Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, June 2006)

Bali's Hard-working High Priests

I am a huge pedanda high priest groupie. I love the way they stride into house compounds, parting crowds, like Jesus parting the Sea of Gallilee. I love the way they dress, with just the right of number of tiger’s teeth on their epaulettes, and just the right crystal decanter stopper on the apex of their velvet and gold crowns. I love their gentle natures and papal smiles.
The word ‘pedanda’ comes from the Sankrit ‘pandita’ (priest) which also gave us the English ‘pundit’.
I want to be a pedanda because pedandas always get the best seats in the house, palace or temple with the best views of the most beautiful rituals. Pedanda never have to engage in endless small talk at ceremonies (everyone just grovels); they get paid to do yoga five times a day, and they always have someone to carry their handbags!!
All one has to do to qualify is be born into the brahmana caste. One also has to be prepared to ‘die’, and be reborn, with a kick to the head by a more senior brahmana, called a Nabi. And learn a whole stack of ancient mantra (incantations) and mudra (magic gestures).
The great Dutch scholar Hookyas did a series of remarkable illustrated books on the mudras of the Pedanda of Bali.
Pedanda or pedanda istri (lady pedanda) have to put in long hours at the office these days as they are in greater and greater demand, now that every Wayan, Made or Nyoman wants to have highest level (utama) not the simple (nista) level ceremonies.
Pedanda or sulinggih (elevated ones) come in various models. There are the classic Siwa-ite pedanda, who wear black or red domed crowns, called ketu, and there are Pedanda Budhas (East Bali-based ‘cousins’) who wear peaked red or black crowns. Crown-less are the bearded mountain sulinggih called resi or senggu, from the various pre-Siwa-ite clans, amongst whom one can count the Bujangga, the Pasek and the Pande.
Occasionally, in royal families, such as the Dalem Klungkung family (originally descended from brahmanas) and the nobles of Ketewel, a ksatrya-Dewa clan, one gets a ksatrya high priest, called a begawan. This happens when the patriarch of a princely family decides to enter the clergy, as it were.
Last month the Begawan of Ketewel, the royal patron of my garden commandos division passed away and I got to observe the very moving rituals associated with his cremation, at very close range.

• • •

On the day following this very special experience – the tenth full moon, by coincidence, – I discovered that my adopted Balinese family had decide to mortgage their mini-palace and throw the mother of all tooth-filing ceremonies, to show off their new palace-style ceremonial courtyard (the house has for centuries been a hovel, but a hovel with a heart). The mighty Pedanda Sidemen, one of the island’s most proficient pedanda had been booked for the occasion.
For the third day running I found myself surrounded by pedanda.
Now read on:

13 th April 2006; to Geria Ketewel; for the body-washing of the popular begawan high priest of Ketewel
I have avoided going to famously traditional Ketewel village since the Ubud palace progressives conspired to ruin the magnificent, unique brick shines of the village’s main temples. The unique temple architecture of the Pura Peyogan Agung and Pura Jagatnatha has been replaced with fashionable black andesite, in the Mc Meru style.
My heart is broken.
The black andesite craze is a plague sweeping the land, worse even than the parallel onslaught of Zen Mc Mansions (expat real estate) along the west coast.
Today I find quaint, classical Banjar Ancagan, the quartiere classique of Ketewel, still charmingly traditional: its lanes are packed with villagers, in mourning dress, all sitting cross-legged along the bases of the mud brick courtyard walls that lead to the Geria Ketewel palace – a rare sight these days, seen only in the most refined of Balinese and Javanese villages.
Inside the imposing palace gate, groups of relatives fill every inch of the pretty garden courts. All sit silently, facing east, where two high priests – a Pedanda Siwa and a Pedanda Budha – have started their incantations.
I recognize all the mothers and aunts of my garden commandos: sitting along the lower tiers of the courtyard’s handsome pavilions.
A smattering of local dignitaries are seated on the north pavilion terrace. In the inner most court, the sons and daughters of the deceased are standing, busy following the orders being barked out by the Pedanda Siwa, Pedanda Kemenuh: an imposing holy man, formerly a colonel in the army.
I bounce around the courtyard, speechless with awe at all the beauty, documenting the event for a family snap album.
The body-washing is imminent.
The begawan’s two widows sit motion-less on the meten pavilion veranda, seemingly unmoved by all the activity (pedanda istri spend a life-time being ‘seemingly unmoved’ it should be noted).
At 4 p.m. the two pedanda finish their duet of incantations. Pedanda Kemenuh then fires the ‘start gun’ with a brief command: it’s time to roll out the white carpet and move the corpse onto the body washing bed, a tall shaded platform which has been set up, adjacent the ceremonial pavilion.
The deceased’s protégé, a priestly senior with bright white whiskers, takes up his position on a small veranda floor, next to the door out of which the coffin will soon shoot. The widows move aside as men in white storm the coffin room and carry the wrapped corpse, shoulder high, to the bathing platform. Colonel-Pedanda screams instructions – “No, no, around the south side of the column unless you want his soul confused”– as the courtyard of devotees make space for the human cortege.
The immediate family now clamber up onto the bamboo platform. The begawan’s almost naked body is unfurled from its tikar-mat wrap. Colonel-Pedanda takes his place at the head of the deceased (east); the widows are to his north; his sons are to the south of the body, bravely hiding their grief.
I stand at the feet, in mild shock, as it is all rather up close and personal: the sons are old friends of mine and I feel their distress.
Suddenly, Pedanda Kemenuh, bathed in a single ray of evening light, produces a bright aqua plastic comb and starts combing the deceased’s long grey locks – forming a last top-knot for the deceased priest.
It is a loving gesture, too extraordinarily beautiful for those of us watching from the front row. I choke up as my friends start to tremble.
Next the Begawan’s daughters charge up the stairs onto the platform, unfurl their hair, and wipe the deceased’s feet – an act of devotion and piety.
The two widows perform the last purification rites before the body is wrapped and moved to the ceremonial pavilion where it will lie in state until the cremation in a week’s time. I take a photo of the protégé at the pedanda’s feet and then turn back towards the bathing platform, just in time to see the begawan’s loyal bebaru man-servant, for twenty years the keeper of the begawan’s kompek handbag and holy bell, quietly folding the tikar mat that has swathed his master’s corpse.
He secures it with a perfect knot. [MORE PICTURES OF PENYIRAMAN]

12 April 2006, Odalan at Villa Bebek, Mertasari: Mangku Intaran rides again
The tenth full moon is a HUGE holyday in Bali – everyone has some sort of ceremonial commitment. Pura Besakih, the mother temple, for example, has its odalan anniversary on this day and everyone is supposed to be there – just in case, you find yourself in need of a ceremonial commitment next year.
My office-studio, the Villa Bebek has its odalan today and my home-home in Kepaon village has its odalan today too (a rare occurrence, as the celebration is tied to the 210 day Wuku calendar, not the 12 months Çaka lunar calendar).
As a result I am ‘blessed out’ by the end of the day and awash with holy water and priest stories.


THEN (1979)


• • •

Now, before I start this diary entry, you need to know a bit about the different types of priests in Bali. Aside from the pedanda high priests in Bali, there are thousands of pemangku priests, generally of the Sudra caste, who officiate at routine events. These pemangku have side-kicks – ladies of the Brahmana caste, who are offering-makers by profession – with whom they enjoy a wonderful relationship over a life’s ringing bells and pulling the heads off baby chickens.
Our house pemangku, Mangku Intaran – who is also the officiating priest of the Sakenan Temple festivals – has for years enjoyed the company of Dayu Banjar, a sassy, though sirene beauty from the great Brahmana stronghold of Intaran in Sanur. Her brother, Ida Bagus Blanjur built most of Batujimbar estates, and the Tanjung Sari Hotel.
Dayu and her priest are the Mork and Mindy of the Sanur festival circuit: one can’t imagine one without the other, and together they make up a great act.
Mangku Intaran is the George Burns of Vedic incantations (my younger readers should approach a nearby senior, preferably American, and Jewish about this obscure but precise reference). He peppers his invocations of ancient mountain deities – that no one has ever heard of – with charming asides that play on his frail octogenarian status.
During a break in today’s ceremony, for example, just as Dayu is climbing up the shrine’s steep steps to fetch the holy water, he swings into a kidung hymn, with a gusto and volume that betray his four score and ten years, and his diet of pork fat, and clove cigarettes.
“Not bad for an old codger, what-what, Dayu!?,” he comments after the first stanza, before continuing.
The courtyard gathering collapses into a fit of mirth.
This is the true heart of Hindu Bali.
Love, respect, honour ………… and humour.

• • •

There are special guests at today’s ceremony fresh from a rival odalan at the Tanjung Sari Hotel: Tuan Kris and Nyonya Katerin Carlisle, the last of long line of Sanur-based temple-groupies that started with Miguel “Island of Bali” Covarrubias in the1930s, Joan “Seven Plus Seven” Belo (1940s); Vicky “Night of the Purnama” Baum (1950s), Hans “Guide to Bali” Hoefer (1960s), Carole “Hold me, Touch me” Muller and Warwick “You can’t have too much security” Purser in the 1970s; Idanna “Epic of Life” Pucci in the 1980s; this writer’s “Stranger in Paradise – the complete diaries” in the 1990s, and Leonard Lueras’ “Sanur by Night” most recently.

Wednesday, 12 th April 2006, the tenth full moon: to the Geria Kepaon for a big odalan anniversary bash.
Once every 21 years the tenth full moon falls on Selikur Galungan – 21 days to Galungan, otherwise known as “elopement Wednesday” when the Geria Kepaon house temple holds its anniversary odalan.
The evening brings a change of venue but the festive mood continues unabated. The family house temple is ablaze with offerings and ceremonial activity when I arrived at 6 p.m. This is the first Karya Padudusan in living memory, and Pedanda Sidemen is already churning through his chants in the ceremonial pavilion (see photos previous page).
Outside the house shrine a troupe of Rejang Dewa dancers, average age 9, from nearby Mogan village, are tripping the light fantastic as a hundred bemused aunties beam from the front stalls.
Since the second Bali Bomb, I feel that the village Balinese have given up squawking about “Ajeg Bali” (“Come on, Bali, Come on, Come on”) and have just rolled up their batiks and shown what their really worth!
And then some!
Way to go!!



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