Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, August 2003)

Dayu Dewi's Menek Deha Ceremony at Griya Kepaon


Last month I wrote of my adventures in India with two teams of Balinese master gardeners. As a postscript to that diary, I would like this month to add a small piece on our discovering the fabulous Court of Mewar in Udiapur, Rajasthan, which could easily be twinned with the court of Pemecutan in Denpasar. Both feature debonair, dashing and devoted liege Lords, and intriguing intra-court politics.
Both courts defied Islamization and found their fame through horses (battle steeds and polo ponies, in the case of the Mewars; pony trading in the case of Royal House of Pemecutan).
Both claim descendancy from the Sun God, Surya (Pemecutan through its Majapahit era connections.) Both are modern, Hindu, God-King systems operating out of Palace hotels, and both have worked ‘hospitality’ into their ancient mottos.)
The Shiv Newas palace hotel of Udaipur was featured in ‘Octopussy’ (starring the charming tennis champion Vijay Armitraj).
Denpasar’s Pemecutan palace hotel was featured in Philip Noyce’s ‘Shadow of the Peacock’ with John Lone and Wendy Hughes.


This month also saw some dramatic developments in the Bali bomb trial, with the Australian survivors and victims’ families finally getting a chance to vent their wrath on the accused.

One tense moment, picked up by the world’s media, came when the supposed mastermind of the barbaric act, the chief protagonist, Ali Imron, was marched into the courtroom. He was escorted by two ramrod straight Balinese bailiffs (who reminded me of Rajasthans’ best) and plonked down into an office chair in the centre of the courtroom, facing the judges.
"Allah Akbar!!!" he screamed, springing up like a jack-in-the-box, his wiry bottom barely touching the suppressed vinyl padding.
The panel of judges arched a collective eyebrow.
The Balinese guard behind Ali Imron raised a right arm, as if to clip the little bugger’s ear but thought better of it and slowly returned his arm to its holt. This gesture of suppressed outrage (at the little twerp’s gall in attempting to politicise the dastardly act) summed up the general feeling amongst the Balinese and the Indonesian press at large. Across Bali there is a barely contained fury mixed with denial, but also a determination to see the perpetrators brought to justice.

The Australian press, in contrast, are more rabid. Understandably, they tend to play up individual acts of courtroom shadow boxing between the witnesses (mostly victims) and the accused, variously portrayed as being shameless, gutless and without remorse, which is all true.
"You’re gonna die, you dog!" one badly scarred survivor witness screamed at the accused.

* * *

This month also saw the final rounds of lobbying for the memorial planned for the bomb site in Kuta. My office proposed a tranquil garden space with a remembrance wall and a side chapel and a contemplative lily pond. Our design, commissioned by a consortium of local (Kuta) business people of mixed provenance, featured the much photographed mangled car, Hiroshima Memorial-like, as a central sculptural element on a plinth. This was controversial as one senses that many community leaders would prefer giant doves with cascading water and coloured laser beams.
It was reported that the landowner has been asking five times the market price to release the land and we now hear that Indonesia’s flamboyant former tourism minister, the Hon. Yoop Ave, godfather of the aggressively kitsch Garuda Wisnu Kencana theme park, has invited Indonesia’s talented sculptor Nyoman Nuarta to enter the fray.
You read it here first…
Stay tuned.
Now read on……….

3 July, 2003; To Griya Kepaon: the coming of age ceremony of Dayu Dewi (16) the daughter of my Balinese brother, Ida Bagus Suteja.
The courtyards are groaning with teenagers in full ceremonial costume. I arrive at my adopted ancestral home dressed today for an important rite de passage for a popular young Brahmana lass. All the minor royal relatives are in attendance; from as far afield as Klungkung, Bajing and Munggu. The Menek Kelih ceremony, a sombre puberty ritual, is also an informal coming out: eligible young brahmana boys from around town are gathered outside the main courtyard with form guides tucked into the tight waistbands of their fashionable hipster sarongs.

Has anyone else noticed the recent upsurge in ceremonial activity? The art shop slump has released people back to what they love doing most - ritualistic Hindu activity. This side of the horrible bomb, the culture has a chance to recharge; the banjars and temple youth groups are mopping up the fall out from crass tourism’s burst bubble. How, one may ask, did an almost entirely self sufficient culture loan 80% of it workforce to something as fickle as mass tourism? "Is it time for a return to a more balanced and less materialistic lifestyle?" some observers ask.
The truth is that most Balinese had balance in their life during the tourist boom through the time honoured traditions of Suka-Duka, sharing the good times and the bad, and of ngayah, devotional work for the Gods, the ancestors, the liege Lord or one’s brahmana priest.
There is now less time spent selling carved ducks and more spent playing gamelan and fashioning offerings. There are now more empty ‘trendoid’ villas ("Unbe-villa-ble" my cheery editor, trumpeted in last month’s Hello Bali) and more Balinese back in the rice fields; the same rice fields that the speculator-driven ex-pat building boom was poised to saturate.
John Darling’s new film ‘The Healing of Bali’, sneakily previewed by my proof editor last month, is much awaited. It’s a brilliant film I am told.

* * *

Today, in the heavenly July cool, surrounded by South Balinese urban Hindus comfortable in their ancient ritualistic roles, I feel that any damage done to Bali by the bomb is hopefully only skin deep, and that the true heart of Bali is beating, stronger than ever. 

16 July, 2003: A pilgrimage to MAHABALIPUAM temple with my garden commandoes.
I have a fantasy that the 8th Century Palava Era Hindu temple complex at Mahabalipuram, near Madras, in Tamil Nadu State, South India, is one of Bali's paternal ancestors.

Sadly, the stone shrines and surrounding architecture of the ‘sea temple’ complex are today in poor shape; the forms of the once spectacularly beautiful statuary are now barely visible. There is a small ‘archaeological park’ attachment at the front of the main Candi-like shrine that highlights the remains of the canals that once conveyed the mighty, art-loving Palava kings to the temple’s forecourt. In this way the temple complex is much like the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Ayodya in Thailand, and the early 8th century temples of the Hindu Taruma Negara kingdom in West Java, near present day Jakarta. The pyramid complex at Cheops in Egypt and the Pura Sakenan temple in Bali (on a lesser scale, and before the tragic real estate boom) had similar dramatic aquatic arrivals.
The main shrine of the sea temple is of the prasad form; similar to and, indeed, the precursor of Bali's Prasada stone meru form which is also found at Pura Sakenan. This form is most notably found in the 8th Century temples of the Dieng Plateau in Central Java (which local experts tell us "deferred to South Indian models") and many temples of the Singosari Dynasty in East Java (Bali's great grandfather) most notably the Candi Jawi on the road to Tretes, near Malang.
Mahabalipuram has, over the past 1,000 years, grown from a pilgrimage site to become quite a domestic tourist trap ....hippies from nearby Pondicherry waft up and down the tight alleys in smelly tribal dress.
We have come to pray at the tourist trap - an act of both piety and defiance I have performed at Candi Prambanan in Central Java and in the Buddha cave of the old River Caves at Luna Park in Sydney.
At the ticket booth I try to pass off the Balinese as Nagaland tribals, to save $30, but it doesn't work.
"Shouldn’t Balinese get a discount" I protest.
"Ah, ya full of it" comes the cheeky reply.

  * * *

The temple’s inner sanctum is, amazingly, strewn with frangipani and hibiscus flowers, Bali's favourite devotional blooms. I recall that red and white are also the colours of East Java's Hindu Majapahit Kingdom (Bali's father), the Indonesian flag, and the royal house of Mewar.
There are no priests in the temple to make us feel foreign, so we manage to squeeze in a Balinese prayer session in the semi-outdoors, before waves of day-trippers from all over India come to ogle at the "fat hippy with the chinkyentourage" (Indians are shocking racists, God bless them) but its too late; we have succeeded in creating a private little fantasy slice of Bali in Mother India.

* * *

After dark, the team go for a walk in a Tamil village with Sami, the pool attendant from the Taj Fishermen’s Cove where we are working. They come back with no stories or observations, which is normal, but agree with me, when pressed, that the village is very clean, "like Bali used to be", and that the Tamil's love their dogs. Nyoman from Ubud has come home with a golden GANESHA statue given by Sami from his father’s memorial shrine. Ngurah, the babe magnet in the group, has kissed the barber's daughter in a back room; I pray that no-one has been impregnated. On the road, the Balinese father-for-rent philosophy can create problems.

Today I am shown two house projects by Jakarta's hottest house designer. Both are neatnik masterpieces with the obligatory raised black-edged pool, overflow tension edge to no-where, homogenous planting with rows of horse hair shrubs and mindless mass planting ... it’s TERMINATOR FOUR: THE RAPE OF THE AUTO CAD (Computer Assisted Drafting) ... a regional movement more insidious than Jama’ah Islamiyah because it threatens to banish the garden designer (a nature-loving creature) from home design. SACRE BLEU.!!!        Architects from Melbourne to Morocco - and one might not be mistaken in thinking it was just the one architect, so similar are the designs - are taking over the landscape with their trademark expansiveness, reducing the once loved home garden to a draughtboard-driven exercise in planting by numbers. Garden terraces are now looking like Office works catalogues!
Their excuse is - and I've heard this a thousand times - that architects now have to take control or their clean lines will be sullied by Bali style. They may have a point; hell hath no fury such as the visual pretty litter of the full blown aesthetically challenged ‘Bali Style’ garden, as I should know, but that's no excuse to  sweep aside wholesale the nature-lovers in favour of the computer-gazers.

Now that the Singapore government has ratified the homo, expect even more Muscle Mary buildings with their attendant gung ho minimalist gardens on the fabled isle.
Heaven help us.
The price for peace is eternal vigilance.

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