Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, October 2003)

The late Ida Pedanda Gede Anom Karang, (1926 - 2003)

The kajang Pengawak cloth

Bali’s Unseen World

One of this column’s regular readers has complained that there’s too much talk about brahmana and not enough hard gossip; presumably about the island’s expatriates and high rollers. Having devoted a career to alienating every hotel chain, Rotary club and gay haberdashery, and having missed Inul, the nation’s bum-wobbling sensation at the PEACE concert, I am in an enviable position of having no new intelligence on Bali’s sekala, or visible, worlds.
Bali to me is now better felt than seen.
Conveniently, then, I have been commissioned to write on the ‘Unseen World’ for a new book on Bali entitled ‘Bali Rediscovered’. The publishers are a cross between the ‘Brideshead Revisited’ gang and the nightshift at ‘The Bounty’ but the gods might bless their endeavour because a real book on the real Bali by the region’s best photographers and hacks is long overdue. After recent talk of "Bali reinventing itself and clipping its mystical wings" by writer Jim Morris (what would he know) the public needs to be reminded of what makes Bali tick.
One big hint: it’s not tourism.
To prepare for my essay I started interviewing ball-boys, brahmana and members of the South Sidakarya Scrabble Group and started to form an opinion based on Balinese beliefs which is my destiny.
In Jakarta, my guru, Aji Damais, told me that the concept of dunia niskala, the ‘unseen world’, exists in Javanese mysticism, but he had always thought of it as ‘abstract world’. Coming from the creator of the theory that ‘in Java, every mistake is a blessing in disguise’, I allowed this new concept to rattle in my head for a few days before it was dashed by my editor, Dr. Lawrence ‘Silver Rod’ Blair. Blair reminded me that for the Balinese the abstract world is very real and is, in fact, their better half. A week later, in Jakarta again, treating some Solonese noblemen to sushi at the Jakarta Hilton, I was reminded, via an intriguing and mind-opening discourse, of the importance of the niskala world to the Central Javanese. It is from the Javanese, of course, that the Balinese have inherited their deep rooted mysticism and their need for balance in their lahir (physical) and bathin (spiritual) sides. I felt born again. A minute later one elderly noble, the region’s supreme spiritual leader, nodded off, ever so graciously, into his banana split.
Returning to Bali, I was hit by the usual wave of morbid news. ("So many bodies, so little time." as one Pedanda put it) and invitations to two ceremonies - a body washing and a beatification rite for the next day, a super holy Buda Cemeng on a dark moon. Also on the cards was a visit to a temple in Munggu with Ratu Ayu Banaspati, the Barong of my local village, Sidakarya; all over the same afternoon and evening.
Hopping from ceremony to ceremony, I had enough time, between costume changes, to register the importance of the niskala world in the three main courts of Bali - the brahmana courts, the princely courts and the temple courts.
Now read on:

27 August 2003, Griya Tapakgangsul, Denpasar’s largest Brahman house, for the body washing and Ngajum soul purification rites for the much loved high priest Ida Pedanda Gede Anom Karang, father of Gus Kuk of Café Terazzo, Ubud fame.
Funeral rites are rarely sad affairs in Bali; even less so in brahmana houses, where the families, as polished funeral rite practitioners, are intimate with the ceremonies that surrounded the dead. For brahmana, moving from the coarse body, in the visible world, into the astral body, in the unseen world, is just a matter of following the instruction manual, to put it bluntly, as the Balinese often do.
The deceased was a popular man so I was not surprised, on arrival in the handsome multi-pavilion palace, to find the courtyard packed with high priests and priestesses from many of the island’s brahmana families.
A full compliment of family members are gathered around a simple white and gold palanquin where Ida Bagus Gede Kesuma of Griya Tegal Gede, Denpasar’s most colourful lay priest, is officiating at the last rites for the deceased’s body (the next two hundred or so ceremonies will be directed at purifying the deceased’s soul).
At the end of the sombre ceremony I follow a parliament of high priestesses into the house temple where the sacred Kain Nusa cloth is being unfurled in the ceremonial pavilion (see photo below right). Brimming with excitement, the priestesses then produce Kajang Pengawak the white cloth which is gently laid over the magic red-chequered cloth. The pavilion quickly fills up with magicians in exquisite brahmana attire and giant signet rings flash shards of light into the pavilion ceiling while an Angklung orchestra plays mesmeric WAYANG music. Each priest eagerly inserts a needle into a joint on the skeletal cosmic outline representing Ida Pedanda Gede Anom Karang’s astral body, thereby ensuring a speedy reincarnation for the departing soul. Amongst the gathered Brahmana there is no doubt that this rarified soul’s stay on the other side will most probably be a short one; he will soon be back with his family.
All the family members then pass through the pavilion, inserting needles, then return to the main courtyard where supper is served. There is no talk of the deceased, save an account of his quiet passing; just the gentle camaraderie that reminds me of the infinite grace of the Balinese brahmana.
Back in the house temple the officiating priest, Pedanda Lebah, the Bruce Willis of Balinese priesthood, sits at the eastern end of the pavilion, and tugs at a pack of Dunhills. I want to say "I saw you in a dream" or "How’s the niskala faring, guru?" but just slip away to gossip with the glitterati.

*                      *                      *

My next stop is a Ksatrya (princely) palace in Monang Maning, Denpasar, one of many minor palaces that are off-shoots of the main Pemecutan Royal palace. Here I find my old buddy Agung Putu whose son, Agung Putra, was tragically killed in a bike accident two years ago. In fact, I think I’m coming to my old buddy, Ngurah Putra’s soul ‘cremation’ (mukur), but it’s such a big family my gaffe is lost in the general drift. I sit with the family as the sunset rituals, which ensure the soul’s path to the other side, are played out. Palace ladies with Chanel front bumbags and helmet-like hairdos, move amongst the celebrants. For the Ksatrya caste it’s often more about family solidarity and clansmanship than spiritual concerns; a handful of brahmana (my adopted relatives from Kepaon) are up on the grandstand fashioning spirit effigies (Nyekah) with the king. It’s the King’s most important role in the community to fashion the fanciful, woven vessels, called Sekah, inside which the soul will depart the visible world. Once the soul is there the brahmana can take over. In the world of deified ancestors, itself part of the dunia niskala; the brahmana hold the key.

*                      *                      *

From Denpasar I travel west. The sun is setting over a thousand rent-a-villas in what were once the rice fields of West Denpasar. Swishing past, one gaudy gate looks uglier than the next. It’s all a blur of bull-rushes, intercom boxes and regurgitated Javanese doors. Somewhere in there, I muse, my mentor Johnny Darling is making a film on the aftermath of the Kuta bomb. If you read this, Johnny, ring home! We still love you (I fear for his soul……he may stray to the Q Bar, or worse. Heaven forbid).

*                      *                      *

Decorations Leading to the Pura Dalem Wisesa, Munggu

Munggu is a staunchly traditional Balinese village with some stunning temples and unique festivals. Tonight I visit the Pura Dalem Wisesa, a temple in the rice fields south of the village (gloriously spared the expansion of expatria by recent events). The approach road is lined with over 100 immaculate penjor poles, the temple is lavishly decorated and there seem to be over five gamelans playing in various courts and minor temples around the main Pura Dalem.

I am here tonight as a groupie of the Sidakarya Barong, whose awakening (from a twenty year hibernation) and subsequent empowerment rituals were recorded in past Stranger columns. There are many other Barong and Rangda here from various parts of South Bali. One is often surprised by the migratory patterns of the Barongs, the keepers-mascot of the dunia niskala, as they seem to free range much more than the village deities with whom they are connected.
The atmosphere inside the temple is electric. My Sidakarya hosts tell me how the temple is considered very ‘tenget’ (spooky). "Anyone stealing so much as a palm leaf after an offering-weaving session becomes possessed." ‘Possession’ is the unseen world’s trump card in this third ‘court’ of the Balinese community, the village temple court. The brahmana decry possession it should be noted, as ‘inelegant’, preferring communion. Villagers, on the other hand, flock to any dance, temple ritual or healing ceremony that involves communicating directly with the dunia niskala. The climax of any odalan is the madatengan (lit. the ‘coming’) when entities from the other side are invited down to air their opinions. During these ceremonies the Barong’s teeth are known to chatter involuntarily and people fly through the air. Children stay up to witness these events and are thus forever aware of the proximity of the other side and the need to placate its destructive forces. The Hindu Bali faith, descended from Hindu East Javanese Bhairawa Hinduism, the worship of Lord Shiva the terrible, decrees a healthy respect for the netherworld of demons, as well as daily propitiations for the needs of the celestial nymphs, deified ancestor spirits and the other gods.

Enlightenment is achieved through seemingly effortless subjugation to Bhakti Yoga, the path to enlightenment through ceremony, the true meaning of the word Bali.


*                      *                      *

I returned home, exhausted by the full evening, but refreshed by a recharging of my spent spiritual batteries and a waft of real Bali, new Bali, eternal Bali.

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