Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, March 2007)

Walter Spies’ 1936 drawing of Tjokorda Gede Rai Mayoen of Pedjeng

The Priestly Princes of Pejeng Palace

Pejeng, just outside Ubud, is a small town with a big history.

Founded before the 10th century and before the rise of Bali’s first Buddhist kingdom – based in Bedulu to the south . Pejeng is the home of Bali’s oldest artefact , the moon drum of Pejeng, a 2,500 year old bronze kettle drum* which is housed in the town’s most important temple, the Pura Penataran Sasih. Bali’s archaeological museum is also in Pejeng.

Last month I was invited to the Pejeng Palace by the incumbent crown prince to see the ‘Dutch era’ architecture and art collection. I was gripped with excitement: the prospect of a hitherto undiscovered cache of architectural oddities, right under one’s nose, as it were, just outside Ubud, had me hot and bothered in a monsoon month.

*Footnote: The largest, single cast, bronze drum in the world, offerings are made to it daily and no one dares touch it

Now read on….


The merajan Agung of Puri Pejeng palace, with its imposing 11–tiered meru


Cultural warrior Putu Suarsa in front of Puri Pejeng’s Wisma Wisata, in the palace’s ancak saji court

Thursday, 25 th January, 2007: to Puri Agung Pejeng with Putu Suarsa my fellow palace-groupie friend.

Putu and I both spent large chunks of our youth ‘seconded’ as serfs to Brahmana palaces in South Bali. Putu, from the age of 16, spent eight years in the Geria Taman in Sanur.

I spent six years in the much less grand Geria Bungsu, in Kepaon, near Kuta, from the age of 21.

As a result, we both know how to ‘butter-up’ Bali royals –a time-honoured craft– for it is they who keep all the great palaces, temples, private zoos, rare bonsai collections, show ponies, stunning photos and stories of yesteryear.

Among the royal princes of Bali, a few –such as the Cokorda of Klungkung, the Dewa of Ketewel and the Cokorda of Pejeng– have a tradition of entering the priesthood and are styled Begawan (priest) not Cokorda (prince).

• • •

At 4 pm on a sunny wet season Friday, we turn into the Palace’s outer court –the Ancak Saji court– which is a sort of ‘marshalling yard’ found in all of Bali’s large palaces. Right away we see a strange Dutch-Bali-hybrid ‘homestay’ building, probably built in the 1920s or 1930s. It is built in the style often found in Singaraja, in North Bali, the Island's colonial era capital. None of the palace buildings in the other courts have any Dutch influence; save for a quaint bungalow in the family court where painter Rudolf Bonnet (1895-1978) used to stay.

Young princelings sit around the many palace courts shaded with rare fruit trees, waiting, it seems, for ‘Brazilian mangoes’ to drop. One senses that they’d have little to do had God not invented cigarette-smoking.

We are given the tour de chateau through many garden courts before ending up in the royal chapel, the merajan agung. The royal chapel of Puri Pejeng is a magnificent walled garden ‘peopled’ with shrines and pavilions and an 11-tiered meru (pagoda). Cokorda Rai tells us that this meru is the “only one of its kind in a royal chapel in Bali” (Balinese royals are fiercely competitive).

The present Begawan, the family head, greets us as we enter the chapel; he is preparing holy water for a ceremony that will be taking place this evening. He is a spritely 75-year-old with a refined, youthful manner and the dignity of a walking saint. His only son, our host, is silent in his presence.

I mention how my office’s landlord, Ngurah Mayun –star of previous columns– is their relative. I explain how surprised we all are (down in Sanur) when Ngurah Mayun invokes the presence of Ratu Dalem Ped, the Demon King deity from Nusa Penida Island, which is a long, long way from mountainous Pejeng!

“Oh, but Dalem Ped is our deity,” the prince-priest counters, “The real name of that temple is actually Dalem Ped-jeng!!! We were exiled there from the 16-19th century, after a disastrous war with Ubud.”

“But when did you move back here?” I ask.

“After the 1817 Baris dance competition in Klungkung. Our crown prince won the coveted ‘golden keris’ trophy and we were allowed out of exile!” (At this point my jaw starts to drop).

It seems that the puri has played host to many visiting notables since the 1930s, when the nearby Gunung Kawi, Tampaksiring and Goa Gajah temples became famous ‘must-sees’. The great German artist Walter Spies was a frequent lodger in the 1930s, as were Han Snel and Antonio Blanco in the 1960s. During these decades, sight-seeing to Bedaulu-Pejeng was considered extreme tourism!

Finally Cokorda Gede Rai produced a remarkable Walter Spies drawing of his great grandfather, Cokorda Gede Rai Mayoen, at age 76. The patrician in the portrait bears a striking resemblance to the Cokorda standing before us today. It is a rare find indeed and one that opens a whole new chapter in any history of ‘homestays’ in Gianyar, the magic middle Kingdom where the 20 th century’s greatest aesthetes flocked, like moths to a naked flame.

Drs. I Wayan Surpha at Pura Penataran Dalem Ped, Nusa Penida in 1979.

Thursday, 30 th January 2007: to North Denpasar to see my guru Wayan Surpha who is an expert on Dalem Ped temple in Nusa Penida

Pak Surpha scoffs at the notion that Dalem Ped means Dalem Ped-jeng but he does agree that the 10th century founder of the Pejeng Dynasty, Sri Kresna Kepakisan, was also the probable founder of Pura Dalem Ped.
It’s now almost 30 years since our stint together at the Eka Dasa Rudra ceremonies at Pura Besakih – he was the co-director, with the late A.A. Gede Putra, I was a cub reporter in the seksi dokumentasi with David Stewart-Fox (now chief librarian at the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, in Leiden). Pak Surpha was famous for pulling a gun on customs when they wouldn’t let the festival’s film crew in, from London. (Orson Welles eventually narrated the film, called ’The Eleven Powers.’ He was the John Wayne of the holy Hindu see, of which he was secretary general for a record term. His son Wayan Sumbara, is now deputy mayor of Denpasar and on a meteoric rise.

31 st January, 2007: at last a protégé in the photo journalism department
Wayan Legawa of Timpag, Tabanan started working for me when he was 14. This week his son gets married. Next month he will be a grandfather (The Balinese move fast).

He is almost single-handedly responsible for much of the Amandari, the Grand Hyatt Nusa Dua and the Bali Oberoi gardens (among many others, including David Bowie’s garden in Mustique (they get around these Balinese).

Today he turns up at my desk with a bunch of photos he has taken at his village’s giant Ngusaba Nini celebrations (see photo on this page). They are brilliant! Again the Balinese genius at all things bright and beautiful amazes me!!

Ngusaba Nini ceremonies at Pura Desa Timpag, Tabanan, 23 January 2007 (Photos by Wayan Legawa)

31st January, 2007: Dinner at The Uma Ubud Hotel in Ubud
Hotelier and fashion house Diva, Christina Ong, has done it again!! After the runaway success of her hotels in London (Halkin, Metropolitan), Bangkok (Metropolitan) and Bhutan (Uma Paro), Madam Ong has gifted Gianyar two superb properties –budget boutique Uma Ubud and the grand boutique Como Shambhala (formerly the Begawan Giri).

The 29-room Uma was designed by quirkish Japanese architect Koichiro Ikebuchi together with architect Cheong Yu Kuan. Landscape architect Trevor Hillier of Sanur and Singapore did the sumptuously poetic, natural gardens. The food and atmosphere at the lakeside dining pavilion is to die for (chef Chris Miller shuttles between Madam Ong’s two Bali properties). The stylish batik and chemise Chinoise uniforms by the Club 21 team, and the grafix by Duet, both of Singapore, are another breath of fresh air!

2nd February, 2007: to Seminyak for the world premier of Lawrence Blair’s new series of films on myths magic and monsters in Indonesia

Lawrence Blair created, and starred in, the fabulous ‘Ring of Fire’ series with his brother, the late Lorne Blair.

This new series – a David Attenborough-LITE romp through sensational wild life moments in Indonesia (mostly Bali, Banda, Jakarta and Surabaya) – is well received by a discerning audience and fan club tonight. Panties are thrown at the screen. Blair is present in the same batik shirt he wore in the film, for ease of identification (lots of Seminyak seminals from the salad days have adopted the deep-tanned anthropologist look, you see). He is delighted with the adulation.

I am a tad taken aback at the depiction, in the second film, of Nyai Roro Kidul (the much revered Hindu Javanese Goddess of the South Java Seas and divine consort of the Sultan of Solo) as a saucy mermaid with gold pasties but that’s just professional jealousy.

Blair, in his eminence, is now the Hans Christian Anderson of Upper Legian, telling slightly wonky tales, gorgeously, for the child in us.

Bring it on, Baba.

And Bravo.


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