Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, July 2002)


May 2002 saw a huge amount of ceremonial activity island wide: the most propitious (holy) week of the wuku (210 day) calendar and the saka (lunar) calendar coincided. This meant odalan ceremonies at many major temples – Besakih, Batur, Uluwatu, Tanah Lot, Sakenan and Goa Lawah to name but a few.
“Bali’s most glamorous week” squealed the organizers of the newly inaugurated fashion week, ill-aware of how spot on they were. No amount of Dutch deconstructivist moo-moo and catwalk sparkler can compare to the tsunami of glamour that accompanies every Balinese odalan (temple anniversary).
Over the past twenty years this column has recorded major shifts in Balinese sartorial strategies (see “Men in Black Glasses”, Stranger in Paradise, Oct. 1999, et. al.): the Balinese love of adopting and adapting is nowhere more pronounced than in the island’s ceremonial fashions. Lately, however, fashion victims are popping up on a once flawless horizon. Read on for more:

Sunday, 5th May 2002, Manis Kuningan, Bali’s Golden Day
I go to the Pura Sakenan temple festival at 6 a.m. hoping to avoid the Superbowl bun fight atmosphere now associated with the once serene celebrations. It was a mistake. 20,000 other early-birds thronged the causeway: I arrive at the Kepaon village shrine, which sits within the main temple, just in time to be trampled.
To make it worse, every male Balinese is wearing the fashionable new folded kancut (my bête noir, as it makes real men shuffle, instead of STRIDE) and most ladies are wearing the fashionable new brocade-trimmed chemise, once the prerogative of north coast Javanese of Chinese descent. Only the priests look wholesomely Balinese, but EXHAUSTED from non-stop devotion. Our priest needs to be hailed three times, for example, before taking a break from harvesting sesari (the donation part of offerings).
After prayers I take my gang to the area behind the temple where my Balinese family has always hung out.
We pushed past the turtle satay vendors, the rubbish dump and through the barbed wire fence to find the pondoks huts that serve as weekenders for the pengemong (the temple custodians), during holy week.
Today, they stand empty in a field of food stalls and snake oil vendors. “They went home last night” said a kindly vendor, registering the distress on my face. The Stranger has followed the fabulous festival of Turtle island for thirty years, through the onslaught of the developers (see past “Stranger”, for names) who built the causeway that ruined the island festival as we all knew it. Gone forever are the Barongs on the boats, the processions across the mudflats and the heavy petting in a temple setting that was Sakenan on a Saturday night. The red sand beach where the rangda masks were once empowered on a black moon night has been earmarked for a fast food outlet. Only the glorious Pura Susunan, further inland, has been spared the onslaught.
And now the pondoks are deserted, the loyal royal families obviously fed up with the piles of rubbish and the unruly hoards. It is the end of a 500 year-old tradition. Let us weep.
It’s a sad day for South Bali.

7th May 2002: To Pura Besakih, the Mother Temple, for the last day of the tenth full moon rites
Still smarting from the shock of post-industrial Sakenan I rent a big white bus to go with my office staff to Besakih (secretly dreading having to witness more atrocities against theology and geometry). Before the bus departs I make all the male staff get out and I check that all kancut are fully furled.
Once on the road my jagged nerves are soothed by close proxity to 35 Balinese in neat rows, in ceremonial dress. The prettiest girls are up front with colorful bundles of offerings on their laps. Deeper into the economy class section love trysts are blossoming and Cok, our matinee idol security (See “The Real Heart of Modern Bali” Stranger in Paradise…..2001), is tapping out imaginary gamelan tunes on his neighbour’s knee.

In the back stalls Hindu intellectuals are devouring the Bali Post’s exposé on Tommy Soeharto’s lawyers arrest (on charges of bribing a parking attendant).
Peace reigns.
It’s one of those perfect Balinese mornings. We glide towards Besakih, through pristine mountain villages on a wave of euphoria.
We arrived at Besakih in festive mood. Walking through Besakih village towards the temple I am struck by the affluence now visible in this once poor rural outpost. Since the first Eka Dasa Rudra ceremony in 1979, which drew huge donations for the temple and surrounds, things have been on the up and up for the hundred or so priestly (families whose main role is to guard the temple). Today the priests who splash us after prayers had on Etienne Aigner sandals, and the pecalang vigilantes are all sporting G–SHOCK watches and Pepsodent smiles.

It’s like a magical kingdom–so beautifully manicured are the temple surrounds, so glitteringly gold the architecture and so handsome the mountain-stock superhumans who run the one month-long celebrations.
The tourists on the other hand have never been tackier. How is it that they all wear those big patterned polychromatic batiks done for export to the Carribean and Bintan ? You’d think they would have tried a little harder to match the Balinese exquisiteness.
S I G H. (These are my people).

After prayers we loiter around the bandstand where Madame Dibia of Singapadu’s all-female gamelan troupe are playing Basakih’s grand Gong Gede gamelan. For the first time I enjoy listening to women’s gamelan for Singapadu’s finest have raised the bar, and they’re smoking!
And what bar isn’t continually raised in Bali I ask you? Every year the islanders get better at what they do best: introducing the younger generation to the Balinese way of celebration and of life—what two year old wouldn’t adore it?! And there are plenty here today, in their pleated batiks, Nike junior sandals, opalescent sashes and blissed out countenance.
Sitting on the grassy terraces below the temple, raiding the offering left–overs, watching the waves of Balinese beauty waft by, my residual pique from the Sakenan experience dissolves into awe.

How lucky we all are to be here.

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