Published in the Sunday Jakarta Post, 14 May 2006

Ida Ayu Siti (1911-2006)


I grew up in Bali terrified of witches and goblins (leyak).
One dark night in 1976, motor-cycling home to Sidakarya from the Denpasar Dance Academy where I worked – as Bali’s first one- man, all-male legong – an invisible ‘monkey’ hopped onto my bike and the back wheel started to shimmy and shammy. I was completely freaked out for two kilometres.
I have never really recovered.
In those days – the early 1970s – many a night was whiled away in our neighbourhood warung, listening to octogenarian Nini Tapé’s stories talk about demon-battles in the coconut groves of Mertasari, near Sanur, where I now live, and of the white witch of Intaran (Sanur) Dayu Siti and her legendary powers.

Dayu Siti’s cousin, the Pedanda of Intaran putting a pin in her astral body effigy.
Right: Pedanda high priests chat at the Ketewel ngajum; Left: Pemecutan family nobles at the Kepaon ngajum.

• • •

Twenty-five years later I met Dayu Siti for the first time, in a back courtyard of our neighbourhood palace: 85 years old, she was ensconced there as the step-grandmother of my work colleague, Gung Nik. We talked a bit but I never got to know her.
Last week Dayu Siti passed away, quietly. On the day she died my family were having a huge tooth-filing ceremony – a karya ayu, or beautific event – and thirty of Dayu Siti’s family were present. They didn’t tell us of the death as they didn’t want to visit gloom (sebel) on the occasion.
I found out only after observing one old grandmother weeping, unusually, suddenly, in the middle of a sea of otherwise jolly celebrants – the news had spread quickly down the village lane and across the courtyard, and had finally hit her, like a night-bus. She was heart-broken – she had been Dayu Siti’s maid for 80 years.

• • •

I went to Jero Dalem Tanjung, Kepaon palace that night, to pay my respects. The house was packed with nobles – in batik, floral and black Majapahit funeral wear – playing cards, singing hymns and gossiping.
I sat down next to the family patriarch, and a mourner-relative from the Pemecutan Palace, the Kepaon family’s ancestral home.
“When are you getting married?” they demanded seconds after I sat down.
“No time for love,” I replied (It’s my standard answer these days).
“But you’re so handsome these days (translation: I’ve put on 30 kilos), I bet those Indian girls with the big tits are all over you.”
There was no talk of the deceased.
I gazed around the courtyard of mourners – the 300 or so ‘close relatives’ I have grown up with – and I thought: “Really, for the Balinese, things done between ceremonies are just fill. Cremations are everything: between cremations and temple events the Balinese just idle, in neutral.
Everyone was having such a great time over cakes and coffee– bonding, gambling, smoking – and it would be like this for the next week at least; by which time someone else in the vast Pemecutan family diaspora will have passed on and it will all start again.
Over the evening the life of Dayu Siti was discussed only in terms of her complicated and tenuous connection to this family: in fact she was a brahmana lass from the mighty Brahmana stronghold of Intaran, in Sanur, who had married the old prince’s brother. The family mostly talked of how pleased they were that emissaries from Intaran family had started to arrive.

• • •

The next day I was double-booked for body-washings: Dayu SIti, the white witch of Intaran; and the late high-priest , Ida Bagawan Putra Kemenuh, the patron saint of my clan of ksatrya Dewa garden commandos. Both at 4 p.m.
Identical ceremonies, back to back: one princely, one priestly.
I did the Kepaon family first.
The courtyard was much as the night before – macho men, robust palace ladies strapped into lacy black bustiers, lots of slouching and smoking and loose talk – except that the temple section of the palace was alive with activity. An angklung orchestra was parked inside the temple gate.
I had missed the body-washing but was in time for the ngajum ceremony, where family members put sewing needles into the joints of the astral body effigy – the kajang pengawak, set up on a bed in a pavilion in the family temple. I caught the prince genuflecting gently to the astral body effigy as he backed out of the pavilion and returned to his post.
The atmosphere was noisy and heavy, but reverent, black reverent.

• • •

High Priestess at Ketewel ceremony

The kidung the choir in the Geria Ketewel family house temple.

In Ketewel, 20 kilometres away the priestly ngajum ceremony was a white affair. I had changed, in the car park, like Clark Kent, into white and chequered garb. The mood inside the geria palace was incredibly refined and still. In the extensive ceremonial courtyard , hundreds of devotees of the much-loved begawan priest were all sitting quietly along the bases of the various pavilions. Six high priests and their wives sat in the biggest, northernmost pavilion, chatting about bell-ringing protocol and such. Next to them, two high priests were incanting Vedic chants in front of a truck-load of offerings, high on a white and yellow-festooned platform. The deceased’s widows were busy doing a full range of complicated and beautiful ceremonies. Three gamelans played from various courtyards. Fifty choristers in white kebaya were seated in the family temple from where the soft harmonies of the ancient gambang orchestra drifted through the gaps in the courtyard activity.
The effect of all this ambrosia of the gods and the temple-garden beauty was dizzying.
I sat at the feet of Pedanda Kemenuh, the nabi (guru) of the deceased priest and a former sergeant major in the army. I was served coffee and cakes by Desak, my saintly and long-suffering maid from my years living in Sanur in the 1980s.
“Why did all the ladies unfurl their hair and rub the feet of the corpse?” I enquired politely, as I sipped my coffee.
“Oh them,” the pedanda replied, “they were the deceased’s daughters and his students, performing a final act of filial piety.”
It had been a profound defining moment in the body washing ritual, you can imagine, but the high priest just dismissed it, as a bit of minor theatrics. They’re often glib like that. and his students, performing a final act of filial piety.”

• • •

The difference in the all-black ksatrya (princely) ceremony and the all white brahmana (priestly) version of the same ngajum couldn’t have been more pronounced. As Miguel Covarrubias’ famously wrote in his book “ Island of Bali” (1936): “What is a rule in one village, is an exception in the next”.

• • •

The next day I was double-booked again.
I chose the Ketewel cremation, selfishly, because it promised to be more theatrical and gorgeous and I knew the deceased.

• • •

Later that day, returning home from the incredible Ketewel cremation – more of that next week! – I got news of a miracle at Dayu Siti’s cremation.
Her hair hadn’t burnt on the funeral pyre!
The unburnt hair had been taken back to the palace where it is to be enshrined as a pratima (votive object) in the royal chapel next week.
Will holy miracles never cease??
Stay tuned next week for part two of “Dayu Siti’s Last Stand”!

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