Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, February 2002)


Ide Tjokorde Mengwi
(21 January 1916 -17 September 2001)

The royal house of Mengwi, whose royal chapel is the beautiful Taman Ayun temple, has long lived in the shadow of Bali's more charismatic Puri (royal houses). Puri Pemecutan (Denpasar), for example, has a dynamic patriarch who is Bali's answer to JFK; The Puri Gianyar family includes cabinet ministers and ambassadors; Puri Klungkung is custodian of Pura Besakih (the DEWA AGUNG (rajas) of Klungkung having, for the past few generations, taken holy vows as Begawan priests). By comparison, the Mengwi royals have been quiet achievers, big on the ceremonial front, with a penchant for the pleasant. The late Tjokorde was a spritual man with magical powers: he had a magical gong that he would beat to ward off rat plagues, thus earning him the sobriquet, "The Rat King".

The widespread Puri Mengwi clan—whose august family members have, since the 17th century, built mini-palaces from Tanah Lot to Buleleng (on the north coast) and from Blahkiuh (Gianyar) to Blambangan, in East Java—first came to my attention in the early 1980s when they founded the Chicago Group, Bali's first gentlemen golfers' home karaoke unit, based in Sanur. I was their official mascot.
I approached this occasion, the cremation of the much-loved Tjokorde, who had died on 7 September 2001, with a sense of duty (as the Prince of Bongkasa had been my sponsor during the years 1980-1986) and of trepidation, as it's been years since I saw them all, en mass, Cartier shades glittering. Was black the right colour to wear? Would I know anyone there? Would my invitation get me near the real action so I could take some meaningful snaps.

Now read on......

Pedandas on parade

Puri Mengwi, 7th December 2001, 10 a.m.
I drive from Sanur to Mengwi where I am dropped, miles from the main palace gate, after numerous security checks. Trying to look casual in three skirts, black mules and a turban I push down the palace's mall, past the throngs of local villagers waiting for the cremation procession to start at noon, and into the palace's outergarden court. Smartly-dressed sentries, in the house's green and yellow (saput) 'kilts', direct me to the regal Semanggen court where, I surmise, people in patent leather mules are directed.
Once through the ornate paduraksa gate, my hand is taken by the Chief of Protocol which is timely, and not unpleasant, as I have just spotted the Sultan of Solo, Pakubuwono XII, in his trademark big-patterned print shirt, and my knees have gone weak. The Sultan is with ex-Minister of State Moerdiono (ex-President Soeharto's voice during the reign of terror), a Solo palace regular.
Slowly, mercifully, the sea of grandees swims into focus: I see lovely Agung of the immaculate gold accessories, briefly G.M. of the Sanur Beach Hotel, and his divine wife, also Agung, my old pupil at the dance academy (where I taught Reiki and home economics) and the Agung from Puri Bongkasa whose wife, Risha, the Grace Kelly of her generation, is serving the Sultan and his party high tea in a raised rotunda. In fact, the courtyards are a riot of raised rotundas, all with different coloured bunting on the eaves and sashes on the columns (a very Olde Bali High Cozy touch).
Lack of funds in the family, I surmise, has not allowed for the type of modernization that has ruined many of Bali's puri: in the Mengwi palace temporary bamboo pavilions are just thrown up at times of major palace ceremonies, and placed in the large open courtyard areas between the modest (read 1960s scale) palace pavilions.

Pedandas on parade

Investiture by Pakubuwono Palace (Solo) Noblemen

Mr. & Mrs. Pontjo Soetowo

Murdiono & Pakubuwono XII

From the princely court I stray into the temple court where battalions of brahmans have set up. Trains of pedanda high priests criss-cross the grass court: The royal cremation ceremony (pelebon) is using a Naga Banda ritual—which is the prerogative of only the princes (Cokorda) of Bali. A giant dragon effigy will today be brought to life by a pedanda high priests' arrow to the heart . It is the most solemn and magical of all of Bali's million odd rituals and is rarely performed (the last time it was performed in Mengwi was in 1938).
In the temple courtyard the high priests are preparing for their tasks: one had been chosen to shoot the arrow—Ida Pedanda Geria Sania of Denkayu—and he is immersed in Vedic incantations, high in a white and gold ceremonial pavilion, surrounded by tons of offerings.
Meanwhile in the Semanggen court the visiting Javanese noblemen from the ancient Susuhunan palace in Solo are having a field day, pinning tin medals on Balinese princelings' chests. It seems that the Royal Houses of Mengwi and Pakubuwono (Solo) have for some generations been "interactive".
By noon the courtyards start emptying nobles out onto the vast square in front of the palace—now clogged with thousands of villagers, tourists and photographers. The Naga Banda dragon is conveyed over the palace walls and placed in the square facing the towering funeral byre. Then comes the procession of the coffin, followed by wave after wave of offerings that will ease the souls' path to the heavens. Fillling the outer court are the famed Baris Tekok Jago troupe, in their trademark chequered pyjamas, who will dance in the graveyard while the corpse burns.
I am swept out with the first flush of green dragon conveyors, past my old chum Dr. A.A. Made Jelantik (89) from the East Balinese palace of Karangasem (who is heading for the palace's bellevedere from where he will watch the procession with a pack of puri fashionistas), past the Segara sisters in their Versace shades, past the honour guard lining the white cloth honour carpet and deposited, by this wave of ceremonial euphoria, at the feet of the crowned heads of Bali, themselves gathered at the feet of the green dragon.
Now, a photo of all the Tjokorde of Bali is a rare thing indeed (the last being one in 1936 in front of the old Hotel Bali): I manage to squeeze off a few frames of at least four in a row before usurpers start sullying the royal line.
Suddenly a solemn cloud descends on the marshalling ground as the almost entranced Pedanda, still in prayer position, is lead through the hushed crowd to take up his spot at the feet of the funeral byre. The asphalt is baking, old men are collapsing from the heat, but the Pedanda is as cool as a cucumber as he plucks the magic arrow from its gilten pouch, utters the secret mantra and fires across at the green dragon mount.
The giant Dragon effigy rears to attention as its heart starts to beat and the procession of floats, gamelan and other gorgeousness is off, pell mell, towards the palace graveyard. I am left in its wake squashed, scuff-less, sunburnt of the grand farewell for the beloved "Rat King".
I walk with a huge crowd of scragglier to the beautiful Taman Ayun moated temple and reflect on the past glories of this enchanted kingdom.

The Naga Banda leaves the Palace


The laying in state pavilion

The Pedanda walks in trance to the Green Dragon.
Baris Tekok Jago

Pelebon, Puri Mengwi 2002 At the 1986 cremation the same segara palace ladies went for the machhismo look too

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