Published in the Sunday Jakarta Post, 28 May 2006

Making a grand entrance: Rangda returns into the temple courtyard at Pengerebongan

Dayu Siti's last stand

Last week I finally caught up with Jakarta-based Australian journalist Mark Forbes’ alarming piece on Bali, "Abandoned Bali waits in hope”, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 1 .
"The candles flicker on the seafood restaurant tables like the stars over Jimbaran Bay," it starts. (Forbes is not homosexual, dear readers, but he sure helps them out when he's busy!).
Most of the Balinese in his article are either masseurs or waiters.
“Sanur is putting up 12 security cams,” it reports, without mentioning the fact that, over the last six weeks, Sanur has bubbled with renaissance fervour and ceremonial activity – Melis, Tawur Kesanga, Pengerupukan, a head pedanda's cremation – all the more amazing than ever before. Over 95 percent of the community took part in these activities – reasserting that Real Bali is as strong as ever.
“I was scared they’d put dope in my bag at Denpasar airport,” one Australian interviewee was reported to have said. “They” in this quote are the “snaky gooks”, I guess. Forbes’ bothering to include this “quote” gives credence to the sensationalist myth readily circulating in Australia that Bali is out to bust Australian holiday-makers – which is extremely detrimental to Bali’s welfare.

A Pengadeg trance-master about to don the spooky Rangda mask at the Pengerebongan festival

Tourism is not “the backbone of Bali” as Forbes asserts. A tourist is an honored guest – a tenant, even, who still pays the rent. And while it funds the very utama (highest level) ceremonies, Bali can however, at any moment, cancel the lease, if the tourism got too “stroppy”, for example, send all of us “outer-islanders” packing and return to its original idyllic lifestyle – with nista (lower level) instead of utama ceremonies.
Forbes’ piece is written from the narrow, Australian media view point, which pitches Bali as a “cheap exotic getaway”.
Forbes’ father, Cameron, a renowned career journalist, is at present writing a book on Bali and has bothered to interview a wider cross-section of society.
We all eagerly await his offering.

• • •

In my previous column I wrote of the life of the incredible Dayu Siti, the “white witch of Sanur-Intaran, ” whose hair did not burn at her cremation.
My charming and talented Jakarta Post editor Chisato-san censored the photo of the mystical fire-resistant scalp-hair for fear of offending certain readers. Which is her right, and I respect that (as one’s American friends say when they really mean “How could you, you snake”). She felt that the rare photo of a bun of mystical, fire-resistant, scalp- hair was perhaps “too representational” of death, or spookiness. .
This is a common fear amongst the emerging middle classes: they fear that spookiness is unsavoury, old-fashioned even.
But not for the Balinese.

The Balinese brand of Hinduism is, after all, based on the worship of Lord Siwa in his incarnation as Bairawa the terrible – thus all the teeth and fangs and screaming demons.
Even death is celebrated, lavishly so in Bali.
Dayu Siti’s cremation was a riotous affair, in keeping with her status in the community. The marching bands were out in force.
For men, this year’s cremation fashion was very Bob Marley-meets-Hellboy. The palace ladies dressed to kill in navy brocade kebaya (chemise) and bold-patterned batiks.
The Balinese like to be bold, in everything they do really – be it their music, temples or language.
“Kleng chi nanik” (literally, your foreskin’s on fire) is the greeting call all along the north coast! “Ng’recek, Rai” (you’re leaking, younger sister) is popular in the south.
How did such a lively culture get burdened with such a lacklustre lot of villa vendors, one might ask … but that’s another story.
Back to Dayu Siti’s Pemecutan family cremation. The liege lord of the very extended Pemecutan clan, Ngurah Manik, heartthrob of South Bali and recently convicted of murdering his younger brother with a samurai sword (See, December 2003 for further details), could not come but sent his mongol or envoy, who proudly showed me Ngurah Manik’s giant jadeite.
My knees went weak.

Descendents of the famed Poleng Kesiman warriors carry a long striped cloth, symbolising the intestines of the warriors which fell out during the 18 th century Kesiman battle

• • •

Twelve days after the cremation, I went to the Jero Dalem Tanjung palace in Kepaon to pay my respect to the spirit of Dayu Siti – my step-great-grand aunt on my adoptive mother’s side – and asked of a bit of sakti from her surviving hairpiece to give me strength to battle my various editors across the archipelago.

Logo chic: Arak means “Natural son of Kepaon Village” on this smart cremation shirt.

The mongol (vassal) of the Prince of Pemecutan, Denpasar shows me his striking jadeite magic ring. Note spooky Rembang-style, louche cummerbund

• • •

Fierce demon battles have been a bit of a theme in Bali the past few weeks since Dayu Siti died.
As trees are plucked from modern ex-pat villas – “too representational”, nature is old-fashioned – the Balinese are staging demon battles under the spreading branches of the island’s unique coastal Suwar trees.
Last full moon, the spooky Telek dancers of Banjar Taman in Sanur – Dayu Siti’s old troupe – performed an incredible dance in the outer court of the Pura Mertasari Temple, just south of my home.

The censored, fire-resistant, spooky hair-bun of Dayu Siti on its new shrine, at the Jero Dalem Tanjung palace royal chapel in Kepaon village

The running of this temple festival has been hijacked by fierce Brahmans from North Sanur so I rarely go anymore, but this year I heard the magic tabuh tetelekan gamelan music – the theme music of the pixie world – competing with the barks of the local expats’ Rottweilers. I whipped on a batik and headdress and sped down the sandy lane.
I had been in the morning’s Jawa Post – blowing kisses to the paparazzi (not strictly U-Hindu) as I carried an umbrella with the gods on the cause way to the Turtle Island – so security let me valet-park my Honda bebek. I strode into the refurbished temple – coral architecture with white sand courtyard floors – and prayed for Dayu Siti’s soul.
I then lingered at the amazing dance performance.
Sanur-Intaran’s mighty Barong was at one end of the open-air stage; his consort, the evil, hairy witch Rangda, was at the other. In the middle danced two troupes of celestial nymphs, called telek, or sandaran.
The telek had fans and gilt Burmese-style crowns with yellow flags poking out. I observed the front row of teenagers, all entranced by the show.
Tears rolled down my sunburned cheeks: I was hit by a night-bus of nostalgia. Old Bali is back, and here to stay.

• • •

There is no fiercer demonfest in South Bali than the fantastic theatre of Pengerebongan, held a week ago at Pura Dalem Pengerebongan temple in Kesiman.
Literally hundreds of priests and tantric teenagers go into trance, regular as clockwork, once a Balinese year, in memory of the mighty Poleng Kesiman – the elite “checkered berets” of Tjokorda Sakti Kesiman, an 18 th century prince known for his mystical powers. The Poleng Kesiman once fought on in battle, even though their intestines were spilling out.
I took along celebrated Jakarta beauties Poppy Darsono, Yani Arifin and Astari Rasyid – in Bali for Tatler’s incredible Jean-Paul Gaultier fashion night at a maximum security villa – who swanned through the courtyard in gorgeous sarong-kebaya like only Putri Menteng can.
Jit lanying,” said security as Yani’s perfectly rocibund bottom floated by: “Cute ass.”

One of the Poleng Kesiman warriors holds a Pejenengan sacrificial sword during the trance ritual

The Balinese are as cheeky as they are spooky, I told my lovely guests.
The ladies were most fascinated by the velvet and gold Majapahit costumes worn by the trancees during the first round of the Poleng Kesiman memorial ceremony.
Indeed, this year the costumes at the festival – both sacred and profane – have returned to their classical roots. Gone are the cheap imported Lurexes and intelligent fabric of yesteryear – it’s going for Baroque with a vengeance in Bali!
Each year, the highlight of the Pengerebongan festival is the moment when the Rangda poses at the top of the high red-brick temple stairs in front of the towering Majapahit-era red-brick gate.
Gamelan are beating feverishly, a battalion of tripped-out Poleng warrior descendants are waiting in the wings, and the tips of Rangda’s striped ceremonial banners are pushing through the top third of the narrow portal.
Rangda , flanked by tall guards, flaps her sacred white rajah hand-towel, rolls from foot to hairy foot, scratching at the air with her long fingernails, and issues a spine-tingling shriek that sucks the wind out of the courtyard!
It’s quite an entrance, and quite a freaky show.
Sometimes one feels drunk on the ambrosia of the gods, and of the demons!



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