A Forest Memory
A Forest Memory

Of Stones and Trees: Sangeh Sacred Monkey Forest
We continue our shared memories and reflections on the meaning and power of Trees.

A Forest Memory. I apologise before we begin, there are bound to be many shortcomings in an article whose subject is so vast. Also, I say my thanks before we begin, to have the gift of meeting my first memory.

Memory is mysterious. Memory can hold such power over us over a lifetime. It can be strong and clear or hazy and weak. Whether we see Memory or not, it is there, taking residence in the back of our minds. Shaping our perceptions, our actions and choices. Memory shapes us from very early on. This recording of our experiences. The stories that get replayed in our minds that tells us who we are. Where we come from and perhaps where we belong.

A Forest Memory, Sangeh Monkey Forest
Sangeh Sacred Monkey Forest is located in Sangeh village in Badung Regency, approximately 25 km from Denpasar City, Bali. The status of this area was previously a nature reserve. However, on February 16th 1993 turned into a Nature Tourism Park with a total area of ​​13,969 ha. Photo by DD Reich

I struggled a little with memory. For many years I did not realise that my lack of clear memory from my childhood was a result of physical trauma. I learned in time that the way my memory functioned was erratic. Over time, as I healed, it seems Memory can heal with me.

a Forest Memory
Within the forest, the dappled light and the untouched forest floor depicts a scene of serenity. Photo by DD Reich

I have as far as I can remember, felt fascination for trees. I wonder if I can call it love, because as a child I am not sure I understood enough to say that. But my fascination towards large, old, awesome trees did become far more apparent as a a teenager. Enjoying being in the presence of old, even foreboding trees and drawing their branches and roots. Perhaps even my figurative paintings as a young adult, if I think back, had the qualities of the trees’ knobbly limbs and gestures.

Even now as I write this, I am bewildered by the clarity of this realisation. That trees have been much deeper a part of me than I imagined. Perhaps have stayed with me like a guardian ever since. Since, my earliest and oldest memory is of Forest.

A Forest Memory, Sangeh
Everywhere I turned it is beautiful. Photo by DD Reich

Sangeh Sacred Monkey Forest

Sangeh Monkey Forest is not a foreign destination for any Balinese. Even for visitors to Bali island, its name is well known and reputation established. I have visited Sangeh Forest on several occasions. Each time special, and serene. Something of my visit this year is different. It came together with new recollections of old memories. I do not just recall having been to Sangeh Forest before. But the earliest memory that I remember, as a toddler, is standing in the middle of Sangeh Forest surrounded by these ancient trees. And not surprisingly, due to my location..being surrounded by large monkeys.

The Monkey

The Monkey Forest of Sangeh, as I have learned is blanketed by many tales and legends. Its history is rich, but not always clear. The Legend speaks of Hanuman, the Monkey King of the Ramayana in a war with Rahwana. In order to quash Rahwana, Hanuman lifted the Sacred Mt. Meru, of which a piece of this Sacred Mountain fell in Sangeh, along with an army of his holy simians. That is why today this Forest is inhabited by roughly 700 long tail macaques (Macaca fascicularis) banded in three tribes. These Monkeys are considered sacred animals in this Forest. From my personal experience, that is not hard to believe.

A Forest Memory

The Temple

As fas as the traceable history is concerned, it cites that in the 17th century during the golden age of Mengwi Kingdom, I Gusti Ketut Karangasem, adopted son of Gusti Agung Made Agung (King of Mengwi) founded a ‘Pura’ (Temple) in the midst this forest. He had received a vision to build a ‘Pura’ on the site of the remains of an older temple. The temple he built was named Pura Bukit Sari. However, before this most recent addition, the forest and its temple had stood there before.

The Trees

Sangeh Sacred Monkey Forest was recorded clearly into the history books, when this adopted son of a King received this vision to build this ‘Pura’. Before this time, the Forest itself has mysterious and legendary story of how it came to be. It is a fact the Pala (Nutmeg) Trees of Sangeh Forest is homogenous and not found anywhere else in Bali. The Pala Trees of Sangeh, Dipterocarpus trinervis aka Dipterocarpus retusus differs from the other more commonly known variation which is edible. The nutmeg trees native to Banda in Maluku. The Pala Trees in Sangeh Monkey Forest are strait-trunked and grow to 40 metres tall. Approximately 2,000 individual trees are here amongst other species including mahogany, guava, and sapodilla.

a Forest Memory, Sangeh Monkey Forest

The Legend

The legend tells the story that the Pala Trees came from Mt. Agung located in East Bali. The trees undertook journey to move from Mt. Agung to where they are now. It is believed that upon the night when the Trees were undertaking this magical supernatural act, everyone was meant to be indoors and asleep.

But a villager, feeling unwell stepped outside of his home for some air and saw the Forest moving. He was so shocked that he screamed. Because they were seen doing something in the world that was meant to be impossible, the Trees stopped their journey and stayed where they were.

The Living Forest that was Seen

This wonderful story explains how the Forest came to be known by its name. ‘Sang’ translates to person and ‘Ngeh’ is seeing. it means it is a person who sees. That is why the forest is known as ‘Sangeh’. One that was seen by someone. This certainly resonates with a childs’ untethered imagination. I had no trouble that many things that seemed inanimate would carry on with their lives the minute I turned away. And resume their positions if we looked their way.

Sangeh Monkey Forest
The giants each had a story of their own, from their enormous roots to the forest ceiling. Photo by DD Reich

My journeying into the Forest is profound. The Forest is already full of profundity. Yet, it is because I come here now with the gift of a memory that was once lost which has returned. What significance is there to the memory that your life chooses to be your first? How a story begins is important to any writer. How our life stories are written inside our memories, perhaps have hidden meaning as well.

Sangeh Monkey Forest, Forest Memory
Sangeh Monkey Forest Photo by DD Reich

I feel so blessed for such a wonderful beginning. Standing in the middle of Sangeh Monkey Forest I was tiny, whilst everything was large.The ground seems so much closer. From where I stood, I could only see trunks, certainly not able to see the tree tops. I heard the sounds of Monkeys, their shrieks and rowdiness and grunts. I saw a Monkey so much bigger and heavier than the others. Coming towards me. Then I remember crying, hard.

Sangeh Monkey Forest
The Sacred Banyan Tree of Sangeh Monkey Forest. Photo by DD Reich

There are many different facets of Sangeh Monkey Forest. All important. However, due to the wide circulation of information that you can find, in the majority published for visitors in a booming tourism industry. Of course, to gain attraction. I am conflicted. How do I capture and share the wonder of this Forest, whilst at the same time I feel it so precious, I wish to keep it hidden and safe.

Sangeh Monkey Forest
Photo by DD Reich

Perhaps it is the fragility of my first memory that makes me shy away at the idea of overexposure. Quite comical perhaps, imagining that a little girl could protect a Forest from the world. I think though, if the world would be as pure as this Forest, perhaps fewer precious memories would be lost. The ancient trees are perhaps the Earth’s quiet memory keepers.

A Forest Memory..

Arriving back at the beginning, I am amazed by the mystery and intangibility of Memory. We cannot hold or touch it, yet Memory is integral to our identity as well as survival. Can you imagine the unravelling that would ensue if all our memories were lost? What are we without memory? The knowledge we take great efforts to acquire, any form of understanding we have is possible because of Memory. The astounding record keepers in our Mind.

Sangeh Monkey Forest
Pelinggih (Altar) at the Ancient Banyan Tree at the edge of Sangeh Monkey Forest. Photo by DD Reich

Perhaps the Ancient Trees and Forests are the Earths’ memory keepers. Something powerful and yet fragile. Regardless though, of how powerful and mysterious they are, a memory may also be delicate and deserves our respect and care. Each footstep, a word uttered, a scream or laughter, perhaps echoes through the trees’ memories for years to come. Every thing we do leaves an imprint in this ancient reservoir of memories. All that is today becomes a memory for the future.

The Forest has saved my first Memory. She has given me a precious beginning. In turn, I hope perhaps we can all give the Forest many sweet, simple, pure memories for her future.

Dewi Dian Reich
Dewi Dian Reich


Founder of Sawidji Artist Collective and Gallery.
Director/Curator of Sawidji & Co

Other Articles in Of Stones and Trees Series

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