar, Bali. 
Exit view: A view of the village of Karangsari from Goa Giri Putri on Nusa Penida.

He also serves as a trekking guide through jungle, rice fields, across a river and through the tunnels that lead to Goa Maya. 

This “dangerous” reputation is thought to have begun in the 11th century story of the killing of the evil king of Bedulu, Maya Denawa, by his subjects. They prayed to Siva, the god of immortality, and Indra, the god of goodness, to help them vanquish the king. Maya Denawa’s blood ran into the Petanu River, polluting it for both drinking and irrigation.

A natural spring was discovered arising out of the mountain near the river. One day as a team of men were digging irrigation tunnels, Ida Pedanda Griya Sakh Manawatla, a local priest, walked by. He felt a special spiritual power from the mountain and instructed the men to cut out a space for meditation in the center of the mountain. Goa Maya was born.

Into the dark: Tourists enter Goa Maya (Hidden Cave) in Bayad, Gianyar, Bali. The cave and its tunnels were discovered in the 18th century.

The priest used Goa Maya for meditation and ceremonies until the spring ran dry.

Goa Maya and its tunnels were discovered in the 18th century. It was during the Dutch occupation that they were reborn into a safe haven for those seeking refuge from the Dutch and later the Japanese and alleged communists. 

It was to the benefit of all Balinese that Goa Maya became known as “dangerous”, as no one would know who was hiding in the caves and children and other curious individuals would not venture near them. 

Three years ago, Ketut and the Swiss proprietor of the eco-adventure resort, Peter Studer, ventured into the tunnels leading to Goa Maya. They slipped into a narrow crevice in the mountain wall then crawled on their hands and knees among bats, spiders and snakes until they found the ancient cave. 

The low irrigation tunnels have been expanded allowing people to stand upright as they follow the 1,000-meter labyrinthine tunnel leading to Goa Maya. The cave is now no longer dangerous, as local villagers provide it with devotional offerings every day.

One afternoon, a group ventured into the cave, with each person given a flashlight as they entered the warm, moist tunnel. There were a few bats, but no snakes or spiders. 

Goa Maya is small, accommodating about 10 people. The previous night a full moon ceremony had been held there. The statues contained in the three alcoves – Indra, Siva and Maya Denawa – were beautifully adorned with black and white checkered cloth, flower offerings and colorful umbrellas. When the flashlights were turned off there was total, complete darkness. 

A voice from the group broke the silence: “I don’t feel fear. I feel hugged by the earth.” 

At another spot in Bali, in the village of Karangsari on Nusa Penida, Mangku Ketut Darma cares for the Goa Giri Putri or Lady Mountain Cave.

Mangku Darma is the priest of the cave and was born into the priestly class, yet only after a successful career in the Balinese hospitality industry did he return to Nusa Penida to follow his family heritage.

“Every time I returned to Karangsari people would tell me that they received visions or had dreams of me being the priest of the cave. I was very happy in my career. I did not feel called to be a priest,” he said. 

Here to stay: The statue of Siwa (Siva), the Hindu god of immortality, stands inside Goa Maya.

When two strangers spontaneously told him that it was time for him to claim his birthright, he “prayed and meditated upon their words” and finally returned to begin his new life as a priest. 

In 2001, Mangku Darma began creating the sacred temple that is now Goa Giri Putri.

Prior to Mangku Darma’s return, the villagers had left the cave in its natural state. Now, pilgrims from all over Indonesia journey to receive the blessings of Goa Giri Putri. They take home water from the pool deep inside the cave. 

When you ask a Balinese if he or she has been to the cave temple, what comes after “yes” is “the hole is so small to enter!” The cave entrance is quite small but then immediately opens up into a vast space. The cave is over 15 meters tall in some sections, extends 310 meters and emerges onto a verdant valley swinging with monkeys. 

The sound of dripping water onto the cave floor accompanies a priest guide and visitors trek through this very humid cave. There are tunnels to explore and statues of deities to be given offerings. The cave is wired with electricity and dimly lit. Goa Giri Putri also has a stage as well as an arena-style seating area in front of two large alters for ceremonies. 

Stairway to heaven: A magnificent golden dragon staircase takes visitors deeper into Goa Giri Putri.

A magnificent golden dragon staircase takes visitors up into the heights of Goa Giri Putri, where one can go deeper into the cave. An altar with a statue of Parwati, goddess of the earth, sits next to the sacred spring-fed pool. A small tunnel descends into a remote room devoted to the deity Vishnu, god of waters and the preserver of life. Mats lie on the floor for those who want to pray and meditate.

The exit room contains a large, generously adorned alter to the Buddhist deity Dewi Kwan Eem. The Chinese call her Kuan Yin. 

Mangku Darma said the religion of the Balinese is a Siva-Buddha tradition weaving the beliefs, rituals and deities of both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Dewi Kwan Eem is the goddess of mercy and compassion, and is a deity that all individuals, regardless of their religion, can call upon to relieve suffering.

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