Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, September 1999)

The 'arca' votive statue of the god of Sakenan on its way from the mainland to the turtle island temple in days of yore (1979)


30 years of klutzy tourists has not diminished the Balinese’ sportsman-like agility and feline grace. No bean burrito is mean enough nor day-job dull enough to dudden their cat-like grace. It comes, I suppose, from an infancy filled with skill-enhancing courses in farming, fishing, weaving, dancing, squatting and transporting unusual loads — at temple festivals, and communal (Banjar) activities. Sports like kite- flying, badminton, tourist-wooing and motor cross keep the teenage frames full of spring. By the age of consent most Balinese are well versed in all the positions (see Stranger in Paradise, July 1979 "Heavy Petting in a Temple Setting") and have usually mastered an artistic skill such as carving, dancing or weaving offerings (1 billion are made every day in Bali). By middle age the islanders’ frames are still erect: marching behind a rousing gamelan and daily yoga-like prayers keep shoulders back and knees well-oiled. Old age means daily chores — firewood gathering, courtyard sweeping, real estate brokering, duck herding — that guarantee a modicum of physical exercise.

. . .

Last month, over the Balinese KUNINGAN weekend, I witnessed feats of festive fitness that re-inforced my conviction, traffic tricks and table ware washing-skills aside, that the Balinese are the most graceful people on earth. Now Read On:

The ever glamorous Mangku Meme on her way to the festival at Turtle island is 1979

Saturday, June 19th, Kuningan, Bali’s holiest day - the great trance-in at Pura Sakenan Temple on Turtle Island
I developed blisters accompanying the procession of Kepaon village deities to the temple yesterday so tonight I have arranged a boat to pick me up, with my guests, the former Dutch Ambassador Jan Herman Van Roijen, his charming wife Caroline and Jan-Herman’s Jakarta-based cousin Willem Bake. Waiting for the tide to come in we talk of Indonesia’s wealth of post-reformasi words, of a vaguely Dutch bent¾ litigasi, tendensius, kristal - that have entered the Indonesian language. Van Roijen was the last Dutch Ambassador to the court of St. James, posted alongside President Habibie’s affable, urbane brother, Mr.Fani Habibie, Indonesia’s Ambassador. There’s lots of great gossips from these grand signeurs, and it dawns on me that members of these two old Dutch families have been sitting on well-appointed verandahs in the Malay Straites, sipping gins and tonic, and talking about corruption for well over 300 years!.

Mangku Meme struts her stuff with her indomitable brand of grace

Finally, the boat doesn’t come (Mertasari Bay is too littered with old refrigerators and developers pickets) so we bravely run the gauntlet of toxic waste that is the new approach to my beloved Turtle Isle. We stagger through the speedway atmosphere and tank traps of the last 2 km of the processional route and burst upon the festive fairground of the ancient temple complex. The courtyards are in full flurry: devotees from all over the island, in their Kuningan finery, have flooded the main courtyard in anticipation of the Madatengan rites¾ when South Denpasar’s finest and furriest priests perform the ‘magic circle’ trance ceremony unique to this day, in this temple, on this island. My Dutch friends are very interested in every aspect of the festival so I find them a spot ‘ringside’, as it were, next to my Brahman ‘aunts’. Suddenly, the spirit of the son of the God of Sakenan descends into the body of a priest - my old chum Mangku Gede of the Ratu Agung temple in Suwung, on the nearby coast. The priest takes off like a well-primed DC-10, to be caught mid-air by his sons, the priests- apparent, who wrestle him to the ground. The entranced priest terrifies the ringside crowd, so Alien baby-like his scannings of the crowd as he utters a few edicts, in the voice of the great ‘deity’. Other priests and priestesses follow queue, popping off as the gamelan crescendos.
My village neighbour Dharma, a son of the pious priestess Ni Nyoman Nyemplog, and aboy I have known since his birth, suddenly flies into trance at the outer limits of the magic circle and races back to the Kepaon village pagoda. We follow, invigorated by the magical atmosphere. Dharma demands a fistful of burning incense, which he eats, and then, the jar of holy water. He downs the two pints of elixir of life and flings the glass vessel away as he faints to the ground. The vessel spins towards the hard courtyard floor as all watch in horror: it is caught at the last instant by one of the Kepaon palace serfs who flicks it upright into his palm ala Michael Jordan. We are flabbergasted. Caroline is fanning herself furiously but the crowd doesn’t even blink at this remarkable feat of athletic prowess.
I recount to my friend how in 26 years of observing such ceremonies, or even observing the Balinese in general, I’ve never seen anyone act clumsily. I’ve seen the results, oh yes, on a score of antique tea pots and motorbike fenders, but never a sighting!

Young balinese is taught legong dance movements

Monday June 21, the Great "Meeting of the Gods" ceremonies, called Pemapagan, in Some Fifty Temples Along the Sanur-Suwung-Kuta Coast.
Every year the gods process back from Turtle Island: to their own temples. Since 1997, they have stumbled past the rubbish dumps that line the Bali Turtle Island Development Corporation’s half completed causeway, and emerge on to the 6 lane chaos of the Ngurah Rai by-pass, now the world’s longest shopping mall. The ritual of the gods and gamelans sailing into the setting sun was cancelled after an 800 year run, in deference to a few developer’s priorities.
WE SHALL OVER COME is the indefatigable cry of the adat (ceremonial) community against the philistines and carpet-baggers whose day is neigh read my lips what-what. Sorry, I digress.
Sitting on the lawn of the extensively refurbished Persimpangan temple I notice that the magnificent coral guardian statues that usually flank the holy assembly of gods, in the open sided shrine, are gone! "Ask the priest" says a local duchess archly "And tell him his new gate is too low". I ‘tackle’ the priest, a progressive from Bualu, whose rise to prominence has caused some comment in palace-priest circles. He assures me that the statues are safe, relocated to a new position outside the main temple gates. As we are chatting the procession of the arca effigy of Ratu Agung, the son of the god of Sakenan, arrives and, low and behold, gets caught in the newly built gate! A packed courtyard watches, again in horror, as the palace lady bearing the holy relic on her head pitches forward over the steeply descending stairs (the tail of the green dragon effigy caught in the lintel above) before crashing face first onto her embroidered breasts, never letting go of the statue as she goes. The valiant bearer hits the floor with a thud, but the statue is caught inches from the ground. The local duchess breaks into sobs of remorse and regret as she accompanies the god-statue the last 20 metres of its joumey, to the shrine, apologizing all the way for the shortcomings of her husband’s family and the village in general.
The bearer, saved by ample breasts, has disappeared into the crowd — no fuss is made, peace is restored.

9 August 1999 – "Macbeth" in the form of Balinese Gambuh Ballet at the Arts Centre
The Ford Foundation is pumping funds into reviving the island’s heavenly Gambuh Dance troupes (only a handful left - the bulldozers at Turtle Island destroyed their training grounds).Tonight I sit under a giant branch on a grassy bank at the open air theatre with a few cultural die-hards (half foreign), the crème de la crème of Bali’s theatre world and four trucks from T.V.R.I. the National Television Station, broadcasting the nights programme live to – a Gambuh-starved populace.The dancing is of a high standard – classical, smooth, inspired - and the setting sublime. The otherworldly wheezing of the orchestra and the high pitched cries of the all-male caste (Gambuh the Opera Serial of Bali) made for a dreamy night. One pas de deux features Lady Macbeth, as a Balinese Wallis Simpson, swooning all over her liege Lord like Maya Plesitskaya doing Swan Lake. The corps de ballet flitter and flutter in tight formation, their surreal white faces under crowns of plumeria flowers-like Chinese opera stars at a picnic for the empress of the fairies.
It is a magical evening, only possible in Bali, bought to you by the amazing grace of American philanthropy.

Bravo. Encore,

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