NOTHING IF NOT PRACTICAL
BURNING BODIES AND BATTERIES IN SPACE AGE BALI
These are incredible times .... in Singapore stockbrokers hurl themselves from windows, invisible for the haze ; a timber baron’s bulldozers are miraculously turned back after attempts to fill in the Sanur Straits and Tanah Lot’s 18 th hole is voted the most gorgeous in the Asia - Pacific region!.
“El Nino, El Dorado and Elle MacPherson” may sum up the hysteria of these uncertain times but the Balinese go on with their ceremonies and devotions oblivious to rising collossii and camel parks.
Luxor, Egypt, 12 October 1997, Designing Gardens
I am here with some Balinese master gardeners, taming the odd Nile bank, as we take in a bit of culture. My companions are fascinated about everything Bali - Phaoronic, particularly in the parallels that can be drawn with the classic Hindu-Bali culture of old : the identical creation theories (the pyramid on the eternal ocean), the role of the high priests, the importance of the elixir of life used in all old kingdom ceremonies (the balinese tirta amerta) and the various god-king pairings that match, to a tee, the classic Hindu period of Bali’s golden era.
I am more intrigued by all the “kavetching” that goes on : after the tranquil asian spirit one is shocked by the hysteria that often accompanies activity in the arab world. And the anxiety! Many upper Egyptians are afraid of the rain and think air-conditioners in cars are, at anytime, about to turn on them. “You protect me from the terrorists, Ali, and I’ll take care of the air conditioning” was my constant retort as the guide dived for cover when a waft of condensation emerged from the dash.
In the Valley of the Kings I meet a party from the Indonesian Embassy in Cairo. They tell me of the indonesian Chinese from Surabaya, East Java who won the international contest to find a geomancer to advise the Japanese imperial family on relocating their royal tombs. Geomancy, or Feng Shui, is the ultimate practical science and I’m not suprised its a practitioner from East Java, the region which gave Bali its golden culture, who’s considered the most globally “in tune”. I pine for the age when geomancers were more practical and less dictatorial. I’m sure the major temples of Bali owe there spectacular sittings as much to a sense of beauty and showmanship as to perfect geomagnetic bearings. In my twenty years dealing with Feng Sui experts I’ve had no success saving trees or adding the odd fountain : concrete paving, obliterating views and zero mystique seem the end goal of most of the wizards put in my path. The balinese Feng Shui, however, is more flexible, practically so. If you run out of space, “put the temple on the garage roof” sort of thing.
It’s certainly an attitude — called Desa Kala Patra — that has ushered the balinese culture, almost unscathed, into the 21 st century.
Desa Kala Patra (place era situation) is the ancient Hindu tenet, popular in Bali, which teaches that balanced harmony and flexibility (for the times) are as important as a strict adherence to the religions ‘code’.
20 th October 1997, the Kepaon Cemetry once again
This month I celebrate twenty five years of adoration of the royal family of Kepaon. When they picked me up at Turtle Island that many years ago I was stunned by their beauty, of purpose and of graceful silhouette, and attached myself to all their ceremonies and ancestor gods : in return, I was their “pocket tourist” and muse.
They have swelled as a family from the two feuding brothers and handful of teenage lads to a full compliment which takes up three air-conditioned buses whenever we go to Uluwatu! I have missed a few weddings and tooth-filings over the years but am bound to join in the cremations which of late have been an almost weekly occurrence. This week it’s the Prince’s mother, well into her nineties at the time of her quiet death. Once again the multi-hued towers are belting down the tarmac and I’m burning through rolls of Fuji SENSA. At the graveyard we all settle in for the four hour wait between the lighting of the sarcophagus (using the new improved octane burners) and the arrival of the high priest (booked for 5 p.m.), to perform the rites. The high priests are in great demand and short supply these days (many Brahmans choose hotel management over a celibate life on the incense burner) and it is not long before the village chief has commandeered my Motorola and is in touch with the cremation down the road. Ice cream vendors pull up, duchesses siesta in parked Torangos and I am reminded of celebrated author and Bali-hand Victor Mason’s phrase : “the balinese are nothing if not practical”.
Denpasar, 23 rd October 1997
Today’s NUSA TENGGARA newspaper has a fascinating story on a hotel planned for construction north of Legian, at the popular surfing beach of Canggu.
Local hero Ir. Nyoman Gelebet, master of balinese practical and mystical geomancy, has decried the development: the investors threaten to fill in the lagoon upon which perches a picturesque temple. “Philosophically” says Gelebet “this area has a high magical value because here a river meets the sea. Metaphysically speaking” he continued “the adjacent graveyard is the stomach, the coastline is the vagina, the temple the body and the rice fields the head. This sort of terrain is very rare”.
Now, I happen to be the landscape designer designate for this job and on purely aesthetic grounds have tried to turn the investors’ theme park tunnel vision away from the precious lagoon but, alas, 500 wild-eyed Taiwanese tourists are destined to have their day on a roller coaster. Will reason, theology and geometry prevail?
Whatever happened to cultural tourism?
Let us pray.