A HIKE TO HARMONY
A WAVE OF INCENSE tears through the crisp mountain air as the hypnotic rhythm of gamelan gongs, a call to the devout to gather as the toilsome day comes to a close, breaks the chatter of people. Clothed in white pressed shirts and sarongs — the color being a symbol of purity an obvious choice — the Balinese Hindus begin to pray under threads of diminishing orange light for rain and prosperity, among other things. Be it a child, witnessing this 18th-century ritual for the first time, or an elder who knows the practices like the back of his hand, everyone is solemn, contemplative even, and the energy becomes progressively compelling as the music picks up momentum at the fall of the night.
An annual ceremony borne from an apocalyptic vision of an early king bent on resolving a period of prolonged drought and diseases, Mulang Pekelem is observed at the crater lake of the oft-photographed Mount Rinjani. The second-highest volcano in Indonesia looms over Lombok, and as the focal point of any trip to the modest island, it draws a steady, if not incessant, horde of trekkers to its scenic trails. It gets exceptionally crowded in late October when hundreds of pilgrims embark on a journey up, and whether in the form of poultry or fish- and prawn-shaped precious metals the offerings to the gods are meant for the restoration of the earth’s natural balance.
Preparation for this important event is literally no walk in the park; devotees navigate famously-tricky passages with a week’s worth of food, copious cooking and camping equipment, and heavyweight materials to build makeshift temples and platforms. Sometimes, they make stops at spots with spiritual significance to meditate, and when their feet are eventually planted by the crystalline body of water some 2,000 meters above ground, they hastily set up base and make small sacrifices. Visibility is reduced to just a few meters as dusk descends, thus it is crucial in the days leading up to the week-long rite that the hours with sunlight are well spent.
During the ample time between rituals, if not taking luxurious dips in the hot springs the worshippers can be found fishing with tools fashioned from simple objects, accompanied by cups of strong coffee and packs of kretek cigarettes. A select few are tasked by the high priest to sacrifice a bottle of water at the summit, but life largely goes on as usual during lull moments, and it is perhaps in these pockets of quietude that the people get to relish the very beauty of the peace they ask for every year.
Albeit a prominent local affair, this celebration is not widely known to foreigners and most become spectators by chance than intention, with many passing through only because of a stopover at the crescent-framed lake. Being on the scene naturally requires a longer stay, and even if not for the higher cost or inconveniences that may be incurred, the mighty peak is still recognized as a very active volcano, with the last eruption having just taken place in October last year. As with every other religious ritual, Mulang Pekelem is extraordinary in its own right, and lucky is one who is a part of this rite for worldwide harmony, even if only once in this lifetime.