Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, December 2005)


"The demons used to live in the roots of trees," a Balinese priest explained to me last month, "but now they have moved up into the bodies of humans and the gods have moved further away."
Once again, after this latest outrage against the island of the gods, the Balinese are scrambling for excuses. It is particularly cruel for the tourism industry, insufferably so for the victims’ families. One’s first reaction is sympathy, for the victims and their families, and then horror; the graphic images which poured out of BALI NEWS television station, immediately after the bomb attack, broke new ground for gory front line footage. The venerable Bali Post topped it two days later with a front page photo of a suicide bomber’s severed head attached to an arm and shoulder bit.
By day three, many people’s reactions had changed … to concern, for the interest groups on Kuta beach planting rose stalks and placing tea candles in depressions in the sand ("burying shells" the Singapore Straits Times called it). "There are over 5,000 pitra yadnya (death ritual)-related rites in Bali," a Balinese friend remarked, "and this is not one of them."
Soon, no doubt, we will all be treated to rock bands howling in the limestone quarries of Garuda Wisnu Kencana (GWK) culture park, which many Australians now regard as the official Bali Bomb Memorial.
At the end of the first week, other non-Balinese ceremonies were held at various official ‘memorial gardens.’ Readers will recall that every Balinese house has a memorial garden – the sanggah house-shrine dedicated to deified ancestors – and that all are beautiful evocative places. Why then New Asia and Australia’s recent obsession with shallow black ponds and floating candles to commemorate death in Bali, you may ask. Where does this lean and mean memorial aesthetic come from? Certainly not the Balinese.
To commemorate death, the Balinese typically hold one or two magnificent funeral bashes – the ngaben and, later, the nyekah purification of the soul. Then, after twelve days, the spirit of the deceased is ushered back, via umpteen ceremonies, into the ornate family-house-shrine-memorial-garden for good. Every day the spirit is remembered by way of offerings made at the kemulan shrine in a lovely temple-garden environment.

• • •

Of all the shocking images of the last month, the most thought-provoking for me was one of a young Balinese widow in temple dress collapsing in a flood of tears at the third Bali Bomb Memorial service. This image was flashed around the world as if to portray the continued suffering of Bali. Yes, Bali continues to suffer – but is stoic about it. The Balinese have their own way of dealing with grief, which observers have always found remarkably civilised and enlightened.
The Balinese do not, as a rule, celebrate death or disaster anniversaries – look at the unkempt state of the Pan Am Crash memorial 30 years on – and are not given to rash or mawkish pronouncements or behaviour.
Like mantras, many Balinese are mouthing the words, "When will the tourists come back?" regional journalist Azhar Ghani said in his otherwise excellent piece in The Straits Times, Thursday, 13th October 2005.
This is just not true. The Balinese not immediately or directly affected by the two bombs are getting on with their ceremonial lives as Balinese. Yes, the chess sets are out again in front of the art shops; yes, there are long faces amongst the porters at the arrival hall at the airport and the hotels occupancies are way down but I haven’t heard one Balinese complain. They refer to the ‘event’ and point towards the South (Kuta, Jimbaran) when explaining why things are quiet in ‘Tourist Bali.’ In an interview with CNN, the owner of the ill-fated restaurant on Jimbaran beach was only concerned, with having "let his guests down" (we heard this a lot after the first bomb too).
The Balinese are seizing on the opportunity to demand the immediate execution of the hated Amrozi and gang, the first Bali Bombers now on death row in the Nusa Kambangan jail, Indonesia’s answer to Alcatraz. A mock execution involving a dummy of Amrozi and thirty kris-wielding students in temple dress was held one day last month in front of the local houses of parliament; it raised little comment in Balinese society. Like the rumours about retribution against the island’s Muslim population, the Balinese tend to ignore ‘extremist’ statements and behaviour of all kinds, content to focus more on what can be done ceremonially to address the imbalances in their perceived universe.
The Balinese can do their own conflict resolution

1 October 2005

• • •

My 20 year old right-wing Muslim masseur’s only comment on the tragedy was "Australia intervensi (lagi)" meaning ……. the ‘white peril’ to the south are blatantly offering logistic support.
"HOW DARE THEY!" he seemed to imply.
"Will you be asking Australia for help again this time, Sir?" the national television (Metro TV) anchor-woman sheepishly asked the Indonesian Vice-President, Jusuf Kalla, in an interview on the night of the bombing.
"Our investigation is ongoing……we will seek the help of many parties," he replied.
When asked the same question, his counterpart in Australia replied: "We don’t want to appear pushy – we are waiting for an invitation."
In this Era of Reformation one takes comfort in the knowledge that post-disaster pussy-footing has become standardised in inter-regional relations.
Now read on:

Saturday, 12th October 2005: the climax of the three day temple festival at Pura Sakenan, Turtle Island
I am giving up smoking and am prone to energy surges that are hard to control.
Coming back from Kuta tonight, I notice that the temple crowds which usually clog the By-pass on this holy Kuningan Saturday are much reduced. It has been years since I witnessed the magic circle trance-in and dance-a-thon at Pura Sakenan – these days I prefer to go instead with the ‘advance party’ of gods and priests on Friday (yesterday), to avoid the unholy throngs. Sensing a ‘sea change’ I race home and change into temple dress.
Within minutes I am striding towards the inner sanctum, like a new-age Gulliver. Everyone seems half-sized as I overtake the pilgrims filing towards the temple complex.
I am almost running: the lure of an elicit cigarette, proffered by a priest, is egging me on.
Can this be just nicotine-deprivation or is it the call of the wild side? Will I finally fall into trance and flail and frolic – the ‘force’ is really with me tonight. I almost bound the barrier erected to stop the devout hordes from short-cutting to the ceremonial court.
"Temple groupie," I honk.
(Who would dare stop this out-sized bule bolting for the temple with "Give me a fag" written in lights on his forehead?)
Inside the temple I plonk myself down in the ceremonial pavilion, next to an ashtray, with my old mate the philosopher-priest-prince of Mogan and the princess-priestess of Kesiman, whose family, the Royal family of Kesiman, East Denpasar, is the pengemong (royal custodian) of this temple festival. Ever since Puri Kesiman’s magnificent meru (pagoda) burnt down in their palace temple (2003) they have been more aware of their obligations at Turtle Island.
We are soon joined by old Mangku Dalem Sakenan (85): he is now quite wizened but in fine form; his magnificent false teeth seem to fill more of the temple court with each passing year.
"You know when the trance mediums sit bold upright (in trance) and bang their chest and go "Who am I?" ("Nyén éné?")," he sputters, "I just say "How the hell would I know.""

My conversations with Bali’s overworked pemangku (temple, not high Brahmanic priests) are often like this.
"There’s no such thing as fanged demons," says Mangku Ratu Agung’s side-kick, purveyor of offerings to the son of the most generated Bhatara Dalem Sakenan. "That’s just variasi. Why would a dewa want to look like that?" I can’t help but agree as I bum a fag from the handsome young attendant guarding the princess’s purse.
The temple court is as it used to be: priests and priestesses weaving merry mendets and wildly modified mountain rejang dewa dances – one free-range hill-tribesperson-priestess is still plugged into her i-Pod. The huge mass of pilgrims is held at bay outside the ceremonial court; I’m the only tourist at the planet’s most exotic Kodak moment.

How exclusive it feels, like the old days – before the greedy developers ruined the festival by building a big bridge – when the tide would go out and a few hundred regulars would be stranded in lurex sashes, on the mudflats, in the ethereal temple glow.
Today is full moon and a Kajeng Kliwon and Kuningan so the magic circle might really pop tonight and I could be swept up at last and live the rest of my life doing devotional duties in memorial gardens, in a turban, chain-smoking, like priests do.
But other plans are afoot: the senior mangkus are mouthing ‘ngunya,’ ("no trances tonight").
Could they be fixing the match?
I am quietly disappointed.
"Better to end it early," says Mangku Dalem Sakenan, "Then the gods can go to sleep!"
At ten pm, the trance circle starts. Many of my favourite priests from my old stranger column writings on this magical event (1979-1980) are no longer taking part – Ida Bagus ‘James Coburn’ of Intaran fell off the back of a motor-bike last month (dead); Ngurah Mangku Clagi Gendong is ill; the ‘Mangku Torpedo’ sisters have retired; even Mangku Meme, the beehive dervish of Kedisan, is absent – and the younger priests are making light of the proceedings!
The ceremony is held successfully, if a tad gratuitously, with no trances.
"It’s a travesty. They were all monkeying about," I complain later to Mangku Ratu Agung.
"Like meat without spices," he confides.
Perhaps it is just a temporary detour, I decide, to deny the demon world the chance to hop into any more human bodies.

17th October 2005: more weirdness in the island's newspapers.
An ad has appeared in today's paper showing Balinese children in full Hindu temple dress playing on the beach. They are planting a white flag on a sand castle with a cute little doggy toy at its base. It's a bit like the Singapore newspaper's "burying shells" reference in this column's preamble: portraying Bali as a dumbed-down playground – as in "burying shells" versus "demon-dancers trampling" – is fashionable amongst media agencies and tourism promoters who want a ‘more wholesome, less Hindu' paradise, I guess.
None of the ‘almost trampled by demon-dancer' talk (see excerpt from a 1937 New York newspaper, courtesy of Yu Chee Chong and Editions Didier Millet's wondrous new book ‘Covarrubias in Bali' which arrives just in time to remind us what is worth fighting for!).

Later today another ad appears in the Nusra paper, inviting Balinese to register with them and buy coupons for the coming temple festival at Pura Luhur, Uluwatu. This seems very odd as there are already way too many devotees turning up at Uluwatu during the five days of festivities. The Balinese have never had to be exhorted to go to any temple festivals; they go of their own free will.
"What's this?" my (Balinese) tennis partner comments, "next we'll have to re-register the gods every six months!"

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