The tortoise appears in a number of creation stories. In some stories, it dived into an ocean to bring back a piece of earth from which the world was moulded. When in Bali, look at a tortoise with reverence. For the tortoise is a second incarnation of the God Vishnu.

When Gods and demons united in their quest to obtain an elixir of immortality, they churned the Milky Ocean. Some say - for thousand years. Mount Madura was used as a churning stick, placed on the back of a tortoise. And so quietly and out of sight, the tortoise has become a pivotal agent of creation.

A tortoise sarcophagus
Stone carving: a tortoise sarcophagus at the Archaeological Museum, Pejeng, Bali. Image: Stan Florek
© Australian Museum

I went to the Archaeological Museum of Pejeng village in Gianyar province. A big part of the exhibit is an impressive collection of tortoise stone carvings. Recovered from various historical sites in the region they vary, from the size of a wheelbarrow to a bathtub. They are described as sarcophagi and could be over 2000 years old. Some could have been foundation stone of large buildings. Their symbolic and mythological significance is no doubt more complex.

Another, and better known archaeological landmark, is the Moon of Pejeng - the largest single piece cast kettledrum in the world, 1.8m high and over 1m in diameter. It is dated to the bronze age of South Eeast Asian prehistory, about 2000 years ago.

According to tradition, the Pejeng Moon was a wheel from a chariot that was used to pull the real moon across the night sky. Once, just over Pejeng, the wheel fell off the chariot and landed in a tree, where it continued to glow as brightly as the moon itself. A thief, disturbed from his prowl by a bright light, urinated on it and the moon cooled down. The moon lost its glow and the thief lost his life for the sacrilege.

The villagers recognised the importance of this heavenly body. They protect and worship this huge kettledrum, now nested and religiously guarded in one of Pejeng’s temples.