I dragged myself back into the sanctuary of the ECAiR residency, one hand swollen and aching like an overconfident prize fighter, and in the other, good hand, I clung desperately to a warm beer. I was covered in mud and proudly sporting a bright red bindi on my forehead. It had been a wonderful afternoon!
Earlier that afternoon I decided on a quick trip to a local natural highlight, the Gua Charas, a huge cave famous for its mixture of Hindu and Buddhist artifacts. It’s a mere 26 kilometres from the centre of Kuantan and should make for a nice afternoon outing. My fellow artist in residence , Raoul, was busy with some online appointments, so I set off on my own. My first obstacle, a busted tyre on my bike, was easily overcome courtesy of my neighbour who offered me a lift to the bus terminal. I was greeted by thousands of people who had gathered around the central location for a huge marked and music festival. According to a local this only happens ‘once in a blue moon!’. This lunar event managed to create a huge traffic chaos and subsequently all buses were running behind schedule. Nothing to do but play a travellers favourite game, waiting. As a photographer, this is never a problem, so I sat with my camera primed, taking it all in. Finally bus 500 arrived and was ready for take off, by now we are about 40 minutes late, never mind, it’s only a short ride to the caves. Another 40 minutes passed and we had managed to do a circle of the town to pick up more passengers but at last we were heading out of town.
Sitting next to me on the bus was an Indian man who also seemed keen to get to his destination. As it turned out, after many hand gestures and map pointing, he was going to get off at the same bus stop as me. Excellent, at least I won’t miss my stop. Not that I need have worried, as the bus approached the Charas mountain, it stood out of the surroundings like a real Chinese brush painting.
Leaving the air-conditioned bus, I was slapped around the face by the hot and humid reality of the Malayan countryside. The Indian man gestured to me that he and two of his friends would take me to the cave. He also knew a short cut to the entrance, a good thing since the bus stops four kilometres from the cave. So my three new friends and I trekked through a large palm oil plantation towards the Gua Charas; we were kept company by a heard of cows and scores of monkeys.
We arrived at the gate with one minute to spare, closing time was at 5pm. This has turned out to be a lucky day for me, because if it wasn’t for my Indian friends I would have been greeted by a locked gate. Arriving this late had the added bonus that we had the entire cave to ourselves. Climbing into the coolness of the cave I noticed the smell of incense and as my eyes adjusted to the dark I was presented with a huge cathedral like space. In the dim light I could make out several altars devoted to different gods. It appeared that the Hindus and Buddhists shared the space equally. But according to my friends, Hindu gods and Buddha are the same anyway. At the back of the cave we stopped at a large Hindu altar and made offerings of incense and we all applied a bindi to our head. This should protect me well, I thought. But I think I may have applied it incorrectly as within minutes, trying to descend the stairs even deeper into the cave, I slipped and fell. My first reaction was to protect my cameras, which resulted in landing hard on my left wrist. But I was OK, just a bruised wrist, dented ego and muddy pants. For the rest of the journey my friends circled me carefully and watching every step I took, warning me constantly ‘ slowly, slowly!’ At the very end of the cave we found a giant sleeping buddha, a most splendid sight. We lit more incense and in the warm glow of the candle light, quietly reflected on the serenity of the Buddha’s face.
The monkeys and cows patiently waited for us and together we trekked back to the bus stop where we parted with handshakes and warm smiles. As I stepped onto the chill of the air-conditioned bus, I felt like I had just returned from another world.
I crawled, tired, sore and happy into my bed, thinking that perhaps, my bindi did protect me after all.
The first thing you notice is the smell; a sweet, smoky odour that permeates the room, and then the eyes are dazzled by the shimmering colours and forms all around you. Scenes with dragons, tropical fish, swirling patterns of flowers and dream-like landscapes. I am visiting the Ghazil Arts Gallery for a batik workshop. My first task is to colour in a pre-waxed stencilled work. I guess I can’t go far wrong here. I love working with the fluid colours, a bit like working in water colours and a perfect way to get my eye and hand in as preparation for my own design. I am working on a fishy theme in Malaysia so I am sticking to this topic and my hand drawn design is a big fat fish. With the guidance of one of the workers, Sharifa, we bring my creature to life. My assistant can neither talk nor hear, so we communicate with a mixture of signing and smiles. I think that the final outcome is a beautiful reflection of our effort.
The method of batik making in Malaysia is quite different to those of Indonesian Javanese batik. The pattern is larger and simpler, it seldom or never uses canting to create intricate patterns and relies heavily on a brush painting method to apply colours on fabrics. The colours also tend to be lighter and more vibrant than deep coloured Javanese batik.