Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the NOW Bali Magazine, March 2009)

The Winaya’s good friend, Ida Bagus Gede of Tegal prepares the corpse for its consigning.

Prince of Uluwatu’s Big Cremation

In Bali, every palace is the custodian of a temple: the bigger the palace, the more important the temple. The old imperial palace, Puri Klungkung is the royal custodian of Pura Besakih, the Mother Temple, for example.
The custodian of Pura Luhur Uluwatu is Puri Agung Jero Kuta, Denpasar, an ancient palace with blood links to the Royal Dalem Dynasty of Klungkung.
Last month the head of this family, I Gusti Ngurah Winaya, passed away while campaigning for a seat in Bali’s legislative assembly (you may have seen all the posters!). The Stranger recorded many of the rites leading up to and including the fabulous royal cremation accorded to this popular prince.

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Last month also saw the launch of my book “The Best of the Stranger in Paradise, 1996 – 2008’, now available at bookstores near you.

19 January 2009: To Puri Agung Jero Kuta, Denpasar, for a big, bold royal spectacle.
During my formative years I used to stay at this palace after wild party nights in Kuta—in the funky, Disco-palace pavilion of Ngurah Gun, the palace’s dynamic crown prince and garden artist extraordinaire.
In 1990 when I worked as an advisor on Philip Noyce’s film ‘Shadows of a Peacock’ (formerly ‘Love As Long As Your Visa Lasts’) I ‘placed’ actor John Lone in the palace, so that he could learn the mannerisms of a Balinese prince.
He excelled himself (see ‘The Last Emperor’, Lone’s next role).
In the past I would see Ngurah Winaya at the Uluwatu Temple every seven months—on the day my office goes to the 5-day festival at Pura Luhur Uluwatu. He was a permanent courtyard fixture, in the original royal box at most of the other Balinese functions I have attended over the past 30 years. He was always friendly and inviting, unlike many other palace princes.
In keeping with his standing, today’s cremation should be a rousing affair.

The spirit effigy of the deceased

A. A. Sagung Dewi and her brother Ngurah Gun

Local villagers await the start of the proceedings

The atmosphere in one of Puri Agung Jero Kuta’s outer courts on the morning of the cremation.

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I arrive at the palace at 10.30 a.m.—fashionably early, in order to get some atmospheric pre-cremation snaps. I find the inner court devoid of dignitaries, which is sort of a relief (less bowing and scraping, more snapping) but also most unusual.
The gorgeous garden courtyard is glittering in the morning light as waves of angklung music drift in from outer courts.
Only family members are milling as final preparations are made, and ceremonies held, before the bolt to the graveyard!
There are numerous distractions: Winaya’s unmarried aunt is very animated and vocal at the courtyard centre (as usual); and to the west, my buddy Ngurah Gun, the deceased’s cousin, is holding down an audience hall of chain-smokers with his fantasy stories about the Palestinian crisis.
At 11.45 school children from a nearby primary school and guests from neighbouring palaces start to file in, to pay their last respects.
At exactly noon the honour guards precede the coffin out the inner gate: fifty palace ladies in green chemises bear offerings through the narrow red brick gate; a multitude of palace standards and bearers storm out, preceded, of course, by ‘Aunty’ with her whisk broom, always at the head of everything (“to clear the spiritual path,” she explains).
At the outer gate two of the deceased’s children squat, alone, at the bottom of the gate’s tall steps, and pray as the coffin is borne out the gate’s  mouth and onto the street outside (see photo below left).

‘Aunty’ sweeps away the demons; the deceased’s children pray as the coffin is borne through the outer palace gates

Three of Winaya’s children at the head of the procession

In the 90 minutes since I entered the palace, the scene on the main road outside the palace has completely transformed: the intersection and surrounding roads are now smothered with ‘Men in Black’-style mourners (well revellers), gamelan bands, funeral floats and squadrons of police and palace vigilantes, to keep things on track.
The procession to the cremation ground is magnificent: one mile long; with two high priests atop the colourful main float; the deceased’s son astride the black velvet bull sarcophagus. It speeds south at a thunderous pace.

Nephew of the deceased rides the bull sarcophagus to the graveyard

On the way I steal into Denpasar’s main Pemecutan palace (the birth-place of my  Balinese ‘mum’, so I am ‘known’ to the family (as the hippy that came to dinner thirty five years ago and stayed. Ha!) and climb up into the palace’s South-West corner pavilion on the main intersection to take some snaps.
On the way down I bump into the raja, my liege lord, Denpasar’s leading heartthrob, washing his Land Cruiser with a hose in one hand and the breast of a nubile serfette in the other.
“Love your work”, he screams, alluding to the new Stranger in Paradise book recently delivered to his office.
My knees go weak.

Baris Tekok Jago dancers perform at the graveyard, to spirit the soul heaven wards.

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The procession bears down on the cremation ground, bursting with purpose! Only the deceased’s children—carrying the giant wad of Chinese coins and a spirit effigy that precede any cremation tower procession—are emotional; the rest of the family are just ‘on duty’ in full ceremonial mode!
At the cremation ground I see everyone who is anyone in Sanur-Denpasar ceremonial and palace circles: for many decades Winaya and his family have run a great show at Uluwatu and today everyone has turned out to bid him a fond and spirited farewell.
The precision and beauty of all the ceremonies has been remarkable—the cremation crowd, to a man, is elated.

The statue of Chinese goddess Dewi Kwan Im in the cave-temple in Nusa Penida.

5 February 2009: Kneaded once again
My office’s security guard, Wayan Suyasa, has magic hands, and he is often called upon to alleviate my creeping atrophy.
This morning, as he pounds away at my right shoulder―frozen after a recent night-flight from Bangalore―he tells me about his pilgrimage on Chinese New Year to a holy cave (the Gua Giri Putri on the island of Nusa Penida south east of Bali).

Suyasa is a very spiritual fellow and a great story-teller. He explains how he had seen a statue of the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, ‘Dewi Kwan Im’, in the cave, and how on that day a group of Russians were meditating there (this is a new tourism market sector).

The cave-temple priest spoke excellent English (to the Russians?), he explains as he shows me all the photos of the god-statues he had taken on his handphone. The priest had told Wayan that the cave’s main deity, Dewi Gayatri, is in fact the embodiment of three goddesses: two of Bali’s most revered goddesses―Dewi Danu (of Batur Lake) and Dewi Saraswati, Goddess of Learning and the Arts―plus the South China Seas main goddess, revered in coastal communities along the Vietnamese, Javanese and Balinese coasts.

In an era when nearly all one’s Chinese clients and friends are renouncing their ancestral roots, it is refreshing to hear about the Balinese lingering piety towards this goddess of charity and love.

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