Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, June 2007)

1999 drawing of the annual martial arts dance held on Idul Fitri outside the old mosque on Agatti Island, India.

(Hindu-Islamic Solutions)

Hinduism and Islam have existed side by side in India and Bali for hundreds of years: both religions having a strong sense of community and ceremony.

During the period from the 10th to the 16th century there was considerable cultural exchange between India and Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam in particular). One imagines that the Islamic courts of Hyderabad, Delhi and Lucknow had a huge impact on Java and Bali. The trumpeting street-bands at Javanese village weddings, the formal jackets of the Rajas of Bali, the refined manners and body language of most Indonesians, the Moorish mosques of coastal Java and Sumatra, and the Moorish-colonial temples of East Bali; not to mention martabak, the Muslims’ pizza…. all owe their origins to India. The influence of Muslim traders, from India’s coastal communities, from Kerala to Bengal, can be seen too, in the coastal ‘pesisir’ architecture (Moorish-Oriental) of Southeast Asia, and in rituals such as the pandanus-leaf-thrashing martial arts dances of East Bali and Lombok.

But the tide of influence flowed both ways: the Muslim fishermen of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in South India still wear batik sarongs from the island of Madura in East Java, for example; and Parsee ladies in Bombay wear saris inspired by North Coast Javanese textile designs. Islam-friendly ‘beige and brown’ resort colour schemes –championed by Kuala Lumpur’s new Asian architects– can, tragically, today be found in nearly every Indian Resort.

• • •

Last month, I visited the Lakshadweep Islands off Kochi (Cochin) Kerala, South India. Four hundred years ago, a small band of Muslim fishermen from the Malabar Coast, 700 kilometres to the east, established a settlement on Agatti, the largest of the five-island group, which has today grown to a population of 40,000.

Now read on:

3rd May 2007: To the beautiful Lakshadweep Islands, India’s answer to The Maldives.

I am travelling incognito, as a landscape designer, with a young Bombay architect, a Miss Perpetua Sukka, to inspect an island with luxury boutique resort potential. Our base camp is a funky ‘military issue’ Kerala modern beach hotel which seems to be honeymoon central for overweight Punjabi brides, which is fine by me!

It is as idyllic a natural setting as one could hope for: impossibly aquamarine water, screamingly white sand, perfect coconut trees, colourful fishing boats, lusty fishermen lurking in the pandanus nearby, eyes on sticks, hearts pounding, as various lost, blonde, British tourists frolic on the beach –all generation XXL and all in skimpy hot pink bikinis.

Ship mates on the ‘Bahari’.

At 2 pm we set off on a fishing boat, the ‘Bahari’, for a two-hour journey to Tinnai Kara Island. Our captain is a salty old sailor in a sarong and woven hat; his crew of five are all teenagers in wet sarongs and bright shirts. We are barely out of the harbour when the shipmates, noting the undivided attention of Miss Sukka, start draping themselves around the gaily painted bow pole in attitudes not wholly wholesome. Not on just one occasion did we have to revive Miss Sukka with a bag of masala-flavoured crisps and Diet Pepsi. I felt as if we had somehow found a pocket of coastal Java where the draping and the fawning of the perfect of limb is commonplace.

4th May 2007: I find architectural treasure on the island’s east coast.

I get up at 6 am and head off in a Bajaj Auto Rickshaw to survey the Island’s interior.

Everyone we encounter is perfectly formed, gentle-natured and lithe of movement (a relief after the heavy handed, honking mainlanders).

I ask to see the ‘old mosque’ which I know from a drawing in the hotel’s restaurant. The drawing depicts a dance ritual held in front of mosque’s forecourt after Ramadan prayers every year. It is a martial arts dance of the type also found in the Bali Aga (old Bali) village of Tenganan in East Bali (see photo below), and in the Muslim villages of West Lombok. The courtyard scene in this drawing has a remarkably Balinese feeling, in the setting and the atmosphere portrayed.

1979 file photo of Perang Pandan martial arts dance in the central square of Tenganan Village, East Bali.

The mosque is itself an intriguing mix of styles. The exterior is Oriental-Moorish –a two tiered pavilion of the wantilan variety found in the ancient villages of Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Java and Bali but the interior columns are distinctly Tamil Nadu Hindu! Perhaps a gift from a visiting maharaja?

12th May 2007: to my adopted home, Geria Kepaon, for yet another grandchild’s (Balinese birthday)

I arrive in the magic hour between work and Scrabble to find the courtyard loosely packed, with relatives and neighbours.

High priestess Ida Pedanda Istri Dalem of Sibang Gede, at Ida Ayu Made Pradnyani Pramiswari’s first otonan (Balinese birthday ceremony).

(left to right) Ida Bagus Surya Manuaba, Ida Ayu Made Pradnyani Pramiswari (birthday girl), Priestess Ida Pedanda Istri Dalem, Ida Ayu Gede Suryawati and Ida Bagus Gede Darma Wista Manuaba.

In the ceremonial pavilion, little Dayu, the birthday girl, is nestled in her father’s arms. She is being blessed by her maternal grandmother the high priestess Ida Pedanda Istri Dalem of Sibang Gede. It is a scene of extraordinary beauty and one I have witnessed so many times in the past. I am still bowled over every time I push into a ceremonial court, hear the sound of ringing bells, and see the table-load of offerings amongst the clouds of incense smoke.

No-one does ‘christenings’ like the Balinese!

Bombay, 13th May 2007: Pussy-footing around Hindu values?
Hindu family values are very important to the Balinese: honour thy father and mother; treat all cousins with respect; come home for all family ceremonies. Equally important are all one’s adat obligations, to the village community: burying thy neighbours; volunteering (ngayah) for all of the village’s temples, fetes, and cleaning bees; helping defeat nearby villages at gamelan, kite-flying and villa-building.

Gere and Shetty (Courtesy of People Magazine’2007)

Also important to many Balinese, but less so, are religious obligations such as making a pilgrimage once a year to either Besakih or Batur temple (which Balinese consider more manageable than daily prayers or meditation).
The Balinese are not ‘precious’ about their religion –which they call Hindu-Dharma. Consequently, there is little or no dissent. They practice a magnanimous and relaxed version of Bakti Yoga (the achievement of enlightenment through ceremonies).

It is not so in Mother India.

Last month I witnessed two extraordinary incidences of Hindu extremism. A federal court issued a warrant for the arrest of actor Richard Gere and celebrity Shilpa Shetty for kissing in public. An obviously tired and emotional Gere had nibbled the shapely Miss Shetty’s ear at an Aids Awareness fund-raiser (see photo right). In some states there were demonstrations in the street calling for the arrest of Miss Shetty, and burning of effigies of the ‘lust satan’, Richard Gere.

In the second bizarre incident a warrant was issued for the arrest of renowned artist M.F. Hussein (91), for painting a depiction of Lord Krisna, half-naked. His apartment in ‘Jolly Makers-III’, Bombay was confiscated by the courts. Both incidents have been scoffed at by the general public and the media at large but one is always aware of the volatile extremist element in India; as one is of the cows in the streets.

Are modern Indian Hindus getting a tad too precious about their religion, one might ask. They don’t seem to have adat. My Indian friends say the Lord’s Prayer at night (educated, as they were, at Christian colleges) and frequent Buddha’s Bar with equanimity, frugging and frumping in front of large statues of Siwa (anathema to even the modern Balinese) and have puja (prayer) rooms in their houses, which are a pious panic room version of the gorgeous Balinese family house temples.

Hindu moral standards are sometimes hard to fathom.

Recent attempts by Jakartan conservatives to standardise (homogenise) morality in Bali were met with protests. The Balinese love their saucy dancing, stolen public kisses (in Joged dance performances) and they love watching tourists doing it on the beach.

'Tasty not tacky' would be a way of describing the Balinese moral standard.

In recent years we have all got used to pussy-footing around Islam. We have all learned to be particularly p.c. when discussing issues involving Muslims or the Islamic world. Only U.S. Republican senators and the Fox media remain confused about the difference between bomb-wielding ‘Islamists’ and your basic peace-loving Muslim. No-one wants to acknowledge the debt the World owes to Islam in the fields of architecture, poetry and garden design (to name but a few) because everyone is afraid they’ll misspell the name of some tomb and get on a Fatwa list.
This used not to be the case in the Hindu world, and certainly not the case in the Hindu Dharma world where periodic swells of fundamentalism are put down by the practical and fun-loving Balinese.

Mind you, a little bit of outrage would help to defeat the resurgence of the Hindu theme parks and inappropriate marketing slogans sweeping the island. I mean does south Bali really need the world’s tallest Garuda-Wisnu statue? Can no one halt the march of the scatter Buddhas?

Outrage is born out of pride, which the self-appraising Balinese have in bus loads, but they keep a lid on it.

The “Come home to Bali: our culture is indestructible”™ campaign by Bali’s best News Update service, for example, raised eyebrows across the island.

“We just don’t think like that,” was the general opinion.

So many foreigners, like this writer, take offence on behalf of the Balinese; it might help if the Islanders themselves took a stand sometimes on environmental and cultural prostitution issues, if you ask me.


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