Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

Published in Now! Bali, May 2010



A priest on Mertasari Beach during the Melis ceremonies.

Brave New Bali

Bali is undergoing a period of rapid social change.
The golden oldies who grew up in the rice fields are slowly dying off, and Generation X — that generation born after the island-wide ‘explosion’ in spas, reproduction Javanese furniture and Facebook — are slowly taking over.
The culture is intact — give or take a few monstrous black andesite temple gates — but the day to day life of your average Balinese is now quite urban and franchise-friendly; even the local patois has changed, from guttural, low Balinese, to swanky Jakartan Newspeak.
Fewer and fewer Balinese speak the higher, courtly level of the language either, as this is just not used in day to day life in the big, heterogeneous urban sprawl that is South Bali today.
More and more young Balinese are fluent in Facebook-speak — “Dude, Beib, Chill and Bro” the new buzz words for the urban elite. More and more young Balinese have Australian brothers or sisters-in-laws and ‘foreign’ bosses.
“Facebook is speeding up globalisation,” a local writer opined.

•    •    •

But the Balinese culture has always been dynamic and loves change, the pundits say.
“Are we doomed to become a race of servants (like the Hawaiians Ed.)?” a bright young Balinese girl recently said to me at a royal cremation.


The Sidakarya Rangda dancer getting ready for the Nyepi Eve Parade.

•    •    •

Balinese ceremonies — and these are what the Balinese live for — are thus becoming celebrations of the Balinese lifestyle, just as much as they remain religious observances.
There are signs that the clamour for the classical is heating up:  every few weeks male adat custom, the temple dress, is changing, radically.
This month, for example, the long Javanese-style sarongs and long-sleeved shirts have been replaced by a shorter, more Balinese traditional batik and sash teamed with a V-neck T-shirt with 4 black buttons.
The annual demon effigy processions — that take place island-wide the night before Nyepi, the Day of Silence — may have tipped towards the municipal (where once were warriors) but more of the urban youth are spending more time making the effigies look straight out of ‘Avatar’.
Last month’s Melis processions of gods to the sea were bigger and more beautiful then ever (see photos next page) and the Day of Silence was profoundly so — one could hear the waves lapping on Sanur Beach and the birds singing without the constant roar of the By-pass.
Halleluiah!
What then for the Balinese ‘moving forward’, as the M.B.A.-crowd say?
Will the current brain and brawn drain (to Caribbean Cruise Companies and Gay Bars) continue? In Seminyak and environs one anthropologist has noted that there is an astronomic rise in sons-for-sale, over fathers for rent.
In a related development, I read last month that the Indonesian government is taking the most unusual step of introducing a levy of US $50,000 on foreigners taking local brides, a measure which surprises a lot of people.
“I love Bali because it’s not like Indonesia — I can just lose myself,” chirped popular Jakarta Television personality Rosiana Silalahi in a lifestyle questionnaire in a recent Weekend Jakarta Post.
There are good and bad sides to this development.
Bali is free-er, and more international, but this has come at the expense of original Indonesian ‘flavour’ — perhaps as result of over-commercialization and the new fried thing  franchises-mall-and Facebook-friendly lifestyle.
Never have the parallel universes of Bali been more in contract.
Balinese processions now burst onto drab, messy, urban canvas like technicolor chariots out of the sky.
This month, I have chosen to document a few of these such processions I joined in last month.

SIDAKARYA GODS and VILLAGERS — Melis rituals on Mertasari Beach, Sanur

Mertasari Beach, Sanur, 13th March 2010, 7 a.m.: The gods of Sidakarya process to the sea for the Melis rituals
Attendance at Balinese ceremonies can heal wounds.
I have been in the ‘dog-house’ for a week because of something I said to a friend in Sidakarya. Today I am awakened at dawn by the gamelan that accompanies the gods to the sea, via my small street in fashionable Mertasari.
I immediately ring my miffed friend who takes the call and I am invited to prayers.
On the Mertasari Beach I find a scene of indescribable beauty: the beach zone has been transformed from its usual slightly grubby self into a Kumbh Mela of loveliness (see photos left and previous pages).
I mingle in the crowd and chat politely with my landlord whose about to evict me, and I see my extortionist visa agent. A cop goes into trance and the pecalang (the Hindu-vigilante traffic wardens) rush in to attend to his writhings.
This is a new role for the pecalang — who normally just stand around in tight-fitting clothes waving illuminated red batons (nothing wrong with that); as a ‘functional group’, the pecalangs themselves are a fairly recent development in Balinese society.

•    •    •

9 p.m. : To Pura Desa Sidakarya for the village temple’s festival, with Sumatran sculpture Pintor Sirait, a fellow Sidakarya devotee, who is off to Paris to represent Indonesia at the Art Fair tomorrow
I go to four big ceremonies today — it being TUMPLEK LANDEP holiday, and also, coincidently, a MELIS gods-to-the-sea day — and see not one foreigner, but Jakartans in spandex bicycle shorts abound.
At the temple tonight there is an atmosphere of exhaustion: it’s been ‘full-on’ for the entire village since dawn — melis, ‘car birthday’ offerings, interning of gods in the Assembly Hall (Bale Agung) for Nyepi, and now an odalan temple anniversary.
There’s been no time for Facebook.*

*Indonesia has the 4th biggest number of Facebook users in the world.


The Pecalang Pasek Barak guard the main gate at Pura Besakih

1st April 2010: To Pura Besakih with two bus-loads of Balinese for the mass weeks-long pray-in which happens after the tenth full moon
This morning Pura Besakih, the ‘Mother Temple’, is bathed in cool, clear, spring air. Pecalang Pasek in red chequered saput are guarding the temple’s main gate. Prayers are conducted with a refined, relaxed grace by the local priest/compere.


Students from Saraswati High School at Pura Besakih.

After prayers, we leave the temple via the lower terraces; I spy a ten-year old Balinese boy fixing up his friend’s headscarf. He is fashioning a fancy ‘turban’ (udeng) into a full-bodied, post-modern, louche fold and I realize that all is well in the Balinese universe.
The only tension comes when the Bupati Gianyar’s motorcade arrives and sweeps past our Babi Guling warung at high speed, sirens on silent.



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