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Bali Blog - Article About Bali Holiday Island

The Bali Craftsmen’s Road

3 March 2008


Stone-carving is as much a part of Bali’s culture as temple festivals and gamelan. Much of it is produced in this village just north of Denpasar. Batubulan is where the Balinese come to shop for a pair of demons to guard the threshold of their temple, hire a master-carver to carve a frieze in-situ at their bale banjar, or bargain for a statue of a Hindu goddess to grace the lobby of their new hotel.

In a open-sided workshop, Ketut is coaxing the form of the deity out of a block of pale grey paras while his nine years-old nephew looks on. A few feet away, his cousin adds the finishing touches to a panel more than a meter and a half across, carved from a creamy-white stone bought in by the block from Java. It’s taken me two months, ‘he tells me when I ask.’ Perhaps one or two days more.’ He stand back for a moment, wrinkles his forehead, then moves into skim the faintest silver off the wring of a heron feeding in a lotus pool.

Across the road in Batubulan’s Pura Desa, a small temple, beautifully carved. We stroll up the lane to the even lovelier meters further on. Elephant’s flank the steps, deities stand guard, a huge demonic face leers from over the doorway. All are masterpieces of the stone carver’s art, beautifully encrusted with lichens and moss, looking as if they’ve been there centuries. They haven’t. Paras, the volcanic tuff cut from local river gorges, is so soft and porous that after a dozen rainy seasons, features begin to blur. It’s unlikely that about running out of work.

Wandering in and out of the workshops along the main road, we meet Wayan Uliana whose filled the courtyards of his family’s traditional house compound chock full of carved stone. He invites us in to admire delicate goddesses and bulging-eyed demons, representations of the Buddha and stylized human figures. Here, he shows us a newly-carved paras ganesha, bland and grey, then another completed a month before. ‘See!’ he says his already specking its surface. ‘And this, encrusted with moss and ferns that looks at least a decade old, ‘This, I made six months ago.’

In Wayan’s Yudha workshops and the dozens of others along the road, there’s every size on show, from towering Buddha has several tons to frogs that fit in the palm of your hand and weigh only a couple of kilos. My friend splashes out Rp 280.000 on a 25cm demon light enough to go in her hand luggage. ‘Be careful you take it inside in the winter,’ she’s warned. ‘Paras and Yogya limestone are fine in tropical gardens, but they’ll crumble if you leave them out in the frost.’


At the northern edge of Batubulan, the main road turns sharply eastwards. As soon as we’re round the bend, stone statues give way to signs advertising the showrooms of Celuk’s silversmiths and goldsmiths.

Unlike Batubulan, Celuk doesn’t do much local trade. While Balinese buyers head for Denpasar’s jewellery quarter, Celuk lives off tourists and export buyers. Up market ‘galleries’ with car parks big enough to swallow a couple of coaches or a cluster of Kijangs thrive on tour group deposited by drivers and guides. I already know that unless I’m buying in bulk, finding a bargain is easier elsewhere. The side lanes are a better bet. Here, in smaller workshops, smiths still copy designs from Bali’s old courts. We stop to look watching them looping wire into intricate filigree and soldering tiny silver beads onto rings and bracelets to create the traditional textured for, but neither of us are in buying mode. Soon, we’re back on the road.


Sukawati’s ‘art’ market, Pasar Seni, is crammed floor to ceiling with more kitsch per square meter than anywhere else on the island. Wind chimes, t-shirts, brightly-painted kites and wooden carvings, they’re all here in overwhelming bulk, spilling off the narrow stalls so there’s hardly space to walk, but it’s the Balinese, rather than visitors, who keep Sukawati’s local craft industry afloat. They come to buy parasols to decorate their temples and carry in processions, choose new lemak hung with Chinese coins to hang on family shrines at Galungan, and bargain for lengths of the gold-painted perada cloth that’s would round pillars, eaves and shrines whenever there’s a temple festival or a rite of passage within their house compound. Sukawati is a center for temple decorations.

We stop to chat to Ibu Wayan who’s lived on the premises of her tiny shop for decades, acquiring a betel-stained grin along with her wrinkles. She does her best to show us her entries stock-brightly-painted umbul-umbul (the tall, triangular banners carried in ceremonial parades) parasols in glowing colors, sets of brightly-painted lidded baskets, rolls of pereda-offering us her smallest-size parasol for Rp50,000-175,000 depending on the number of Chinese coins-prices a fraction of those asked in tourist shops.

Since Sukawati’s a market center for nearby villages, we explore the ground floor of the Pasar Umum, a dark, aromatic (and in places, downright smelly) cavern where locals bargain for fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, spices and herbs and each stall has its little altar, raised on a pillar or nailed high on the wall, overflowing with offerings. Upstairs, we watch women shop for traditional clothes-bright-colored lace for a new kebaya, lengths of ikat-dyed cloth to wear round their hips, songket sashes woven with threads of gold, and even the coiled hairpieces that can turn a modern hairstyle into the fashion of the ancient courts.


Northern Sukawati merges into southern Batuan, a village known for its dancers and painters, but also its dancers and painters, but also its woodcarvers. Leaving the art galleries for another day, we nose around the open-fronted workshops. Concrete floors are scattered with aromatic wood shavings, intricately-carved doors and windows frames lean against walls that haven’t seen a lick of paint in a decade, and square and rectangular panels-some in simple relief, most with part of the wood cut away to leave to filigree of flowers, leaves and tendrils-hang on huge rusty nails. The carvers may not be out to impress with display, but some of the work is beautifully detailed.


A little beyond Batuan, we leave the main road and turn northwards to Mas. Once, woodcarvers here turned out architectural pieces not so different from those still made in Batuan, all to be brightly-painted and often glided, then incorporated into temples and palaces. Nowadays, no one would dream of hiding the natural grain of their sculptures beneath a layer of paint.

Despite the fame of its craftsmen, I’ve always avoided Mas, put off by that success and the plush galleries it’s spawned. Today, we stop in one of the most up market of all and I find out I was wrong. At Njana Tilem, a dozen men and women are at work in the garden courtyards and open-sided bales of the old family compound. The place oozes serenity. Birds sing, petals drift across the pavement, and alongside the carvers and polishers, other women weave offerings from coconut palm.

Inside the gallery, the whole story unfolds, charting the work of one family of master carvers from the 1930s, when local carvers began to experiment with naturalistic figures and scenes, to the first forays into abstraction and the forms that evolved out of working with fallen or knotted wood. The quality of the works is breathtaking and I understand exactly what I Njana Tilem meant when he said the finest part of financial success was being able to keep the pieces he loved best.

Moving down market, we explore the backstreets and meet I made Regung. A few minutes later we’re drinking tea in his family compound, eating cakes and examining the small sculptures of Baris dancers that are his specially. ‘I learned both when I was a body, carving and dance,’ he says, showing us a childhood picture in full costume. Suddenly he bends at the knees, his arms snake out, fingers flick into a gesture of watchfulness. All the grace of the warrior it there, as it is in the tiny statute I’m holding in my hand.

Before leaving Mas, we browse in some of the smaller shops. Nowadays, I Nyoman Geredet’s four sons share the business, but it’s their father’s work that stands out. I fall in love with a heron, dynamically modern, yet capturing the essence of the bird, and ask how long it took to carve. Pak Nyoman shakes his head. ‘I couldn’t tell you. I’d work on it for as long as I could see it clearly in my head, and then I’d get confused and lay it aside. I did that many times.’ It sums up why, against my expectations, I like Mas. I’d expected a slick commercialism; instead, the carvers we meet are still working for love of their art, using their financial success to buy the time to give it their best.

From Mas, it’s only a couple of kilometers to Ubud. It’s nearly sunset and a stretch of road I’ve often whizzed through in an hour has taken all day. Like a fan, the narrow road lines have opened out, revealing what was always there. Now, when I look at a stone Buddha, a silver pendant, or a wooden sculpture, I’ll see far more than I did before.

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