Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, March 1999)

Merry Priests and Sorry Saviours

Lately everyone’s been saying "sorry" — the armed forces, the ruling GOLKAR party, the ex-government of Bali — for the excess of the former regime. Bali has to an extent, been ‘cushioned’ from the social upheaval by its autonomy: it is more international, more integrated, and more middle class than the rest of Indonesia. But recently Hindu intellectuals have been saying that their "wallet is full" (of sorrys) and want more say in how the tourism tax levies are distributed — it’s crunch time.
It is also business as usual on the fabled isle and there’s no business more thriving than the banten business, that all important component of the all important ceremonial life of every Balinese that involves offerings, money, and high priests (called pedanda).

6 February 1999, Puri Agung Jro Kuta: A Royal Cremation for the "Prince of Uluwatu", I Gusti Agung Medan Angkasa
In Bali every puri agung (or royal palace) looks after one pura agung (or state temple). Puri Agung Klungkung is the custodian (pengemong) of Pura Besakih, the mother temple, for example: Puri Agung Tabanan maintains Tanah Lot, its land, and its magic snakes. Over the past 25 years no palace has done a better job running a major temple festival (seven day; 200,000 people) than the Dalem palace of Denpasar, called Jro Kuta. The family, also owners of the Palm Hotel in Kuta, are much respected by the twenty banjars (sub-village communities) in their realm, and the rest of the Hindu Balinese community — in their pious, humble and abstemious way they are Bali’s answer to the Windsors, pre-Fergie.
This morning, in the palace’s ceremonial court, a triumph of Balinese architectural simplicity, preparations are humming along for the cremation of the popular patriarch. There is no air of mourning — just the staunch face of "tabah", the Indonesian way of grieving through dignified group activities.
The pavilions are packed with war veterans in orange berets, clutching at floral wreaths for stability, and palace ladies in tight black corssettes; palace ladies eating cream buns. The immediate family are busy, but quietly so.
In the north court the high priests who will officiate at today’s preceding are holding court — bright eyes and bejeweled batons cut the air as plates of sweeetmeats are handed about. I meet grand signeur I Gusti Mayun Eman (now retired from the governor’s office who recently held a conference on environment in Bali at which the World Bank failed to impress its understanding of Bali’s now critical socio-environmental issues) and the prince of Kesiman (liege lord of Turtle Island) and a gaggle of goodies having a jolly time chatting with the priests.
I should point out here that the brahman high priests of Bali, called pedanda (after the Sanskrit pandita, or the English pundit) are, unlike their Indian cousins, a merry lot who are ushered around the island to officiate at ceremonies of unspeakable beauty. Their lives are all limousines, lillies and loveliness, in the form of yoga-like ritual, melodious chanting and fabulous fashion (Chief Justice Reinhurst foppish gold stripes (his invention) are nothing compared to the fashion plate accessories, tune-honoured, of the pedanda-in-demand). I’m talking serious accessories here: one 19th century Ubud high priest had the crystal decanter top from Queen Wilhemina's drink tray put on his velvet and gold ‘crown’, called ketu, and the order has never looked back — tiger claws, sandalwood and diamond earrings, gold Rolexs and Dunhills are very much de rigeur for their eminences rises.
In a recent column I marveled at how punctual the pedandas are on as island known for "rubber-time" — it seems that mobile phones and the tightening of processional protocol has meant a more business-like approach to Hindu rites. And "going about their business" is what they do best — the pedandas are as hard-working and powerful as at any time in the last millennium. But the priests approach their leisure time with a sense of child-like-glee, so pure are their spirits.
For today’s procession, from the palace to the graveyard, two high priests climbed atop the 6 m high catafalque (called Badé) to accompany their beloved brother on his last earthly trip. It is the first time in anyone’s memory that Denpasar has seen such a show of respect: the priests were like children on a new ride at an amusement park. It was very touching.
Two columns ago I detailed the funeral proceedings (not to sound morose, but they are the great events of Bali) of a young brahman friend who was to become a priest. I remember how, during the ceremonies on the eve of the spirit cremation, some twenty high priests had gathered, in mufti, to fashion the spirit effigies. They threw themselves into the holy task like fanatic model-makers. Their smiles a mile wide as they took joy in this rarest of rare artistic exercises.
Most Balinese avoid talking to high priests for fear of incurring their wrath — they are so terrifying vizards too — or because they, the devotees, aren’t proficient enough in the high from of the language used to address the brahman priest. In fact brahmans are finest and foremost ‘teachers’ and generally of an intellectual bent-they love to get their minds around a point of Balinese philosophy which they generally illuminate with cartoon-like clarity.

Merry priests create "padma" spirit for their chun
Serious business!

6 February 1999, Love Means Never Having to Say
"I don’t need to apologize for any "misdeeds" says former President Soeharto in this morning Bali Post "because every year at the ‘Senate’ sessions we asked for forgiveness." Despite this maneuvering that one pundit called "Clintonesque" all levels of the old "New Order" society have now come out and said "ma’af", the Malay/Indonesian word for sorry.
I often think that "ma’afs", are like the lives of a cat, that is, only nine to be eeked out over a life time. In fact in the Balinese language there is no "ma’af" (an Arabic import into Malay), just a request "to be faulted". Long time Indonesian residents are at their wits end on the ‘ma’af" issue: because of the lack of accountability or responsibility (that comes with a well timed sorry) situations between the Westerner and the Easterner, on this count, often reach "Face-off" tension levels. Ma’afs" are not used lightly by Indonesians, and they tend to be used retroactively, which is, perhaps, the Islamic way, to forgive acts between Fridays or for the whole year between the holiday of Idul Fitri, the final breaking-the fast-day of the holy month. Gratuitous ‘sorrys’ are replaced, in Bali, for example, with a more all-encompassing patience, and compassion. Phrases like "Saying sorry won’t buy me a new burgundy axminster" (to quote the great Dame Edna Everage) or "Whaddya mean you sorry" would not be translatable into Balinese. "Sorrys", like "Thankyous" are often a reflection of one’s own pristine parsimoniousness and not genuinely meant for the receivee.
In Bali, in fact in most of Indonesia, a more humble gratitude, a more general respect for human foibles and a love for the Machiavellian, replaces these mundane conventions.
Thank you.
And sorry if all this has offended anyone.

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