Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, August 2008)

Indonesia’s Olympic Warriors

For the sensational Sydney Olympics, I wrote a piece about Balinese bronze-medal winning windsurfer, I Gusti Made Oka, of Sanur, and about Bali’s contingent of cheerleaders (who spent most of the Olympics massaging rich people on the North Shore).
These Olympics―the mighty Beijing Olympics, the Olympics with the Tibetan cause and freedom of speech crucified on the Olympic rings―we journalists are keeping a low profile to show solidarity with our Beijing brothers. Many Indonesian artists have risen to the challenge of the Chinese artists, however, who seem to be winning most of the competitions lately.

My old buddy Astari (who, like too many Javanese, goes by only one name) is one Indonesian artist who blossoms during August every year―when the Chinese collectors flood to Bali. This year she has done a special Olympics collection to be shown together with sculptures designed by her consort, Pintor Sirait, in Beijing, during the Olympics.
Astari has stuck to her central themes―the empowering of Javanese women, the essential shallowness of glamour and the conundrums of corruption in developing countries―and produced a stunning series of paintings of well-heeled athletes, in all the colours (see images below).
The stranger joins all of the staff at Hello Bali in wishing all of Indonesia’s warriors―beauty warriors and athletes alike―good luck in Beijing. (Remember: “Don’t take any boiled lollies from Chinamen,” as my mother used to say).

Paintings for the Beijing Olympics Exhibition by Astari.

• • •

In June I went to two of the prettiest palaces in Indonesia―to the Istana Mangkunegaran in Surakarta (Solo), Central Java, for the wedding of a friend’s niece, and to Puri Saren, Ubud, for an evening of ceremonies related to the up-coming Royal Cremation. I was bowled over by the beauty of purpose, women-folk and atmosphere still found in these ancient courts.

11 th June 2008 : To the Istana Mangkunegaran, Surakarta (Solo) ― Central Java’s prettiest palace
Twenty five-odd years ago, Sukmawati Soekarnoputri ―sister of Megawati and daughter of the proklamator President Soekarno―married Gusti Raden Mas Sujiwo Kusumo, the then crown prince of the Mangkunegaran Palace in Solo, Central Java.
The Mangkunegaran Royal family have strong connections to the elite in Jakarta (Mrs Tien Soeharto, for example, is from this family and one of the princesses has always lived in Jakarta and worked for Iwan Tirta (Indonesia’s famed batik impresario) so today’s wedding of Sukmawati and Jiwo’s daughter, to a celebrity crooner from Makassar, is quite an affair.
Out in force are the batik and kebaya fashionistas, the fancy fans and the dazzling jewels.
At this morning’s Akad Nikah ceremony, princesses in party frocks arrive by horse-drawn state coach from Kraton Kidul (the South Palace) as black S.U.Vs drop off Jakarta big-wigs and their husbands at the fabulous Pendopo Agung hall.

The Akad Nikah ceremony in the Dalem section of the palace; the groom’s witness (ex-President Megawati’s husband, Bp. Taufik Kiemas) is seated at the table, facing camera.

Bp. Taufik Kiemas, husband of former President Megawati Soekarnoputri & Mangkunegaran royal

GRAy. Retno Putri Astrini and her daughter, Tunku Atiah, of Johor.

Supreme Solo sirene Yani Arifin

11 a.m.
The groom appears with a full Raja Goa contingent in colourful Mandar sarongs; ushered in by the bride’s sisters and cousins in ancient Javanese dance costumes. Even Yani Arifin, the batik bombshell daughter of former Soeharto crony Bustanul Arifin is here, front and centre, with the sensational Ibu-Ibu Gaya Group (for full story see this month’s Jakarta Kini).
During the ceremonies, I chat to my friend Gusti Putri, sister of Jiwo, whose garden I decorated in Johor Baru, Malaysia (Istana Abu Bakar). Putri confirmed that the groom is not of royal Makassar blood and that the whole entourage are doing a fabulous job passing as aristocrats. “Never let the truth get in the way of court spectacle” is the message.

• • •

The Serimpi dancers in the Istana Mangkunegaran main pavilion.

Later the same night, I arrive for the evening’s reception in the middle of a spectacle of transcendental beauty.
An exquisite Bedoyo dance of the princesses is in progress, framed by a row of VIP guests and, from above, by a set of chandeliers, weeping pink jali jasmine strips (see photo above).
I am lifted an inch out of my slippers by this scene of heart-wrenching beauty. The wail of the Tembang Bedoyo plus female chorus, the clouds of incense de l’orient and the flutter of canary yellow selendang, all make for a vision of paradise.


The coarse brown necks of the men from Makassar strain to get an eyeful of Ibu Yani Arifin sitting front-row/centre; like Audrey Hepburn at a Givenchy show.

15 th July 2008 : To Puri Saren, ‘Ubud, Bali’s prettiest palace’, for the gargantuan cremation of Ubud’s popular prince, Tjokorda Gede Agung Suyasa, and other family members
At 10 a.m., I arrive at the palace after a long walk west from the VIP-B carpark, past purple-shirted serfs clustered at the feet of colossal black bull sarcophagi and golden-winged cremation towers. My old friend Tjokorda Raka Kerthyasa, step-brother of the deceased, is in the palace’s corner belvedere and waves me through!

Tjokorda Raka Kethyasa and family members in the Semanggen court on the morning of the cremation


I traipse through ten or so courtyards like a big pink gorilla in drag in a cake-shop filled with Asian aristocrats (from all corners of the archipelago), past Sir Warwick Purser in tan flares; well past Linda Garland, wearing  an elegant golden lace kebaya and very dark wine-red, almost brown, songket plus beautiful jewellery (old  style Majapahit) plus mauve surgical stockings, ‘yin-yang bling’ earrings (gold-tipped Zen walnuts fashioned by one-armed Timor Leste lesbians from the humanely-culled scrotal sacs of highland Dani tribes-men) and past press gangs and make-up artists and a glittering Naga Banda dragon parked in its pavilion in the Ancak Saji court, finally to find Jero Asri, Tjok Kerthyasa’s wife, ‘Australia’s own princess in Bali’, in the north-western courtyard. She is monitoring her daughter Maya’s maquillage for her big moment on the procession’s royal palanquin. An old flame (of mine, not Maya’s) is applying the false eye-lashes.

• • •

The two main lembu parked outside the palace

A Peliatan palace royal and the famous dancer
A. A. Gde Bagus Mandera Erawan.

The priest is symbolically shooting the Naga Banda before the procession sets off to the cremation ground.

On a visit to Ubud two weeks back, fresh from Solo, I was reminded of the difference in Balinese and Javanese palaces at times of ceremonial activity. The Javanese palaces are vast and sedate: courtiers and nobles are everywhere, plotting intrigues in courtyard corners. The ceremonies happen according to a programme, with general lounging in the off-limits (to most) royal apartments in between. In Ubud, serfs, tourists, priests and princes intermingle to an extent. Balinese palaces, particularly Puri Saren, Ubud, are alive with ceremonial/social/logistical (offering-making etc.) activity for the weeks that surround the big events!
While the cremation atmosphere is, today, hardly ‘festive’, the mood is relaxed and jovial, with lots of comic relief; unlike the rather sombre courtliness of the rituals of Javanese palaces.

• • •

Today Jero Asri is surrounded by her Australian ladies-in-waiting, and her friend la Baronne Gill Marais, author of ‘Sex in the Puri’, a new film series on Balinese palace life. After a sumptuous lunch and a few hours of palace people-watching we all file out for one of the greatest shows on earth―an Ubud royal cremation spectacle.
Stepping out of the rarefied atmosphere of the puri into the New Year’s Revellers at Luna Park atmosphere on the now closed main road, alive with battalions of funeral float bearers in bright purple, is like “stepping on to a giant tab of acid” (to quote Bill Dawson).
Dignitaries are surveying the amazing scenes from the palace’s corner belvedere: there is the Minister of Tourism, Jero Wacik; the new governor-elect, Inspector General Made Mangku Pastika; Sukmawati Soekarnoputri (again!); ex-minister Moerdiono in serious shades and handsome Gung Bagus from Peliatan, the elder-Puri!



One by one the floats are hoisted up and moved into position. The crowd cheers. Tjokorda Raka Kerthyasa is commanding. (“He was particularly close to the deceased,” Wayan Juniartha reports, in a fabulous feature story in today’s Jakarta Post).
Last of all, the giant Naga Banda dragon is conveyed out of the palace and into the last slot on the ‘tarmac’ (floats and bull sarcophagi waiting like taxiing jumbos on side ramps). Quietly the crowd parts and old Pedanda Lingsir from Aan, East Bali, appears with a full retinue of retainers, gold offerings and a gleaming magic bow and arrows. After some Vedic rituals, the high priest ‘fires’ arrows to the four cardinal directions, then up and down, to clear all paths to the after-life.
Finally, after two hours in the crowd outside the palace, the gongs start beating, beleganjur gamelans start pounding, and Tjok Raka drops the red flag. We’re off!
“It’s vulgar,” I hear Woolite heiress and puri refusenik Carole Müller complain as vigilantes start chopping down trees to clear the path. Spectators are lined ten deep and up the side of every building. All the rooftops along the one mile of the processional route are crammed with people.
After 200 metres, the big float stalls, squashing two Chinese Jakartans and three drunk Germans at a roadside ATM.

Tjok Kerthyasa, Tjok Putra Sukawati and Tjok Alit Dharma Putra on Tjok Suyasa’s badé float.

As the palace seniors struggle to free the trapped behemoth, I race down the mall like a streaker in fancy dress―“Run Fat Boy, Run”, screams the crowd―just in time to catch the first float, bearing the coffin of Tjok Suyasa’s nephew, as it turns up the hill to the cremation ground.
The beleganjur marching band has gone berserk: the relief-drummers are dancing in the street, so joyous is the mood (“Ubud is a mood,” screams Leonard Leuras from a nearby massage parlour).

• • •

Today, this batch of Ubud royals, so beloved by the masses, are sent off with great élan, with all the pengiring (followers) benefiting from the jet-stream of the mighty Naga Banda ‘Express Train’ to the afterlife.

(Above) Jero Asri and her daughter, Tjok Sri Maya Kerthyasa getting ready in the Saren Kauh court


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