Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, January 2002)


Welcome to Bali 2002—The Lifestyle Experience. Statistics show that 95% of Australian tourists who come to Bali, come to get an all-over tan. The other 5% come to buy containers of Javanese furniture. A recent survey proved that the island now has 117 hacks, of foreign extraction, describing mediocre mannerism, in painting and architecture, as "the Heart of Modern Bali".
"I like clean modern lines" squeal born-again developers, madly cashing in on mindless minimalism worship. Even my old chums, seamstress sirene Mama and her cockfighting husband, once the scorge of central Sanur's garment district, are now called 'Threadworks Unlimited" and are "sold on safe pastels".WHAT IS THIS CONSPIRACY OF THE CONSTIPATED?
I set off to prove them all potty by fossicking in the feudal heartlands of Bali, the palaces of Gianyar and Klungkung, for evidence of abduction by aliens.
Now read on ............................

December 3, 2001: Puri Nyalian, Klungkung
"Tjok" our office's matinee idol nightwatchman is to be married today, to his childhood sweetheart. It seems only yesterday that he had his index finger on my Australian goddaughter's coccyx, delivering suspect REIKI, as he beat off her other legitimate suitors with a stick. Now he is dressed up in the emperor's new clothes with a sweet, bleating but bloated brahman fiancé receiving a busload of his buddies from our office, all dressed in their bright ceremonial finery. Five people who get bus sick have followed in a mini-van. Denni, this column's cartoonist, has even turned up, keen to see, first-hand, a Klungkung palace.We are not disappointed. The palace is vast and fully appointed, with the regulation Kul-Kul towers, Kori Agung gates and immaculately carved private chapel. I immediately feel mean, as, for the last two years, since Tjok came to share his slumber hours with our reception desk, I have barely wobbled a spare tyre after a hand of Scrabble, when his cheery visage appeared at the gate."Malam, Cok" I would croak (in deference to his being descended from the great Tjokorda Agung who ruled all Bali in the 16th century and, I must admit, in deference to his dreamy smile, glistening in the sweaty night air). Little did I suspect......that behind that perfect bite, was a one digit Reiki quack, with an eye bent on pre-marital with the local dreamboat. But Bali is all about such glorious, gooey, treachery—NOT repeat NOT black and white things arranged symmetrically.Anyway............ as I was saying ...........the courtyards are packed with the pick of Ubud, Sanur, Klungkung and Karangasem's lesser nobility. No-one is pompous, the ceremony is glorious but also sincere, and the banquet tables are groaning with turmeric-pork satay, the local delicacy. I stray into the Merajan Agung, the temple-sized family house shrine and discover all sorts of ornamental curiosities. A pair of 1950's Japanese guard statues flank the temple's towering gate: a tradition borrowed from the Portuguese soldiers that guard the Klungkung palace's "Hall of Justice", the Kerta Gosa. And an immaculate series of bas reliefs depicting Balinese dancers from the ceremonial marshal arts dance, the Baris, decorate the temple and courtyard walls. A series of rare terracotta 'top-hats', called murda, in pre-Hindu style, adorned the temple's pagoda shrines. After lunch I get collared by Ketut Lengkong, Belt Collins International's resident perma-bore in Bali—BCI are the world's largest landscape design firm—who tells me that seven hectars of the once charming port of Tanjung Benoa are to be turned into a 300-room Carlton hotel. I spiral downwards ...........NOT MORE TOURISM CULTURE!!!.......... but am revived by the arrival of some chubby chums from the Ubud palaces, with their blonde trophy wives, all "Tjokaholics," all culled from the alumnus of the Margaret Mead Scholarship program. We talk of the incredible 1934 film on Bali, by Miguel "Island of Bali" Covarurrubias, recently shown at ARMA, in Pengosekan, near Ubud. The film, screened by four-star Tjokaholic Rucina 'Guru Bubu" Ballinger, proved what we'd all known: even in 1934 the Balinese were completely media-genic, spell-bendingly gorgeous, in a coquettish way, and that the trill shoulder-shaking bit in the legong dance, when a pair of topless teenage girls face off for a slash of fiery fandango, was definitely choreographed to take full advantage of the topless fashion of the day! Oh baby.............. Now, the Balinese watching that day were more interested in the the ya-yas on the Tjokaholics I reckon, but all us outsiders were agog at the 'dreamtime' quality of the superb documentary. Today, in the sleepy village of Nyalian, under the shade of a lychee tree, I am once again invigorated by the Balinese way of full-blooded gorgeousness, of spirit, of dress and of decoration. This is the true heart of modern Bali, pretty much unchanged since 1934.

December 12, 2001: A giant Karya Agung reconsecration ceremony at Geria Ketewel, "The Gardeners' Palace"
I first stumbled across the magical village of Ketewel, East of Sanur, in 1978 when I was living with the good Gung Nik and his Ketewel-born wife, Desak. I was starting a gardening business and needed some gardeners: before I knew it I was waist deep in Desak's relatives from Banjar Kacagan, the heart of the Dewa caste of Ketewel. Descended from the Kssatrya Dewa who once formed the house guard for the Dewa Agung of Klungkung and his Tjokorda (the Dewa Agung's Prime Minister), they were sent to Ketewel at the end of Klungkung's era as imperial capital (16th century) and have lived there ever since. They have never had serfs to boss around, unlike the rest of the island's gentry (see SIP "Nobelesse Oblige", June 2000), and it shows in their refined, gentle manner. Over the years, now twenty five years, I have gotten to know the extended families of this quarter very well. Dewa Made Mudita did the Grand Hyatt gardens with me, and the Bali Oberoi gardens, and is now a Sai Baba guru. Dewa Nyoman Muka lost his teeth on the by-pass and now constructs our pavilions for the Bali-besotted in Singapore; Dewa Sedana did the Four Seasons Resort Jimbaran, with five of his cousins as supervisors, briefly attracting the attention of a famous Hollywood starlet. He now runs P.T. Indosekar, our gardening arm. For years I would go to the great festivals at the main Ketewel temple, the ancient Pura Peyogaan Agung. The big event there was the hypnotic Ratu Dedari mask dance performed, only once a year, in the ornate inner sanctum of this incredibly beautiful temple. I also regularly conducted Balinese architectural tours to the geria, the central ancestral home for the some 5,000 Dewas and Desaks. In 1999 I was invited to the sacred Padiksaan ceremony at the geria, when the head of the family took his oaths and become a begawan high priest. Tonight I am invited for the climax of the big Karya Agung reconsecration ceremony which has been raging for weeks in the family's Merajan Agung house temple. As a special sign of respect, the village temple is sending the Sang Hyang Dedari masks;

This is a special thankyou to the family which has, for generations, provided pre-pubescent dancing desaks. I arrive just before the dance is to begin and find all my Dewas and their myriad aunties, uncles, cousins and children quietly but merrily (their trademark), going through the paces of the multi-faceted rituals. An extra-ordinarily handsome family, they are tonight especially so, all in white, with flowers popping and poking out: one always feels lucky to be in their midst.The house temple is packed for the dance. White-washed shrines, a golden gamelan orchestra and oversized guardian statues crowd the court, defining a tiny stage for the teeny tantric trio. The masks are taken from their holy boxes and fitted below the frangipani crowns of the dancers: they have been repainted like Smarties (M&Ms for my American readers) which is not wholly bad because the new, no-nonsense, in-your-face visages visit a fair-ground like fear on the proceedings. The dancers wave around the minute court flapping and fluttering as the gods lap up the luxurious offering. Tomorrow it will be back to work in the hotel laundries for the gamelan musicians, and back onto the juice blenders for the ballerinas. I guess tourism's not bad if it provides paid breaks between once every thirty year events like these.

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