A visit to the Elephant Cave (Goa Gajah)

Goa Gajah, or Elephant Cave, is near UbudBali, in Indonesia. It was built in the 9th century as a sanctuary, and includes a Buddhist temple, the Hindu Holy Pool/ Fountain of Life, excavated in 1954, and ancient carvings of monkey’s faces in the cliff faces and caves.

The stillness of the air makes my chest tighten immediately – not the dark, enclosed space. It doesn’t feel particularly sacred at first – except for the ancient quality of the air: “Take photo!” my guide urges. It’s maybe ten metres underground, over uneven rocky ground, carved in stone, by hand. With fingers, nails, according to the legend. I imagine soft human flesh tearing at this unforgiving surface, bleeding, bone and sinew exposed to erode away unyielding stone, a millimeter at a time, eking out this larger space, over months, years, decades.

The cave itself is also about ten metres long, perpendicular to the narrow walkway in from the heat, sun and air outside. I breathe in sharply. But the air is stale, fetid, thick. The light is low, the tunnel from the outside the only source of natural light, muted by the distance in. There are candlelit shrines at either end, bare light bulbs hooked on the ceiling. But it is still dark, internal, a tomb. It’s called “Forest”, forest for the jungle, but also for/rest.

There are niches carved at regular intervals, torn with human sacrifice, from the wall. It would be a climb up to get in, the bases a little below my waist. I lean in, and put my finger into thick black dust on a horizontal surface – it is cloying, sooty, and looks granular, like pigment. But when I rub it between my fingers it softens immediately, smooth, powdering, treacherous in its increasingly tiny particles. I imagine it, suspended in the air, constricting, clogging the bronchiole in my lungs. I breathe, sucking air into my nostrils. I think about the holy men sitting in these niches, under this low ceiling, their bodies contained tightly in this ancient space. There is enough room for their seated body, with a little space around it, coffin-like in its spatial allowance. I think about how it might be to tune out from the sun, the world outside, stilling the mind, to meditate in this space. More sacrifice. Leaving only to take the holy water from the remaining six of the original seven Hindu gods outside.

            It is a fountain of youth the guide assured us. “Sprinkle this on your face, ‘Aussi’”, he calls me, “on your hat, and you will look young forever”.

The other occupants of the cave have gone now. I step carefully toward the elephant god, Ganesha, with his four trunks. But I prefer the simplicity of the story of the three elements that drive the Balinese – the water that lines the streets under the broken pavement in Ubud, runs behind the houses, feeds the rice, and is audible outside with the rushing of the elephant river – elephant not due to the presence of the animal but for elephantine – big, loud, shallow, its surface lean, creased like the face of an old brown woman.  Then there is fire, the sparking, live, life force that wouldn’t die in the fire dance, its neon tendrils irrepressible, resonating heat and light and elemental energy. And wind, the moving air that relieves heat and humidity, and holds hundreds of kites hundreds of metres in the sky, pilotless, day after day in this place.

The black shiny phallic protruberances at the other end of the cave are clothed, as is Balinese custom, with faded sarongs, “for respect”. This is a shrine to fertility – but not for individuals our guide is keen to emphasise – more for fecundity in this world, and the next. I’m impressed by his desire to communicate the nuance of this place, day after day, to ‘Aussi’ after ‘Aussi’.

            It’s time to leave the cave, and with each cautious footfall on the rocky ground toward the glittering sunlight outside, my chest lightens, relieved by air, moving, particle-free. Outside, the green moss that grows like grass here is scraped back from the faces of the monkeys whose features pucker up from the rocky cliff-face like a kiss from the 9th century. There are fresh fingermarks in the moss, delineating their crevasses, crevices, creases, traced by recent human efforts to keep the past from slipping back under the layers of fecund nature that suffocated them for centuries.

29 June 2011.

© Louise Martin-Chew