Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, July 2000)


For hundreds of years, during Indonesia’s Classic Hindu Period (10th to 15th century), Bali was known as "Little Java". During the era of colonial occupation the rarely effusive Dutch called their beloved isle "mooi Java", the beautiful one: for 350 years enzymes were secreted—over the gentle nature of the natives, the grandeur of the Javanese royal courts and the beauty of the landscape.
Since Soeharto’s fall in 1998, however, Java has been styled a pariah by the world at large. Various sublime Javanese traites, such as ‘beating around the bush’ ("plin-plan" in modern Indonesian and ancient Javanese alike) and passive resistance (i.e. rolling barbed wire across entry lanes at midnight), once well kept secrets, are now, after Soeharto’s ignoble fall from grace, and Jakarta’s other turns on the world stage, world famous. Within the archipelago they were understood, and mooned over — "mooi Java, Bagus Sunset, more sambal" sort of thing — outside they are not. Java is now regarded as a JIHAD training ground, like Libya, or as South Asia’s answer to Bosnia-Herzegovina, replete with Ninjas and fanatic rascists. Even that most beloved of beings the Javanese masseur has been maligned by the latest palace scandal! Where will it all stop ?
This month I attended a Javanese wedding and was pleasantly reminded that "Mooi Java" lives on in the spirit of the next generation: the world’s most populous island still harbours a tender and refined culture that has changed little despite centuries of abuse.
Now read on:

Tuesday 23rd June, 2000:
The "Padi-Padi" Javanese Restaurant, Antique Shop and Reception Hall, South Jakarta: The wedding of Charlie Arifin and pop-star Iga Mawarni.
Charlie Arifin is the eldest son of Asmoro Damais my oldest Jakarta chum (and Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri’s best friend), and Aman Arifin a Sumatran entrepreneur.
Asmoro’s father, a French archeologist ‘discovered’ many of the ancient candi (Hindu Javanese temples) in the 1920s. Asmoro’s mother is an aunt of former Indonesian president, B.J. Habibie. Today’s ceremony, the Akad Nikah (contract of betrothal) promised to be a star –studded affair.
By 11 a.m. the forecourt of the Javanese palace–style "Padi-Padi" was filling up with Javanese families in traditional court dress. The men wore tight pleated batiks, black courtier’s jackets and blangkon turbans. Gold chains dripped in the fob watch fashion, medallions were rampant; golden keris daggers protruded at the back of the tight waist bands. The ladies, hair swept up in the elegant sanggul Java style, wore sarong-kebaya ensembles — rich silk brocade and classic batik wraps. There were no super people in shiny black things. The event decorator, Jaya Ibrahim, commenting on the courtyard decorations, said they were subdued because "in Javanese ceremonies the people are the decoration".
All milled, fanning furiously in the fierce heat: "Real men fan, they don’t flutter" I reminded the heroically moist decorator who stood, like us all, dewey-eyed with pride.
The dedication of the Damais family and the magnificence of the gathering was moving.
At 11.15 Megawati’s motorcade swept into the courtyard. She emmerged, radiant in East Javanese dress, and was lead quietly to the ceremonial pavilion. All were charmed by her rocibund Javanese beauty and natural grace.
The groom arrived with his party and walked solemnly towards the bride’s father waiting at the inner courtyard gate. Leading the groom’s party was Soedarmadi Damais — the family patriarch and one of Jakarta’s most charismatic and knowledgeable grand signeurs. The statelyness of the processing, slow and dignified, was in sharp contrast to the usual Balinese hell-bent-for-leather processional style. In Java, processing is rare these days and it is the actual lining-up — heads aloft and aloof, pleats casting one shadow — that seems more important that the moving from A. to B., at snail’s pace.
Charlie was lead to a square table for the Akad Nikah ceremony. The family Imam (Islamic cleric), the bride’s father and the grooms witness, B.J. Habibie sat surrounding Charlie (Iga was being interviewed by M.T.V in a back room).
The Islamic Akad Nikah ceremony, strangely colonial looking on the front verandah, was succeeded by the purely Javanese Temanten ceremony inside the main joglo pavilion. The bride, in a veil of jasmine flowers, joined her glowing husband for the walk to the Javanese altar — a dress circle of the bride and groom’s immediate family designed more for Kodak moments, one senses, than ancient animistic rituals. Vice President Megawati and B.J. Habibie sat at a round table together for the first time since Megawati’s party headquarters were razed during the final months of the Soeharto-Habibie administration. They did not speak.

Asmoro couldn’t speak either. This was the first wedding in the family since her famous father died thirty years ago: she has raised her six children almost single-handedly, and survived a host of personal dramas. When her son knelt to kiss his mother’s knees (Right) during the basically Hindu court wedding rituals, the gathered Damais groupies gasped with emotion: at last, some silver lining for the clouds.
At this point Asmoro’s mother, the fiercely free-spirited Ibu, the first native Javanese woman to marry a French official, summoned me to her sofa to "unload" on the Chinese next door. Suddenly everything was back to normal. Rays of hope shot out from the glittering dais.
As I write this I am listening to Iga’s C.D. that arrived with the invitation to the wedding reception in strict Javanese fashion, five days after the event. The tunes are haunting, Iga’s rich vice a mix of Roberta Flack and Diana Kral.
Inscribed on the C.D. cover, which is also the invitation, are two lines of poetry by Khalid Gibran’s from "The Marriage":

You were born together and together you shall be forevermore,
But let there be spaces in your togetherness ……………….

I’ll drink to that, what-what.

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