Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Bali Kini Magazine, March 1998)

The December’97 calender photo of Gung Nik



About 300 years ago a princess from Denpasar’s Pemecutan Palace wed a distant cousin, a Muslim prince from the island of Madura, East Java. As is the Muslim custom the princess had to convert to Islam before the wedding : the court rituals of her new home were Hindu in origin and therefore some comfort over the years of her full conversion to the new faith in a foreign land. After thirty years in the Madurese palace her husband died and the princess returned to her father’s palace in Denpasar with a small court and a band of Madurese retainers.
On her first night back she donned the white-hooded robe, traditionally worn by devout Moslem women during prayers, and chose a western quarter of her father’s vast garden to pray to Mecca. A palace guard came upon her and, presuming she was performing black magic, prostrate in the dirt, in this witchy garb, drove a sword through her.
The King, when learning of this terrible mistake, vowed to build a Muslim Mansaleum to his devout daughter’s memory and give her retainers some land in Bali: his younger brother was sent to build a Dalem palace in the village of Kepaon, 10 kilometres south of Denpasar. Bali’s first Muslim Kampung was built on the village’s outskirts.

• • •

 When I first came to Bali in 1974 I lived in Dalem Kepaon and would often visit Kampung Islam and, more rarely, the Moorish temple Pura Kramat which sits in the royal graveyard in Denpasar. The story of Bali’s Muslim princess was often told in the coffee shops that lined the neat alleyway that lead to the Moslem kampung’s imposing timber mosque, built in traditional Madurese wantilan style. The relations between the Kampung and the Dalem were always cordial: each side inviting the other for important feasts and festivals. Pak Haji’s coffee was legendary and his androgynous offspring were always visible at major Hindu festivals, madly waving fans and adjusting their butterfly clips. The horse and cart drivers now parked outside Pizza Hut, Legian, are descendents of these original Muslim refugees.
Over the last decade urban sprawl has accompanied the unchecked growth of tourism in South Bali: Kampung Islam Kepaon has become an urban ghetto bursting at the seams with itinerants and newcomers who have no idea about the special social and cultural fabric of the area.
Five years ago curiosity turned to animosity between the two religious communities : skirmishes broke out, the old mosque became a concrete fortress, the Kepaon Agung’s, descendents of the royal ‘duke’ first sent to civilize the backwater, affected militancy (fat wheels were sported on black land-cruisers). Gang warfare rocked the rice fields. The stage was set for tragedy.

• • •

The palace ‘mascots’, Gung Nik’s nieces

24 th December 1997, Christmas Eve.
Little Agung is dead, murdered in a village melée on Christmas Eve. The December pin-up boy who never made it to the end of his month.
He was to be married on January 1, now the date for his cremation.
‘Gung Nik (Little Agung) worked for me for the last twelve years as head of our office’s art department.
A ‘brother’ of the present day Denpasar ‘King’, Cokorda Ngurah Manik Parasara, Gung Nik was, to all and sundry, a model of buddahist humility and Balinese grace. For his family, his village, my office, all who came in touch with him he was the eternal teen angel. The shock of his death affected thousands and tens of thousands more in the nation’s press as the gory details emerged.
There had been a midnight raid on a Hindu house temple by Kampung trouble- makers the week before. A Moslem teenager had been killed in a fracas last June when vioting broke out one Saturday night. Little Agung had been drinking tuwak palm-toddy at the cockfights all day. He returned home to his mini-palace, Jro Dalem Kepaon, at 8 p.m. just as the kul-kul watch tower drum sounded the frenetic beat that signals a skirmish. It was raining. The electricity was down. Emboldened by the demon alcohol he raced out into the night with a sabre in his hand. He followed the swarm of village men towards Kampong Islam where, in the dark, in the confusion, in an act of revenge he was dragged into a warung stall and slit from ear to ear.

Gung Nik R.I.P.

29 th December, 1997, The Penyiraman body-washing ceremony at Jro Dalem Kepaon
The body lies in the ceremonial pavilion behind princely drapes. I last saw Agung at our staff party where he introduced his fiancé, Komang. She was there today, being dutiful, sharing the bad times with a family in heavy denial through distraction.
“Joy and Sorrow” was the theme of the Queen of England’s Christmas message this year – suka-duka it’s called in Indonesia and the Balinese practice a potent brand of awe and humility-inducing rites that help one cope with grief. Somehow this beautiful young girl, deprived of her young beau in the cruelest way imaginable, had the strength, through her religion, and the support of Agung’s giant family, to hold her head high and carry on with her role of fiancé-in-mourning.
By three p.m. the courtyard was filled to capacity. Agung’s body was carried to the makeshift table on the courtyard floor. Warrior-princes, ponce-warriors, stoic brothers and hundreds of distraught fans flocked to touch the corpse, as a last sign of respect for this teen angel.
There was not a dry eye in the house, save a few Brahman grief-busters, whose lives are spent administering last rites. At the end of the heart-wrenching ceremony, I stood with a Brahman ‘uncle’, courtyard center, cigarettes propped like champagne glasses, exchanged views on the futility of these murders and the strife that regularly follows kssatrya (warrior-prince) muscle-flexing (the Pemecutan Palace famous for its rolled-sleeves fighting spirit and defenders-of-the-faith Gung Ho).
On cue, the liege lord himself appeared, with a tittering court: Cokorda Ngurah Manik Parasara, in person, at the body washing of a distant cousin. It was a great honour indeed and I was reminded of the spooky tales that circled the courtyard the night after Gung’s death …….

Gung Nik’s paint brush on his coffin

Komang, the fiance-in-mourning, scoops Gung Nik’s ashes into a golden coconut cup.

Komang, the fiance-in-mourning, prays to the departed soul of her beloved.

Komang with Gung Nik’s sister and his padma before the final prayers at the seaside.

Everyone had gathered around his enshrined body to start the ten-day mourning period and dominoes marathon. In the thick atmosphere many tales of “forewarnings” flickered around the pavilions—Agung’s last job for our office, for example, was a T-shirt featuring Luxor!. One tale was of the popular Cokorda King’s picking little Agung out from a crowd of relatives, some years ago, and pronouncing, in an other-worldly way, that his cousin (Gung Nik) was “melik”, that is, possessing metaphysical charisma and only “on loan” from the gods.
Today the King was in secular mode (full throttle), cracking ribald jokes and teasing the high priest struggling to complete the purification rites . “You’re less than holy when your missus ain’t around” he bellowed as the Kepaon elders struggled to hide their embarrassment.
Awe and humility.
Sorrow and Joy.

At the graveyard (the Gung Nik T-shirts)

Jan 1, 1998, Gung Nik’s Royal Cremation, Jro Dalem Kepaon
Fearing unrest the police have closed off the road that leads from the palace, past the Kampong Islam, to the graveyard. It is a blissfully beautiful day and the village is a sea of black Gung Nik commemorative T-shirts. Gung Nik’s guru, Stephen Little, has arrived with a brace of artists (including Gaugin’s grand-niece) from Vanuatu and Tahiti. Three bands have arrived, to honour Gung Nik’s unflinching service to his temple community, and many senior uncles from Denpasar’s ruling families.
The procession sets off at noon with Komang, the fiancé, at the head, carrying the sawa, a ceremonial ‘sack’ of Chinese coins, symbolizing a celestial palanquin from which the deceased’s soul ‘leads’ the procession. Two miniature nieces of breath-taking beauty and elegance, dressed in golden garb and glittering headdresses, are hoisted aloft—palace ‘mascots’ for the event. They survey the swarming crowds with the imperiousness that goes with ultimate beauty. The perfect grandeur of the procession is a show of the community’s love for Gung Nik, a perfect soul.
Sadness and Beauty.
Awe and Humility.

The flute orchestra is first, for Gung Nik had a gentle spirit, follow by the honour guard of floral tributes, like a can-can chorus. Then come the celestial nymphs in their chariots, the palace standards and palladia lead by Komang, still in shock, still in control.
Fifty metres of white cloth held aloft by friends and family proceed the multi-hued bade tower to which is strapped the coffin. The banjar village community hosts aloft the shimmering form, the gamelan behind strikes up a ‘beefy’ bleganjur beat, and the procession is off!
Atop the bade tower Ida Bagus Surya, the lead Brahman of the youth group waves a stuffed bird of paradise, called Manuk Dewata (Bird of the ancestor spirits), on an ivory perch: it’s ruby eyes and golden beak catch the sun as the tower tears down the tarmac. It is a magnificent event—solemn, stunning, but essentially sad. One thinks of the family of the little Moslem boy murdered, senselessly, the same night as Gung Nik and buried the next day. What must they be feeling about all this pomp and circumstance as it rolls past their eerily empty Kampung?
Senseless Carnage …….. 0
Fallen Angels ……….. 2

The can-can chorus of floral tribates

The villagers men hoist the bade tower aloft.

Ida Bagus Surya with the Manuk Dewata rides the bade tower

Stephen Little, Gung Nik’s guru, at the graveyard.

Gung Ayu, gung Nik’s old flame, at the cremation

Visiting artists pay their respects.

Stephen Little and Arthur Karvan at the palace before the cremation.

As the mile long procession turns into the graveyard I recall that the last time I was here, six month’s ago, it was to cremate Gung Nik’s mother. Another saint. Another day.
The coffin is lowered and the ‘mortal remains’ given a final blessing before the furnaces are stoked. I place Gung Nik’s paint brush on his chest. The flames surge and engulf the coffin. We all step back.

• • •

Some hour’s later we are praying at the seaside. Gung Nik’s ashes have been spooned into a golden coconut. A spirit effigy, called padma, has been formed. Komang nurses it on her lap as we all pray. In failing light, the golden padma is carried out and flung into the ocean.
Goodbye my lovely.
You were loved by all who knew you.

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