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Bali: A sunrise ceremony

A journey at dawn to the island temple of Tanah Lot delivers a chance encounter with a colourful Balinese congregation

Bali: A sunrise ceremony
Tanah Lot. Image: Josephine Price.

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The morning hasn’t gone to plan. Even the waves feel like a disappointment. The limp, white foam splashes meekly between my toes as I stand on one of the exposed rocks in the shadow of Tanah Lot.

I’d been promised a serene glimpse of one of Bali’s most-loved temples, free from the crowds beneath a colour-stained sky at sunrise — but standing here alone, it’s eerily quiet and a heavy mist obscures the view.

On the recommendation from a friend, I’d set off at an unnaturally early time for this. She’d promised me the temple was at its best at sunrise, despite being known as one of the island’s more popular sunset spots.

The air feels thick and there seems little prospect of the sun peeking through this morning. The glistening sea, mossy rocks and graphite sky admittedly make for quite a romantic scene, like a watery Yorkshire moor — but was this pale panorama really worth such an early start?

I sit on the steps of the ornate stone entrance to the temple complex, pondering whether to stick it out or cut my losses and return in the evening. Far off, a drum beats. I tap my foot in time for several minutes before I realise the noise is edging closer. With my back against the cold stone of the temple’s arched entrance, I peer round to look through the archway.

What must be an entire village is making their way towards me. The downward-sloping path makes the crowd seem more imposing but they’re interested neither in me nor in the weather I’d been fixating on. There’s a trancelike quality to their march towards the temple, accompanied by near-deafening drums, piercing percussion and chiming bells. They funnel through the archway, some of them nodding to me as they pass. It seems I’m allowed to stay, although I give them space and remain perched on the steps, slightly apart from the congregation.

Suddenly the scene is awash with the colour it was so desperately missing, as the masses gather in their pristine white shirts and multi-hued sarongs, toting umbul umbul flags and tasselled umbrellas. After leaving floral offerings, they spill out across the rocks over to the main water temple and snake their way up the steps.

I can’t hear myself think for the clanging drums and I can’t quite believe that no one else is here to witness this sunrise celebration, which I later find out is a lunar festival — something rarely witnessed by tourists.

As I wander back up the main village thoroughfare, vendors are pulling up their corrugated iron shutters and I see a coach in the distance dropping off the first batch of the day’s tourists. They’ll all see the temple today, but only the version they’re expecting to see. I’d seen what it meant to the Balinese.

I’ve never been much of an early morning person, so I climb back into bed, thrilled by my glimpse of the sunrise ceremony — even if the sunrise itself didn’t make an appearance. I drift off to sleep with an enchanted feeling, dreamily imagining what else the world gets up to before dawn.