It’s the day of the full moon on Nusa Penida, a dry, jagged island that bursts from the swells midway between Lombok and Bali. In the hills above the eastern coast, celebrants – some precariously balancing offerings on their heads – vanish into a crack in the rock. At the bottom of the natural stairwell, the roof drops so low that worshippers are forced to hunch or even crawl along the bare rock floor. The cavern then opens up into a vast natural temple extending hundreds of metres into the earth, cloudy with incense and gleaming with light. Locals call this sacred place Goa Giri Putri, and worship a wealth of gods and goddesses at its seven separate shrines.
One of a triad of islands situated in the Lombok Strait, Nusa Penida has long played second fiddle to its neighbour, Nusa Lembongan. Increasingly, however, visitors are discovering that Penida also boasts its own natural allure. These come in all forms – from the dramatic karst pinnacles and remote temples on the island’s rugged southern coastline, to the stunning white-sand beaches of Crystal Bay and cliff-framed Atuh Beach. The virgin rainforest of Temeling is home to rare bird species and hidden bathing pools, while Penida’s serene rural highlands offer stunning views across the waves to the volcanos of Agung and Rinjani. And beneath the waves lie an abundance of marine life – from white-tipped sharks to manta rays.
But aside from the island’s peaceful charms, Penida also harbours an intriguing secret: it is Bali’s isle of magic. During the 1800s and 1900s – and perhaps even earlier – the island served as a penal colony. Balinese convicted of transgressions would be sent here to serve their time. Some sources also indicate that convicts facing the death sentence were sacrificed at sea, given as offerings to Penida’s resident demon, Jero Gede Macaling.
The Mexican artist and ethnologist Miguel Covarrubias observed how much the mainland Balinese hated the sea – and how a substantial part of that fear emanated from Penida. “They dread the unholy loneliness of beaches,” he wrote in his classic 1937 study, The Island of Bali, “and believe that the coastline is under the influence of Jero Gede Metjaling, the Fanged Giant, who lives on the barren island of Nusa Penida.”
Even today, you can find locals who claim to witness ghosts patrolling the island’s beautiful beaches after dark. The demon Macaling’s presence, too, is still felt. Worshipped at Pura Dalem Ped, a limestone temple close to the waterfront in the village of Ped, the demon has potent powers. It’s Macaling who is believed to bring epidemics and natural disasters to Bali. Throughout the year, magicians come to the demon’s temple to pay homage and recharge their powers. Yet, looking at the celebrants lighting incense, crafting offerings of fruit or receiving blessings, it’s impossible to tell who is pursuing magic and who is simply at prayer.
Outside Goa Giri Putri, where Macaling’s mother, a fertility goddess, is among the deities worshipped, a mangku (Hindu priest) blesses celebrants with a sprinkle of holy water and a smear of rice grains on the forehead. Mangku Sima, a slim man with a narrow, dignified face, has been a priest here for 13 years. He considers himself adept in white magic, which he uses to protect his congregation from problems. “All of the people on this island are strong in magic,” he explains, going on to suggest that the relative isolation offered by Penida means they are less touched by modern-day forces that would distance them from their ancestral powers than people on more cosmopolitan Bali.
Indeed, it’s still a dangerous business to be associated with witchcraft on Penida. Life events from sickness and death to depression or simple malaise are often blamed on dark magicians, and some of the mangku’s work involves lifting curses. But as a descendant of a long line of Hindu magicians (who wishes to keep his name secret) shares, “Ultimately, there is no dark magic, only purpose. You can use the same mantra for either dark or light ends.”
Whether despite or because of Penida’s reputation, locals are reluctant to discuss the darker elements of their magic and their religion with outsiders. Less than 50,000 locals inhabit Penida’s 200km2 of land, and the tight-knit communities – which speak their own unique dialect – keep their rituals very close.
From trance dances with asymmetrical kris daggers to comic shows after which a chicken is sacrificed, Penida’s rituals are primal, earthy, intense – and distinct from the mainland. For a place so sparsely populated, it is dense with shrines: some call it the “island of a thousand temples”. But like the Balinese across the strait, the locals close the whole island down once a year for Nyepi (the Balinese “Day of Silence”) and all marine activities, even walking on the beach, halt for Nyepi Laut (or “Sea Day of Silence”).
Some argue that Penida’s complex rituals are essential to preserving the magical balance not only on the island, but on Bali as a whole. Yet sorcery – and the colourful rituals it creates – is only one form of enchantment. The other is Penida’s unspoilt natural beauty, which continues to mesmerise travellers.
Penida’s religious calendar is complex, but expect to see lots of worshippers on full moon and new moon days. The trance dances take place in January, although the exact date is only fixed closer to the time.
You’ll need a sarong, a sash and clothing that covers your shoulders to visit most temples on the island. The temple in Ped is especially sacred, so wear something that covers your arms well.
The easiest way to reach Nusa Penida from Bali is by fast boat from the port of Sanur. Maruti offers packages including pickup and drop-off from the main tourist areas of Bali for IDR550,000 (S$56); boats are at 8:30am, 10am and 4pm. The journey takes an hour.
There is no public transport; signage is limited; roads are narrow and potholed; and Google Maps is patchy on the island. Make arrangements with your guesthouse – expect to pay around IDR550,000 (S$56) for a car and driver, and around IDR60,000 (S$6) for a scooter.
Broken Bay and Angel’s Billabong – The rolling breaks and limestone coast of Penida create some truly dramatic seascapes. One of the most eye-opening is Broken Bay, an almost perfect circle of cliffs pierced by a solitary arch. It’s also a short – if rocky – stroll to Angel’s Billabong, a natural, stepped infinity pool in a deceptively serene canyon: steer clear of the edge, though, as several visitors have been swept out to sea by rogue waves.
Kelingking Beach – The cliffs of Penida make for some staggering beaches. Pantai Atuh, a white-sand beach with an offshore arch framed by cliffs, is awe-inspiring – but the secluded curve of Pantai Kelingking and the promontories that bracket it offer glorious sunsets. The path down is challenging, sparsely protected and not for those with a fear of heights. But if you have a taste for adventure, you’ll be rewarded with what might be one of the world’s most striking beaches.
Mantas and Mola Mola – Many visitors don’t even set foot on Penida, seeing the island from a dive boat. Besides vibrant corals, reef fish and turtles, the main attraction here is manta rays. Between July and October, you can also spot Mola mola, the world’s largest bony fish. Try Blue Corner in Ped (+62 813 3960 1148) or on Nusa Lembongan, or World Diving.
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This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine