Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, April 2007)

Bebaru Ketut Agus of Sanur, with his liege lord, Ida Pedanda Gede Carik from Yang Batu.

Bali’s Apprentice Priests

I am often asked by Indian friends: “Is Bali really Hindu?”

To the Indian eye, the Balinese culture is so infused with Chinese, ancient Javanese and pre-Hindu Balinese underlays that it doesn’t seem like Hindu.

Local cultural expert I Wayan Surpha, S.H., has published a book which takes aim at attempts by local theologians to universalise or Indianise the Hindu-Bali faith.

“Don’t try to take the Bali out of Hindu-Bali,” is the message.

• • •

“But they took the real out of real estate,” one pundit quipped on hearing this.
Building a house, or a hotel for that matter, in Bali, used to be an aesthetic challenge – to do something ‘one off.’ Now everyone in the tropical world seems to want the same formulaic villa – a ‘one OF’.

“Whatever happened to ‘Unity in Diversity’, Indonesia’s motto?” asked the same pundit. Come on architects – let’s see some originality! Or something with local cultural reference or even a tropical reference!

Is the ‘tropical’ still in tropical homes? One needs look no further than the island’s billboard advertising for the answer. The tip of the cane palm – the standard token visual reference to tropicality in Bali Modern photographic advertising – has now disappeared, along with any shrines, offerings or Balinese (too Hindu!) on the Island’s villa advertising.

“Is Hindu old hat?” you might ask.

• • •

I went to the Australian consul last month on the way home from an extraordinary cremation in Sidakarya. Due to a programming conflict I had to stay in full Balinese cremation dress – very elegant full Balinese cremation dress I might add – with a tight turban (destar) on my head, tied that morning by the Prince of Singgi.

The security detail outside the heavily fortified consular compound were definitely most impressed by my sash –Udaipuri pelangi (olive green with black motif)– and my sashay, I fancy, as I was whizzed through the metal detector with a congratulatory pat to the bottoms.

Once inside it was a bit grim and soulless –municipal gardens, grey steely interiors– but with one sweet Balinese at the passport counter. He didn’t blink when I presented like Billy Bunter in a batik.

I surveyed the room: things have changed drastically since my heyday as the ambassador’s gardener. The 2001 photograph of Gung Bagus, the Legian Lothario, being kissed on the cheek by Jan Smith (wife of H.E. Dick Smith, the then ambassador) has disappeared from its place of honour above the fax machine; replaced by a fascinating poster depicting the 272 unacceptable versions of a passport photo.

Gone too, are the previous consuls Little Britain fridge door magnets.

I smiled three times at a passing Australian official (“Mr Barry, the consul,” I was later told) but I was just stone-walled. (Blonde and buff he was: No doubt a red-head bigot, with a penchant for the persecution of slightly portly pink people in party dress). I left the compound in tears – “I used to be a contender!” I blubbed!” – as I threw myself into the waiting arms of the consul's security phalanx.

I have become a stranger in my own little patch of paradise.

“Oh the horror…..” they chorused.

Now read on:

Wayan Legawa’s nephews.

9 th February, 2007: David Bowie’s gardener marries off son in star-studded ceremony
In 1979 Wayan ‘Buduh’ Legawa came to me as a 16-year-old with a 22” waist: Boy could he hoe! I was engaged at that time to an accountant from the traditional village of Timpag, near Tabanan, and Legawa was the accountant’s serf. He came in a wave of Timpag apprentices who have all remained with my garden company since that time.

Wayan quickly rose in the ranks and was soon adept at making gorgeous gardens for beautiful people. His real talent, however, was in polishing off bottles of gin: His sobriquet ‘Buduh’, or ‘crazy fellow’ coming from his attempts to ride a push-bike up my kitchen wall, or some such, when adequately lubricated.

Everyone loved Wayan: he was softly spoken and gently mannered. And he had a 22” waist.

Today Wayan is to marry off his eldest son –he has seven others, by two other wives (that we know about)– and the entire village is here, plus a sprinkling of glitterati from Gianyar.

The garden and house look gorgeous. There are statues in the garden that I thought I’d lost years ago (photo left)!

By 9 am, Agus and his three siblings, dressed as Tabanan princes, are going through the paces of the tooth-filling ceremony and the courtyard is packed with Sidakarya notables in colourful adat dress.

At 10 am, a high priest strolls in, preceded by a pretty young bebaru (apprentice) carrying his handbag. The bebaru is 14-year-old Ketut Agus from Sanur. He has been living at the pedanda high priest’s house for only six months, learning the tricks of the brahmana trade. He already moves with the grace and surety of a seasoned professional. Within minutes the boy starts ‘setting up shop’ – lighting incense, arranging offerings, preparing holy water vials –as the high priest climbs into his robes. All this takes place in a bamboo pavilion in the middle of the house courtyard. No one really watches them but I am mesmerised by the quiet efficiency of this starboy.

He is shy to be photographed.

The priest beams with pride at his clever charge as I fire off a flurry of photos.

It is a beautiful photo (see top image) as it captures all that is magical and mighty about Bali – particularly the ongoing love for all things bright and beautiful.

It is so reassuring in this age of dumbing down Bali to see the young generation so actively involved in ancient pursuits!

Faces at the wedding ceremony, Sidakarya, 9th February 2007

• • •

Two days pass: at my Sanur office doing the noon rounds I find Wayan’s angelic second-born son Paris (born while Wayan was in Paris, on his way to Mustique) in the blue room, writing “macho” on the office secretary’s thigh!
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!

Cremation procession at Sidakarya village near Sanur

3 rd March 2007: Red Carpet Fever hits Sidakarya
Up all night waiting for the Academy Awards to start in L.A. I get 18 hours of red carpet action before I realize that the E! Channel is not going to run the actual awards show! It’s a horrible blow for a film buff.

Instead I head off to Sidakarya for a Ngaben Ng’wangun (a top drawer cremation) of a priestess much loved by her village. I heard it was going to be a big one but I was not prepared for the beauty I encountered. The badé tower and bull sarcophagus parked on the road outside the house are magnificent – the decorations remind me of patterns and colour schemes I saw in Tamil Nadu, India, last month – amongst the general blur of Chinese-Balineseness.

A battalion of Baris Tekok Jago warrior dancers in distinctive poleng (chequered) pyjamas and geringsing ( Indiapatola-inspired Balinese double ikat cloth) are lined up roadside, waiting for the start. Amongst the warrior-dancers I see faces I photographed for my original Stranger in Paradise column 28 years ago!!

The whole village is out in distinctive black cremation costume.

At noon the coffin bearers storm out of the house gate and the coffin is spirited up the bamboo ramp that leads to the top of the bade tower.
The beleganjur gamelan band and the angklung orchestra start up.

The deceased’s grandson climbs atop the black velvet bull.

My heart aches as the stirring cremation music winds up. Intense processional beauty and midday light collide. It is the ultimate red carpet, I muse; Hollywood, eat your heart out! The biers are lifted aloft; we race off, pell-mell, to the graveyard.

(Click here to EXTRA images of Ngaben Sidakarya)


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