Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, February 2003)

Kuta lay priests of foreign extraction with mineral samples, a small Ganesha statue and some singing bowls perform the rare BUMI PUJA SETEK GERINGSING on Kuta beach, 15th November 2002.


For a while there, mid November, I thought the island was going to sink under a tsunami of tourism culture: Post-Kuta bomb, the spin doctors, with their fringe ceremonies, have been getting more and more surreal. Even my learned editor, the shapely Sarah Dougherty, was swept up in the euphoria of altruism—a Balinese speciality, best served cold—convinced, like many others, that Mz. Asana Viebieke, the new Balinese Zeena of Reformasi, was about to stage a cultural coup!
Meanwhile the Balinese, for the most part oblivious to all the posturing and jockeying, just keep on keeping on, with their heads down. There’s barely time for altruism: they are too busy placating demons and dieties!
This month I witnessed two extraordinary rituals (one on Bali TV) which convinced me that there’s at least another 1,000 years left in the Balinese cycle of ceremonies they call life.
Since 12th October, (the night of infamy), the village of Kuta has been preparing for the mighty Tawur Agung ceremony aimed at restoring balance to the nether-world (Alam Niskala). Half of the planet’s available press corp descended on Bali for the event. In New York a Balinese procession to the other Ground Zero was held. Australia stopped for one minute’s silence as the pedanda rang their bells in Kuta.
Now read on:

15th November 2002, Sugihan Bali, Kajeng Kliwon Enyitan, a holyday for ‘spooky’ ceremonies
I can’t go to Kuta as I have to be in Sidakarya village—for the climax of the two month long series of ceremonies aimed at restoring the power of the village’s Rangda, the consort of the holy Barong, the village guardian—so I have despatched the Stranger’s assistant, Akhmad Yani, who took the photographs on this page.
Waiting for the Sidakarya ceremony to start I watch the island’s new channel, Bali TV, which is running live coverage of the solemn, Kuta mega-ceremony (see John Darling’s coming film for details). The broadcast is interspliced with studio footage of a Denpasar rock band in temple dress singing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, badly. White doves frozen in flight dot the floral backdrop.

At Sidakarya two hours later things are more normal: inside the temple a band of pemangku (assistant priests) are huddled around a television watching replays of Kuta trance ceremonies of the day before. They watch with the detached amusement of ten year olds watching the Simpsons.
“Oh my, a big man just bit a chicken’s head off” I exclaim as they stare impassively.
And then it is on: it’s twelve noon and the freshly refurbished Barong and all his court process to the stately Pura Dalem where a brace of pedanda (high priests) are waiting to ‘charge’ the Rangda masks and those of her ladies in waiting in a ceremony called ‘mejaya-jaya’. It is a moment of great pride for the village (one of my favourites in Bali due to the simple nobility of its folk) as it has taken months to get this far and the procession is smokin’!


Under the temple’s banyan tree an honour guard has formed. It consists of priests bearing the pekeluh holy water, collected from Pura Agung (important temples) across the island, and the Barong’s patih guardians. The patih will today be blessed in a special pewintenan ceremony aimed at increasing their sakti (spritual power).
Last week, I visited the fabulous Pura Karang Boma near Sawangan on the Nusa Dua peninsula with my Sidakarya friend Putu Suarsa. We went there to burn (megeseng) the mask hair and costume of the old Sidakarya’s leyak dadu also known as Ratu Manik. The ceremony was held late at night in the very atmospheric Pura Taman Telelaga Waja, a coastal temple with a magic spring which is the birth place of the first of Sidakarya’s leyak dadu witches. In Bali, demons and deities have family trees. Demonsand deities are also afforded similar respect. Today the ‘Rangda’ dancers, the pragina, are wearing new striped costumes and spooky long-finger-nailed gloves. The brahman priests are high in their Veda pavilion performing the mejaya-jaya ceremony which puts the sakti, the spiritual charge, back into the Rangda. At this point, with the gamelan orchestra playing ethereally, the pragina, who will soon wear the newly refurbished Rangda masks (called pelawat), go into mild trance only to be pacified, moments later, by ‘visits’ from the nearby Barong whose chattering teeth have a calming effect. They, the pragina, are then lead to the pedanda’s pavilion where, as Rangda, they face off with the pedanda who are furiously ringing bells, leaning forward on their mats for better thrust!
All this has happened in an atmosphere of serenity and intense devotion broken only by the arrival, unannounced, of an Australian film crew. The producer is frothing at the mouth with self importance; he is brandishing a plastic Kuta 2002 identity badge like a diplomatic passport (Oh the gall of the media crusaders! (I should talk!))
I manage to subdue the producer with some crystal shards and a fag—peace is restored.
Later that night, at midnight in fact, the newly charged Rangda are ‘tested’ in three very spooky ‘ngerehang’ rituals performed, simultaneously, in the village’s graveyard, in the north-eastern corner of the Pura Dalem and in a corner of the Pura Desa, all without any artificial light.
I choose to attend the Pura Dalem ceremony during which, in complete darkness, Rangda’s old pragina host flies into a wild trance and bolts, pell-mell, through the temple courtyard, only to smash into the locked temple door. After the spine-tingling ceremonies I see photographer Sean Thomas and Arif Rabik whose faces are ashen: they’ve been in the graveyard and they look as if they’ve seen a ghost. [More Photos]

25th November 2002: Barong goes walkabout.
It’s now twelve days since the incredible ceremonies in Kuta and Sidakarya. Today the Sidakarya Barong and Rangda must visit (mapinton) all the three major temples of South Bali—Pura Dalem Sakenan, Pura Susunan Sakenan, and Pura Mertasari, near my studio-office in Sanur South, hard on the mangroves, where real estate developers roam.
I hear the procession passing, bigger than Ben Hur: Barong is the people’s prince, so all the villagers are out in force for this ‘victory lap’. I throw on my temple drag and hoof it over to the temple. As I arrive I see the rays of the setting sun bouncing off the Barong’s mirrored pelt, splashing light over the drooping branches of the banyan tree in the temple’s forecourt.
I marvel at the devotion of the immaculately attired toddlers—the next generation of pragina, patih and pemangku—and feel comfort that the cycles of life and death in Bali are as ‘well-oiled’ as they ever were.

Monday, December 2, 2002: Pemapagan ceremony at Pura Persimpangan, Suwung Gede, for the gods returning from Sakenan.
For the last 20 odd years I have written about this incredible festival (see the ‘Great Kepaon Juggernaut’, Stranger in Paradise October 2000) with its unique chariot and its constellation of gods.
Tonight I approach the temple foregrounds with heightened expectations as I have invited my house guests, Priya and Shirin Paul from Delhi, to witness the spectacle. I am shocked to find a temple court packed with devotees and gods who are not mine. Where has my festival gone? A group pray-in alla Presbyteriana, is in progress; and I am at a loss to explain to my guests what has happened. Finally one of the temple guards tells me that my gods (well, adopted gods), the Dalem group, are “up the road, near the cemetery”.
It all seems terribly irregular: my Indian guests must think I’m a clod.
Ten minutes later I find the festival, transported into a brand new temple, which has been built surreptitiously following a feud between the palace and the southern serfs (mentioned in a recent Stranger-ibid.). The venue for the 800 year old pow-wow of the gods has now changed it seems.
In the new temple the royal family of Kepaon, the pangemong of this festival, are brimming with conceit: the atmosphere is gorgeous, the decorations and architecture are sublime, and the gods are happy. For the first time in a decade we’re soon heading north for the next act with the head god Ratu Agung strapped onto his chariot before 9 p.m. (Sienfeld on Indovision).
As we arrive at the palace temple, Pura Dalem Kepala, three kilometres to the north, the Barong Medwi welcomes the returning gods with a medley of kris dances, called Ngurek. The frenzied priests including two ladies: they are more amazing and animated than ever before, as if to impress my Indian guests. Suddenly I spy a cameraman climbing on the temple gate—a redhead no less—shooting the whole show from behind the Barong’s bottoms. Sacre bleu!
Later in the evening, in the royal chapel, as we are chewing the cud with the palace family, the redhead reappears again; this time with a Javanese guide in layers of faded batik, and starts bouncing around the tiny courtyard as if it were a squash court.
The family despatch me to find out what he’s doing: It’s a gringo face-off in the inner sanctum!.
“Excuse me” I start “the temple custodian has asked me to ask you if you’ve reported to the panitia for permission to film.”
“I’ve been here for eight hours”, he offers, brusquely, “They’re used to me.” And with that lame excuse tries to high five me, the heathen.
What’s happened to the media corps, I wonder, when they consider themselves above even the most basic Balinese courtesies. I put it down to Post-Kuta Bomb Media Distress Disorder: it seems that the media corps, like the hotel managers, now think they own the place.

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