Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, November 2003)


It is 25 years since I first wrote in this column about the incredible Bedoyo Ketawang dance of Surakarta (Solo), Central Java .
The dance is performed only once a year in the palace on the occasion of the anniversary of the coronation of the Susuhunan of Surakarta; ‘Java’s coolest Sultan.’ Loyal STRANGER readers will recall that Pakubuwono XII, entitled the Susuhunan, attended last year’s cremation of his good friend, the Prince of Mengwi.
Readers who are even more loyal will recall the many stories in this column over the years about the special relationship that the Surakarta royal houses - both the Mangkunegaran and Susuhunan Kraton palaces - have had with many of Bali’s royals over the centuries; particularly with the royal houses of Karangasem, Ubud, Gianyar and Mengwi - Bali’s ‘fancy’ palaces.
This year was H.R.H’s Diamond Jubilee celebration and 600 new titles were awarded in the honours list; including to a pair of Indonesian presidential hopefuls, Amien Rais and Akbar Tanjung, and numerous Malaysian officials. I travelled to Surakarta (Solo) with a small entourage of Balinese palace groupies to record the events.
Now read on:

28th September 2003 : the ‘Wisuda’ awards ceremony the day before the Diamond Jubilee
My old friend and mentor in all things Solonese, K.P.A. Hardjonagoro, a Javanese living treasure and founder of the exquisite Susuhunan Museum , has sponsored me for a small award at the palace, for services to architectural research. I am thrilled and terrified; the Susuhunan Palace is a medieval fortress known for its strict dress code and protocol. Following the advice of my mentor Hardjonagoro, but against the rules, I decide to wear full throttle Balinese formal wear rather than the tight sombre wrappings of Javanese courtly dress. In a stroke of decorative wit, members of my ‘Dainty Dozen’ entourage are force-wrapped into black tie and batik like a Solonese backing group. The effect is striking; the milling hordes part as we arrive at 11 a.m. , in a daze, at the imposing Palace square. We file past the paparazzi into the first of a series of stately courtyards; all enclosed by handsome ‘frames’ of traditional Javanese verandas and dotted with ornately carved pavilions.
The Susuhunan Palace , together with its ‘counter-palace’, the Sultan’s Palace in Jogyakarta, is one of the few palaces to survive, fairly intact, from Indonesia ’s glittering age of Rajas. Today the beautiful carved pavilions and courtyards are full of milling courtiers and invitees in exquisite Javanese dress. Amongst the invitees I spot John Miksic, star archaeologist of Didier Millet’s heroic ‘Indonesian Heritage Series of Books’, General Wiranto and media mogul Guruh Soekarnoputra, the President’s brother.
After a moment of taking stock in the vast main court-cum-Guava Tree Orchard, my entourage is ushered into the crystal palace pendopo, the Kagungan Dalem Sasono Sewaka, and I am plonked opposite the Governor of Papua on a red velvet chair. This large enclosed pavilion was recently, and controversially, restored with the aid of the flamboyant conservationista Yoop Ave , a great Javaphile. The atmosphere is tense and royal, heavenly and beauteous; we are in a trance of splendour.
At noon a stately gamelan tune starts up and H.R.H. slowly processes to his golden dais at one end of the chandelier-strewn audience hall.
I am quietly having pups about my turn; the microphone cable between me and H.R.H. is looking threatening and the pile of powder blue manila folders is rapidly diminishing. (Has mine been misplaced?) My keris holster is coming loose too.
Finally my name is read and I am escorted to the dais by two stately abdi dalem equerries. HRH, in a vintage velour jacket and chrysanthemum yellow sash, calms me with a warm smile and a firm handshake. A manila folder is proffered, with my new Javanese name - K.R.H.T. Mangku (‘Protector’) Wijoyo - scribbled in pencil on the front. I faint into General Wiranto’s waiting arms.
The WISUDA ceremony is over.
H.R.H. is swept away by concerned courtiers as the Malaysian contingent tries to line up for a tenth wave of group photos.
An elegant snack of Solo rice on lotus-petal pastry is served on the veranda.

Later the same day at ‘Hardjonagoro’s house:
During the ceremony my mentor, Hardjonagoro, invited us back to his home, Java’s most chic, for a celebratory lunch.
On his President Soekarno-designed terrace, the ever ebullient aesthete regales us with stories of palace intrigue. He whispers that palace taste police deplore the gaudy raw teak Kudus style carving in the audience hall, where once reigned more restrained ivory-coloured arabesques. He talks of the spiritual importance of Pakubuwuno XII, and of his magical ‘union’ with the Goddess of the Indonesian Sea , Nyai Roro Kidul (a tradition since the founding of the dynasty). He also elaborates on the role of the palace as guardian of Javanese cultural values and the arts.
He informs us that the next day the Bedoyo Ketawang, which celebrates this mythical union, will for the first time be danced solely by H.R.H.’s daughters, as a symbol of their devotion.

29th September 2003 : back to the palace for the Bedoyo Ketawang ritual
Today the palace courts are brimming with excited guests; the performing of the semi-divine Bedoyo Ketawang is one of Indonesia ’s cultural wonders. Amongst the V.I.P guests are the Sultan of Palembang, South Sumatra , in extraordinary purple songket pyjamas and matching turban, the Prince of Mengwi, a Balinese Rsi Bujangga priest, couturier Poppy Darsono, and noted Solophile Baron Willem van der Wall Bake.
By noon the palace’s main pavilion is surrounded by row upon row of invitees in Solonese dress. The mesmeric gamelan is playing Java’s answer to ‘South Pacific’. Suddenly gracefully, H.R.H proceeds out of his Dalem chambers with an escort of angelic great granddaughters and takes up his position on the ottoman-like throne. Next, his sons, in plastic peci hats, waddle in, genuflect, then settle into lotus position repose. Finally, a wave of abdi dalem retainers secures the podium’s eastern quarter.
The world’s most glamorous stage is now set.
The Susuhunan is on his throne, all others are in attendance, flanking on all sides. A full royal gamelan, a choir, and two regiments of cross legged noblemen define a performance space, no bigger than a boxing ring, in the centre of the golden pavilion.
The wafting strains of a female chorus chime in, announcing the arrival of nine Bedoyo dancers, dripping jasmine bridal veils. They file out in thick clouds of incense de l’orient.
The dance starts, the Susuhunan meditates, and everyone else goes into a deep aesthetic trance. The hypnotic heavenly music, the graceful wafting of the Bedoyo dancers, the costumes and the beauty of the architecture make one feel that this is the centre of the universe and all its beauty.
This year’s Bedoyo Ketawang performance is particularly moving; H.R.H. gazes upon the Bedoyo with the pride of a Sultan and with the tenderness of a father.
As H.R.H. returns to his quarters, Huai-yan, this column’s illustrator, slides up to me and whispers, “Agung (our host) saw a green angel”. In fact, Agung does see things, ‘Dead People’ even; he once saw the 19th century English infantryman who haunts my house in Singapore .
It is no secret in Solo that a green angel, Nyai Roro Kidul herself, appears at the Susuhunan’s side during the Bedoyo Ketawang performance. Some people even see a mysterious tenth bedoyo at rehearsals. 


The Australian press is reporting that Bali “is subject to fresh warnings of possible attacks as it prepares for the firstanniversary of last year’s bombings.” Nothing could be further from the truth. This month, I went to two Balinese temple festivals, a Balinese wedding, a cremation, a mukur (soul cremation) and numerous other Balinese functions and not once has the anniversary been alluded to. “It’s all over after the mecaru ceremony,” most Balinese say but the ramifications continue. Some Balinese I have spoken to recorded seneb (distaste) for the KUTA KARNIVAL (read ‘the Dumbing Down of Bali’, Stranger in Paradise , March, 2003) and the winning design for the ‘Ground Zero’ monument (see photo left). Many others say “Let Kuta and the victims’ families deal with their sorrow in whatever way theychoose.”

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