Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, March 2008 )

The Tazia Procession in Bengkulu on 20 th January 2008 (the 10 th day of the month of Muharram)

Raffles and Muharram:
The Bengal – Bengkulu Connection

I used to design a lot of gardens in Bali but recent trends in architectural design have forced me to take my elite battalion of Balinese garden commandoes to India, where they still love full-blooded gardens. As a result, I visit India once a month and have had many opportunities to compare the culture of the Hindu ‘ Mother Land’, India, with Bali, and with the other ‘Indianised states’ of South East Asia.

Last month I was in Delhi, on the Sunday before Republican Day (26 th January) and was lucky to see a very full dress-rehearsal for the Republican Day parade as I drove past Rajpat, Sir Edwin Lutyens’ magnificent mall (as featured in ‘Gandhi’).

I counted at least 20 marching bands amongst the sea of Sikhs on horseback with orange and gold turban cocks-combs blazing – it was a magnificent spectacle.

Tazia bearer, New Delhi, 20 th January 2008; the 10 th day of Muharram

A Hamengkubuwono Palace retainer working on Sekaten gunungan ‘offering’ on the 12 th day of the Javanese month Maulud (1980 photo file).

20 th January 2008 : An amazing Muharram procession in the shady streets of New Delhi.
Today is the tenth and last day of the Shiite Muslim Muharram season – which starts with the anniversary of the death of Mohammad’s beloved grandson Hussein, at Karbala, in Iraq.

The tenth day of Muharram is called Ashura and has major significance to both Shi’a and Sunni Muslims.  It is the highpoint in the Shi’a commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.  It is also a day of voluntary fasting for the Sunni and there is a tradition that many biblically significant events occurred on this day.

Visiting with friends in the leafiest colonial corner of Delhi – which houses many ancient Muslim monuments – I come across another amazing procession; my second today. The procession seems endless and features bands of Muslim pilgrims in traditional Delhi costume – and many exotic variations of the same – carrying bright loads of Tazia, the holy boxes that symbolise Hussein’s coffin, I am told.

Among the mêlée are Muslim marching bands, Sufi-style drummers, intense flag bearers and holy-men accepting handfuls of rose petals, which are then ‘offered’ to the holy Tazia.

The Tazia procession in New Delhi, 20 th January 2008
(the 10 th day of Muharram)

The 1980 Sekaten procession in Yogyakarta, on the 12 th day of the
Javanese month Maulud, the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday.


Mosque standard bearer, New Delhi procession, 20 th January 2008 (the 10 th day of Muharram)

The religious fervour is palpable, the music hypnotic – I am soon swept into a frenzy of religious euphoria that I have been looking for in India for years, nay decades (I keep away from the million strong crowds at the various Mela, and the Kerala elephant spectacles; and have found the other Hindu processions I’ve come across rather more Disco Madness than spiritually up-lifting).

Today’s procession is so like the Javanese Sekaten processions I’ve witnessed at the Hamengku Buwono palace in Yogyakarta, Central Java –on Suro, the Javanese first day of Muharram– in both fervour and fashion that I am determine to track down the link.

1 st February 2008 : The Quest starts
I ‘sms’ a request to my many advisers, Muslim division, for any info on the use of the word Tazia in Indonesian culture. Only one man rises to the challenge, a non-Muslim with Muslim roots, Greg Churchill, co-developer of Indonesia's Legal Documentation Centre and lay anthropologist extraordinaire.

Tazia processions in India are very similar to Tabot processions in Bengkulu and Tabuik processions in Pariaman, West Sumatra, both of which have Shi’a roots,” Greg explains. “Like the Indian processions, these are essentially mourning parades. Tabot means box or crate and is also the Arabic word used to refer to the Ark of the Covenant. The Tabot tradition on the west coast of Sumatra probably originates from Bengali Indian workers Sir Stamford Raffles brought to Bengkulu in the early 18 th century to build their fort.”

This is wonderful stuff and my research staff – Putu Semiada and his henchmen – immediately google and come up with some startling images of the Bengkulu ceremony (image opposite page) which is amazingly like the procession I saw in Delhi.

I am startled by the length, breadth, nay, girth of the good lawyer’s Islamic knowledge; he being a muscular Methodist by birth. However, I am less startled that my Indonesian Muslim scholar friends have not risen to the occasion of this intriguing quest (the Stranger is perhaps too gung-ho an infidel to entice co-operation. Sigh!)

• • •

Meanwhile a startling development on my favourite television programme ‘Law and Order!’ In an episode on an undercover C.I.A. agent based in Jakarta, Bali is described as a “terrorist hot spot” and “one of the Jemaah Islamiyah’s bases.”
What use is it if Hollywood writers’ strike for more pay if they can’t write? We should turn off our televisions and strike against moronic and irresponsible Hollywood-writing.

Who was it who said “God invented war so that Americans could improve their geography!”

11th February 2008 : I have a dream
In another development, this column’s former host, the Bali Post has today published a grizzly front page headline "Australian bulé murdered in villa” (Bulé Australi terbunuh di villa).

‘Bulé’ is a Jakarta slang word meaning ‘white folk’ derived from the word for albino. The Balinese have always called foreigners tamu (guest) or turis (tourist). The Bali Post has, in the recent past, used phrases such as ‘dead homo’ as well.

The Bali Post perhaps feels the need to identify with the journalist fraternity in Jakarta who love to put the boot into foreigners, especially Australians, who, lets face it, say horrible childish things about Indonesia in the Australian media all the time.

But Australians (in fact all foreign nationals) have always enjoyed a close symbiotic relationship with the Balinese and there’s no need for the Bali Post, the voice of the Island of the Gods, to start sounding like the dirty digger’s gutter press, if you ask me.

4 th February 2008 : Anggara Kasih: To Pura Dalem Sidakarya with a former Miss Brazil
There are very few South Bali villages with temple gardens and odalan festivals as pretty as Pura Dalem Sidakarya, near Sanur. The visiting Barong are somehow brighter, the Nehru jackets of the celebrants are tauter and the white sand courtyards more poetic than in any temple I know.

Tonight I take some guests, including the lovely Soraya Farah – a Brazilian beauty queen of Syrian Christian descent (!) – who stuns the courtyard of stunners with her allure and her long even curves, beautifully displayed in a long white kebaya bought off the hook at an ‘Uluwatu’ boutique in Ubud.
My guests are gob-smacked by the beauty.

• • •

At ten p.m. we go on to Pura Luhur Uluwatu Temple; also having its odalan.
It is blowing a gale – the Chinese New Year winds are a bit late coming – and the monkeys are hanging on to the coral stone walls for dear life.

This year, one of the priests (an Agung from the family of the temple’s custodian, Jero Kuta Palace in Denpasar) is sporting a wooden slingshot around his neck; obviously to be used against the marauding tribes of naughty monkeys.

(The Balinese are nothing if not practical).

At the temple we meet Neil Jacobs, boyish Area V.P. for Four Seasons Hotels International and a regular in this column over the past 15 years. Neil spent four years as GM at the ravishing Jimbaran Resort –which has just returned to the No.1 spot on the prestigious Conde Nast (US) Gold List. (Thanks to the tireless efforts of its naturalist G.M.-poet-artist John O'Sullivan) –and then the last 11 years as Area V.P. (India and Asia) developing and opening such amazing resorts as the Four Seasons, in Langkawi, Chiang Mai, The Maldives and, this month, Mumbai. Tomorrow Neil leaves the Four Seasons Company to take up a new position in the hospitality industry, in New York.

It is fitting that he chose Pura Luhur Uluwatu on a night like tonight to take leave of his beloved Bali.

Artistic junior Islamist (Defender of the faith)?,
procession, New Delhi, 20 th January 2008 (the 10 th day of Muharram)

Images of Muharram celebration, New Delhi, 20th January 2008

Click image to enlarge


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