(describing an encounter on the island of Bali)


Auke Sonnega

(1910 - 1963)

(Translated from the Dutch by Husein Rofé)


Painting Auke Sonnega. Collection M.Rogge

Hidden in a softly sloping valley of southern Bali lies the famous temple complex of Tirtha Empul, resembling a sparkling jewel placed in a luxuriant setting of glinting ricefields, hillocks, terraces and rippling coconut palms. This fabulous island of Bali, home of Gods, demons and royal dancers, lies within the Indonesian archipelago, to the east of the greater isle of Java.

Yet Bali is not like the other islands of the group, for the landscape is of almost exaggerated freshness and greenery, while the ricefields show striking contrasts of yellow and green (especially when the grain ripens, or seedlings are planted) ; the combined effect of the fantastic shapes of these fields, and the irregular surfaces of the soil, is a most attractive baroque pattern, frequently of exuberant aspect.


Thanks to the richness of the soil and its good irrigation, the luxuriance of the palm-tops is notably in evidence, even exaggerated; it overshadows the villages and the lanes, giving to the island a peculiar charm of its own. The picture is completed by the well-proportioned shapes of the Balinese: the muscular figure of the male, who, clad only in a loin-cloth works in the fields, striking classical attitudes under the scorching rays of the tropical sun; or the Balinese woman, often so graceful, walking with typical balanced movements. These people have known how to choose colours so suited to the surrounding trees and undergrowth: brave direct colours in which they deck out their gods and dancers, and which have earned them world-wide renown.

Near the hamlet of Tampaksiring is the valley with the temple complex of Tirtha Empul (which means 'Sacred Stream') : the original temple with its many tall richly-decorated doorways, beside the men's and women's baths. A little apart, the former princes' baths, which now serve merely as a swimming-pool for tourists. In the centre of the group of buildings is an enormous banyan tree, its roots tangling over the ground, its leaves forming a tremendous canopy stretched above the whole.

A steep stone path leads up the hill from the temple courtyard, and comes out straight in front of the passangrahan (guest-house) perched above. This is a simple structure where one could formerly find both accommodation and good Indonesian food. Tourists frequently visited the spot and sat out on the two large terraces before the inn, overlooking the valley, admiring the view with the temple buildings below. Now the hotel is no more: it was broken up in 1956 to make way for a palace for guests of State, at the command of the President.

Balinese procession

After the war, I used regularly to spend four or five months a year in this inn, in order to be able to paint there and sketchthe many attractive models. The temples there form a centre of Balinese religious life, a place of pilgrimage; and many times a year, one can participate there in major ceremonies, spiritual disciplines and religious processions. On such occasions, the bustle of the pilgrims round the temple below, and the processions of colour in the background offer a vivid picture. The air vibrates then with the clash of cymbals; and the gamelan orchestras, their instruments carried hither on long poles, play that characteristic, frenzied and bewitching Balinese music.

The Balinese religion is of Hindu origin, its ritual is both worship and exorcism. A mysterious air of consecration appears to have been conferred on the spot by the ceremonies, the regular celebrations of bizarre rites. Yet at times one feels rather a sense of oppression, of an alien element dominating this ancient place round the countless altars. As soon as the temple was empty and abandoned, especially at dusk, the figures on the temple-gates appeared to come to life, and one could easily imagine the presence of spirits in the vicinity. The impression may well have been true, owing to the magic influence of the complicated rites (which few could control) that took place here for centuries in former times.

Naturally there were countless priests in the vicinity, though they appeared only when needed to officiate at ceremonies, priests of both Shiva and Buddha. The daily care of the temple was however left in the hands of the so-called pemangku (overseer). I was a good friend of the pemangku of Tirtha Empul, who used to wander round below, dressed in white, with a headkerchief of the same colour.

When I had finished my day's work and taken my afternoon tea, I often used to go down and have a chat with him, asking about the meaning of many ceremonies, and especially interested in the incantation techniques of his faith. Perhaps my interest went too deep, for, whatever the cause, I began to be troubled at one moment by oppressive and recurrent hallucinations. I was awakened nightly at 1 a.m., and visited literally by hordes of demons of strange aspect, which came at me through the walls of the room, and sprang upon me as if to crush me to death. This was no dream: I saw clearly their figures, about three feet high, mostly resembling animal forms, withhorrible heads, all of an uniform grey hue.

wayang demons">

There was no resemblance at all to the mediaeval portrayal of Satan as a human figure with cloven hoofs. They were entirely animal, and sprang around on their rear legs; on top of their grinning heads, they had a sort of growth resembling antlers, sometimes rather attractive. I knew that I was up against elementals, and that I had in some manner evoked them. Although I suspected that they were connected with the temple below, I could not be sure. The play was enacted again and again before my eyes on successive nights, and began to upset my nerves, which only aggravated the situation.

I sent for advice to the priest of the neighbouring village, and my friend the pemangku came in consequence with offerings of flowers and incense to perform a ceremony of exorcism on my behalf, to get rid of these grey devils which ruined my beauty sleep. To my astonishment however, the smells of incense and flower offerings filling my bedroom appeared to provoke a greater activity, the hordes of grey elementals continued to advance, my sleep diminished, and the persistent nocturnal visitations became an obsession.

Wayang puppet Kresna

I began to dread the sight of the ceremonial hocus-pocus, the smell of the Balinese blossoms, and I finally decided that, since I could not ward off these devils, my salvation lay in getting out of Bali and returning to Java. I concluded that, as an oversensitive painter, working in this environment, I had somehow provisionally lost my resistance against these lower powers, and that my resulting plight was not without its dangers. Intuitively I sent out an inner call for spiritual helpers, to the devas, to God; I prayed for deliverance from this loss of equilibrium, I was scared of my own state!

The pasanggrahan was empty and deserted, and I had been for weeks already the sole guest. This lonesomeness did not help to improve my condition. Every day the place was full of tourists but none of them felt inclined to pass the night in the old shack. I write of the year 1950... Before I go further, I must go back a few years to give the reader some idea of my environmental background, particularly with regard to spiritual questions.

I had been born in the North of Holland in 1910, the son of Frisian parents, who, originally Protestants, had between 1915 and 1920 become interested in Theosophy, and later joined the Theosophical Society of Annie Besant(photo) and Charles Leadbeater.

Annie Besant

In the early twenties, my spiritual eyes opened in this harmoniously developing milieu, for in those days the movement was a hive of activity and growth: the advent of the World-Teacher was preached and eagerly awaited, new Orders were being established on all sides. They all claimed that they had a special role to play assisting this Teacher to carry out his mission, and aiding the realization of the Divine plan!

Most adherents wished to belong to all of these societies simultaneously, and their impulsive devotion was laid at many altars. In Holland, we had especially the annual Star-Camp of Ommen, where assembled the members of the Order of the Star, thousands of people who collected around the young, slim and delicate Indian, Jiddu Krishnamurti; he was expected to blossom out into the awaited World-Teacher, or at least to be used as a Christ-vehicle for the new Divine Dispensation to mankind. In the Society, the soul about to incarnate was known as the Master Maitreya. I had connections with the majority of these movements, and participated every year in the Star-Camp at Ommen.

Around 1929 however, the uncontrolled imaginations of the over-zealous were in for a bitter disappointment. The voice of the World-Teacher spoke through Krishnamurti (photo) but did not at all tell these people what they were hoping to hear: rather came the stern reality of Truth! I remember Krishnaji, as we used to call him, once shouting out to the gathering: "Do you really think that you could cram this World-Teacher, this Master, into your limited and narrow blueprints?" He spoke as he felt, and it did not appear that he intended to serve as the instrument of those who had made their plans for him well in advance.

Krishnamurti at Star camp, Ommen
Krishnamurti in Ommen, Holland

In the 1929 Star-Camp, he told thousands that he would rather have one listener who understood him than thousands who seemed unable or unwilling to receive the essence of his message; he wanted no disciples, was dissolving the Order of the Star, and required no co-operation from other movements such as the Free Catholic Church or the Theosophical Society.

Thousands were plunged into doubt, into despair. How could such a one be the World-Teacher? He talked of quite other things than the sweet, prepared and palatable theosophical "Truths" with which they had so long been nourished. He puzzled them, made them think for themselves! Unperturbed, Krishnamurti continued to expound his viewpoint, decisively rejecting all the preconceptions, systems and altars which they had built up on his behalf.

He spoke with force and beauty, saying things which these people had never previously heard, showing quite a different conception of life from what they had been accustomed to. What he said was so basic and appropriate, so beautifully expressed, and withal so intensely vital to us all; and yet few could receive these words in their fresh, healthy and quite new perspective. He threw right out all the complicated terminology of the Theosophical Society, and spoke in ordinary every-day words, simply, yet with clarity and meaning. Such was Krishnamurti: and off he went to deliver his message round the capitals of the world.

All the hurry and bustle of the "spiritual" hocus-pocus had suddenly been thrown out of our gatherings. Some preferred to keep to their cherished rituals, and relinquished Krishnamurti, while others worked for years to try and effect a synthesis.

I could see clearly that precisely this was impossible, for any compromise would be hypocrisy, a lie. Krishnamurti had set me on my spiritual feet, and the shock eventually had a sobering effect. Rejecting compromise as vain, I abandoned the Movement, and decided never thenceforth to join another. The important thing was to develop self-reliance, to walk forward on our own legs, and to leave all these spiritual crutches behind. It was with such an attitude that I left Holland for Indonesia in 1935.

Sonnega and his paintings

Now I began to turn my attention to 'living', to the future, after years of concentration on "spiritual" interests. Painting was dearest to my heart, and I had the chance of finding employment as a commercial artist, in that happy, sunny world of prewar colonial Java. Yet, following the spiritual disillusionment of 1930 was to come a parallel material disappointment when all this comfort was swept away with the World War in 1940. I found myself sitting in an internment camp, shorn of all my worldly goods.

During this period I continued to read many books on spiritual themes, and my interest was still much alive when I found myself in Bali in 1950. I return now to the circumstances in which I found myself at the Tampaksiring guest-house at that time, when, just as I was getting ready to depart, a visitor came to stay there. He acted very shyly, either gave no greeting, or only a very cursory one, and sat for hours on the veranda, holding a cup of tea, and staring silently at the landscape. This seemed to me almost a personal affront since my long isolated residence here had caused me to consider the inn as practically my own property! This man was walking about my 'home' and staring through me as if I were nothing hut air! He was not a type commonly noticed in Indonesia: his complexion was pale, his figure thin, and his clothes were ill-fitting.

I did not give up trying to communicate with this odd visitor, and sat next to him on the veranda, making with some difficulty a number of observations which were answered very distantly. I had a strong impression that this guest had come to Bali for some special purpose, and must admit that I felt very curious to know more. We eventually managed to hold a formal conversation, from which it became clear that the newcomer did not welcome "indiscreet" questions. Yet I felt that there would be a more opportune moment for conversation either at dinner, or when we found ourselves alone in the lonely sitting-room afterwards. It seemed to me that this man could hardly maintain much longer this self-sufficient reserve which rejected all attempts to break through.

The conversation did in fact proceed somewhat more spontaneously at dinner-time. I got the impression that my companion was a person who knew exactly what he wanted. My own aggressive attitude and his very positive and self-possessed manner became more comprehensible to me later on. Others who met him commented on similar first impressions. A few hours later, after dinner, I came to recognize his almost inexhaustible intellect, and to note his apt, summary conclusions.

This visitor to the passanggrahan was Husein Rofé. He informed me that he had recently arrived straight from Morocco, and that he was, among other things, engaged in writing for Islamic journals. His account was somewhat laconic, for he did not seem to know precisely himself why he happened to be in Bali; apparently, before taking up a new position as a teacher for the Indonesian government, he wanted to make a short tour of interesting spots. Thus he had been advised to look at Tampaksiring.

Although through my experience of spiritual matters, I had begun to sense a pattern in the apparently haphazard and unrelated experiences of life, I had no idea that just this man who had now arrived here would later enlarge my perceptions to an extent that I should not then have believed possible.

As to his impressions of Bali, they were not too favourable in relation to the spiritual life, and he gave his opinion that the island and the spiritual vortex around it were deeply saturated in the black arts, and that a long stay in the area could be detrimental to the finer feelings of spiritual sensitives. This observation astonished me greatly, all the more so as I should never have expected it: everyone who came here either dismissed Bali, from a materialistic impermeability, or else fell totally under the spell of the powerful new impressions offered here. Rofe' was suggesting an entirely new outlook!

His visit (to the best of my knowledge, the first and the last that he ever made) took place in August 1950. After dinner, we continued an animated discussion in the large sitting-room until well after midnight. Husein gradually thawed as my spiritual interests were progressively revealed: he made little attempt to conceal what he himself really thought. I wanted to know more about his objections to the so-called inimical influences in the local atmosphere, and our conversation turned to Theosophy, Anthroposophy, the fourth dimension and others beyond it... Once I began to acquire confidence in him after a few hours of excited listening to his extremely interesting views, and frequently strange ideas, I told him of my weird nocturnal visitations, and my difficulties in obtaining satisfactory rest at night. These elementals had not shown up by 1 a.m., when I was still sitting chatting to him.

He explained emphatically what I had begun to suspect: that as a result of my too deep and sustained interest in Balinese rites, a chink had opened in my astral armour or spiritual body, that I was provisionally unprotected against such influences, which precisely in this charged Balinese atmosphere could have most unpleasant consequences.

Wayang Kulit shadow play

Husein remained in the pasanggrahan about ten days. After I had described my nightly troubles to him, he stated that, as long as he remained in the building, there would be no more manifestations, and that I should be able to go and sleep peacefully; there was no need for further worry. I did in fact sleep like a top that night, and the hallucinations, elementals, devils, astral beings, thought-forms, or whatever one may call them, had vanished as though by magic, and never came back into mv life again!

I remember how Husein remarked just about this time how situations may arise in our lives which leave us no longer our own masters, so that we are obliged to seek the help of others. He said it was both foolish and dangerous to try to deal with such difficulties all by oneself, which was the moral I could draw from the experience. In my isolated search for independence, I had gone too far. I then got a strong impression that Husein had not suddenly come all this way to Indonesia for nothing: it even seemed that he had been sent in answer to my prayer to the spiritual helpers, the devas; to extricate me from the pit which I had allowed myself to fall into. These thoughts affected me greatly, and I could not silence such ideas, although it hardly seemed that I was worth such a lot of trouble on the part of the Higher Spheres!

The next morning, I found Husein standing on his head in the sitting-room. Yoga exercises were an essential feature of his daily routine, but as I did not know this at the time, I stared in surprise. The early morning was fresh, the silvery dew in the valley was pierced by shafts of sunlight. On the verandas by the side of the gorge, it was still quite chilly.
Balinese landscape by Walter Spies
I stared down for a long time at the picturesque landscape in the early light of dawn. Then the sun gradually warmed up the room where Husein was busy doing his exercises, and the servant came to call me for the sweet, hot, black coffee awaiting me there. The poor chap bad had quite a fright on entering the room, at seeing Husein all tied up in knots doing his exercises on the carpet.

This was the beginning of a permanent friendship between Husein and myself: we would sit and chat together, or go wandering through the lovely surroundings. Gradually, I came to know more about Husein's life, and his plans for the future. He was sympathetic towards the demand for independence of the peoples enslaved by colonialism, and so he was anxious to get to know the Indonesians, and their authentic way of life. He had thought best, therefore, to accept a post as teacher in the central Javanese capital of the sultanate of Djogjakarta. After ten days of stimulating conversations, and new outlooks on spiritual problems, I had to say goodbye to him, and remain in that pasanggrahan alone. But soon afterwards I too packed up, and left for the capital.

Husein Rofé
Husein Rofé
In Djakarta, I received news from Husein regularly, and he soon began to ask me whether I had ever paid any attention to the spiritual currents among the inhabitants of mid-Java. Certain remarks he had heard had greatly intrigued him, and he had also been told some unusual tales. He wrote that he wanted to investigate these reports himself. I did not have a high opinion of these movements, and thought little of Husein's enthusiasms for the Indonesian spiritual schools. Although I too had heard of the existence of ancient mystical disciplines in ceritral Java, it seemed that these were quite unsuited to contemporary needs, and the use of the old Javanese symbolism was meaningless to Westerners.

After a few months, Husein came to Djakarta again, and we had a further discussion in my home. This time he had plenty to relate, and stated that he had established direct contact with the most significant and satisfactory spiritual movement in the province. With his typical persuasive powers, he began to narrate, saying 'listen', but since it appeared to him that I was not giving my full attention, he repeated: "Listen Auke, this is very remarkable!" So I sat down to listen, and... to watch. Husein started to do something while sitting on my sofa) such as I had never previously seen. Closing his eyes, he rocked to and fro, shook his shoulders, and began to produce sounds which seemed like a mixture of Islamic chants and melodies of the synagogue! Husein was quite unruffled by my lack of enthusiasm, my refusal to accept this as a rationally significant performance.

He asked me what effect this had on me, and I replied: "You have been acting quite crazily, making a frightful din". I could make nothing of this performance! How was I to give an opinion of it? "Well", said Husein, "this is a sample of the exercises of the new movement I have met in Djogjakarta. It is fantastic: the sick are healed, the healthy become yet fitter, artists become inspired, and the intuition is sharpened by these peculiar practices!"

I was up in arms, and replied: "Husein, either you are crazy, or else well on the way towards it". "No", he went on, as if my words had made absolutely no impression on him, "you will discover for yourself how wonderful this is. I learnt it from one of the great men I met in Djogja, and you will soon see for yourself, as you'll be coming with me when I go back there.

"Absolutely nuts!", I said. Nevertheless, I knew that Husein was far from mad, and when he had left me to return to his hotel, I could not stop thinking about this odd performance, though I kept telling myself I had witnessed something very crazy!

© Michael Rogge 2021

This is the first part of a supplement to Husein Rofé's: Reflections on Subud.(1961)

Click for part two

Foreign translations:

Page initiated on 24 February 1997, revised 17 Nov 2021


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