Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, March 2000)


Sidakarya village near Sanur in South Bali is the last traditional stronghold in Bali’s sun fun bum belt—a real survivor. Due to its location— slightly removed from the big brother brahmans of Intaran – Sanur to the East and the feudal palaces of Denpasar to the North—the village remains today as a handsome example of traditional Balinese village architecture and lifestyle. The predominantly rural community is renowned for the potency of its holy water and the vigour of its temple festivals. This month the Stranger documented ten days of rites held at Sidakarya’s Çiwa-ite Pura Dalem temple- to celebrate its renovation—newness is next to godliness in Bali.. Over this period I learnt something new about the initiation of spirit-diviners in Balinese society. Read on……………

23th January 2000: Bali’s supreme commander graces the island’s newest temple.
Nothing is as important to the Balinese as temple reconsecration rites, called Karya Padudusan Agung, which take place at village temples once every 20 years. Cremations are put on hold and honeymoons cancelled—long leave is taken from hotel jobs as the present generation proves its worth, by spiritually recharging their main place of worship, thus ushering in another twenty years of ceremonial consciousness. This ‘recharging’ or ‘re-empowering’ involves the renovating of its important structures, the shrines and their attendant pavilions, and the repainting of the village’s votive statuesin the tropics a twenty year spring clean is also a practical necessity.

Today the multi-courtyard temple is ready for the official launch of the rites by the Governor of Bali, Dewa Made Beratha, who arrived on time, in a discreet motorcade, at 4 p.m. Under Indonesia’s liberal new regime I have noticed how the nice people have floated, like cream, to the top of society. Under Soeharto and his henchmen environmentalists and social workers were treated like ‘commie scum’ and the pious were replace by plunderers. I was pleasantly surprised to notice, amongst the government entourage, many of the humble regulars from my years on the temple circuit.
At 5 p.m. the three priests, intoned the Vedic rites and the distinctive peel of ancient bronze bells rang out across the courtyards as Le tout Sidakarya huddled in the ‘canyons’ of shrines encrusted with most elaborate Hindu-Balinese offerings. All listened to the governor’s homily. "The state will donate $1,200" he announced, and then announced by way of apology, that "We are all one big family and like all big families there’s never enough to go around." His offering will not make much of a dent in the $300,000 bill but with some 20,000 temples on the island worthy of the governor’s attention it’s a bit like the bread and the fisherman, without St. Peter! (Sadly only 8% of the tourist tax dollars ends up in Bali compared to the, say, 60% that each Balinese spends on ceremonial or religious duties over his or her life).
I noticed, amongst the teams of Balinese temples officials and ushers, one group of "baby boomers" who really stood out: they had gingham (chequered) trim on their turbans and extra-swish sashes. My old chum Putu Suarsa, who had built the special enclosure’s inspired bamboo gate, was in the group as were many sons of priests and village administrators. I took note to keep track of this special group.

24th January 2000: the festival moves to the Sanur coast for a beautiful morning ceremony
My Sanur compound is on the ‘pilgrimage route’ that all of Sidakarya’s temple processions take on their way to sea, home of Ratu Baruna, God of the Oceans, Lord keeper of the elixir of life.
As the tops of the first phalanx of umbrellas appeared over my courtyard wall I ducked out a side gate and joined the 10,000 strong Melasti parade. Gamelans were pounding and golden temple paraphernalia gleaming in the morning sun. To reach the beach we had to pick through the barb-wired enclosures of various illegitimate land-fill programs in Mertasari Bay, before arriving at the close of Kakui Nut trees that have given haven to morning Melasti for at the last 500 years.
The popular high priest and his band of merry attendants from Intaran lead the rites, wafting the essence of a truckload towards the grandstand of glittering deities set up on the beach to the east. Again I noticed that the special group, the good-lookers in Deanna Durban turbans, were very much front and center, leading the Barongs, and praying from a special ‘dress circle’ set up behind the priest. After a brief session of prayers the bandwagon uprooted and processed home via a dip in the ocean, to ceremonially ‘bath’ the temple palladia, Barong and gods.

25th January, holy Tuesday Anggar Kasih Madangsia: the ceremony climaxes in a day this generation of Sidakarya villagers will never forget.
At 3 p.m., I arrived back at the temple, now into its final day of festive frenzy, just as a garrison of Baris Gede warrior dancers were "changing the guard" in the outer court. Everyone was in their finest temple garbs, waists extra pinched, ruby buttons spit-polished, Oakley sunglasses omnipresent. The special group were now huddled at the base of the priests’ platform where five high priests in their velvet crowns and tiger tooth epaulettes were performing the "last rites" for a zoo-load of animals. The animals are sacrificed to make holy thresholds over which the gods, in their votive statues, cross, on their way to a newer, ‘cleaner’ other-world. Each of the temple’s ten courtyards was alive with Wali dances (Bali takes it name from Wali, which means "offering" in Sanskrit. In Balinese the word Wali now denotes the rarified temple dances offered to the gods).
Amidst all this bliss-inducing mayhem I sat in the innermost sanctum sanctori with the special group for the next round of prayers. "Those doing the MAWINTEN ceremony can use the "rosette" (kewangen), others can use a flower," commanded the high priest in silken tones. I discovered that this special Mawinten (or crossing-over) rite happens only once every generation, encased as it within the massive rite de passage of the temple proper. It is held for future trancees, i.e. the descendants of the sitting spirit mediums, called sadegs, and any others, like me, who might want, one day, to fly off the handle, as it were, and divine the spirits of the other worlds. In my case, tragically, the best I can hope for, trance-wise, with my track record, is divining some monkey spirit, but for the young adonii of the special group (now perfect vessels) a sojourn from the celestial sphere is always on the cards.
That evening Putu and I prayed at the grand finale. New novitiates carried the gods across the splayed carcas thresholds to their new higher altars. The courtyard froze in anticipation: Three months work by 300 people was about to achieve its goal. It was a profound experience and it was the first time I have felt, from behind my trusty Nikon, that I was moving into the circle of "guarantors" and not just hanging around for crumbs.

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