Published in the Sunday Jakarta Post, 1 October 2006

The Ratu Dedari mask is fitted onto the dancer with a puff of incense smoke and a secret mantra

Celestial Nymphs Steal Show

Sometime during the 1990s my favourite Balinese temple got co-opted by the Ubud Palace. The 12 th century Payogan Agung Temple in Ketewel Village is home to the amazing RATU DEDARI celestial nymphs who dance in a tight courtyard once a year at the temple’s anniversary festival. The temple complex was once the most architecturally unique and splendid in the land – the starter on architectural tours I used to do for museum groups, Y.P.O. wives and culture societies.
Progressives from another realm have recently had it all pulled down – all the gorgeous carved and painted timber pagodas, and the 17 th century chinoserie temple gates – and replaced with black andesite stone monuments.

Last week I was invited to the re-consecration ceremony to help celebrate this new marvel to feudal intervention. I dreaded going – losing favourite temple courtyards is like losing old friends – but I decided to put on the gladrags, join the throng and take photos. I chose an off grey light summer wool safari jacket (“guru collar” as the Italians call it); and an almost screaming pink ‘apron’ (saput) over a red-trimmed Kerala mendut sarong. This might sound a bit girlish – as in “Gidget goes Gianyar” – even for readers not familiar with the subtleties of Balinese temple dress, but as an outfit it was appropriate for a rogue Australian temple groupie on a Saraswati Holyday.

Ubud’s Cokorda Raka Kerthyasa sits in the royal pavilion at the Pura Jagatnatha Temple

14 th September 2006: Hari Raya Saraswati Holyday, when all school-children pray at their school and receive Tirta Saraswati holy water to take home and sprinkle on books and computers and i-Pods
I drive to Ketewel for the Pemelaspasan Agung ceremony at the Pura Jagatnatha Temple in the Payogan Agung complex.
Ketewel is an ancient village – east of Sanur on the coast – known for the soft, gentle, hard-working nature of its villagers. One corner of the village is home to a huge clan of devout KsatriaDewa nobles, descended from the old imperial guard in Klungkung. The essentially rural village is known for its egalitarianism – no palace or brahmanic family rules.
Somehow – whether through politics or some unknown, unwritten ancient connections – the princely family of Puri Saren in Ubud recently convinced the hereditary head priest of this giant temple complex to share the custodianship of the temple. Not everyone in the village was happy with this. The village reportedly boycotted a few Puri Gianyar Palace cremations out of pique.
Today I arrive to a packed earth temple outercourt baking in the morning sun, exquisitely decorated in white and gold and lined with squatting villagers in white temple dress. The three officiating high priests have arrived and are having tea in the inner sanctum of Payogan Agung. I stride towards the ceremonial courtyard – “Never mince in shocking pink”, Elton John once told me – and immediately bump into the Cokorda of Ubud. He looks out if sorts, as if no-one has recognized him in an outer court.
“Looking for your throne, sire,” I jibe.
He smiles, just, and takes his seat with the other nobles in the royal smoking section – the assembly pavilion which overlooks the ceremony. The temple is a blaze with Hindu colour.

The Ratu Dedari twins dance a celestial pas des deux in the Jagatnatha temple’s inner sanctum

I can not see the new temple structures for all the decorations and bamboo temporary shrines. The high priests have arrived – like royals at Ascot – and are busy sending off the essence of a continental spread of offerings. A centrally-placed gamelan orchestra and three choirs at various vantage points fill every corner of the courtyard with heavenly tunes. Temple priests criss-cross the upper pagoda terraces with geese and piglet sacrifices held aloft.
Suddenly the clouds of incense part and a mini-coven of eleven year old “priestesses’ takes centre stage. It is time for the temple’s most sacred treasure, the Ratu Dedari, a mask dance performed in daylight only once in every thirty years.
I have seen these amazing masks – part Bengali Durga Goddess, part Cirebon-Style celestial nymph – being danced many times over the years but today something is different. There are no elders assisting. The mini-priestess (age ten) who control the box of masks go through the preliminary prayers and rituals like seasoned clereics; the tiny ladies-in-waiting whisper secret mantras into the dancer twins ears as they gently fit the masks. The Semar Pegulingan gamelan starts the magical music and they are off, like escaped music box ballerinas who have found refuge in the spirit world!

The temple priests perform a duck-feeding-on-a-priestess’-head ritual to help guarantee the health of the village’s livestock for the next 30 years.

The nobles smoke. They’ve seen this sort of thing before. They are really just waiting in the wings for their turn on the ceremonial stage. In today’s finale they will bury the ‘shrine organs’, called pedagingan, to spiritually recharge the temple for another thirty old years.
I sidle up to my old buddy Cokorda Raka Kerthyasa, now the director of Ubud’s Puri Lukisan Art Museum and a key shaker and mover in Ubud’s culture circles. His Australian wife, Jero Asri, is in Dubai, he tells me – expanding their Ibah Hotel’s spa brand.
“That’s an island first!” I quickly congratulate him.
“If only the island could export the spiritual energy in this courtyard today!”
“I saved all the old statues,” he offers, sensing I am about to deliver a diatribe on the evils of andesite.
But I don’t.

At noon the princes are called to do their pedagingan- burying act. They stride through the crowd majestically – gold buttons glittering. Half way up the pagoda stairs they turn into Hindu priests. This is what they are born for I realize – from my vantage point at the back of the ten metre high Padmasana shrine crouching under a giant black andesite turtle paw – to defend the faith and renew the organs.
“New is holy,” I scream, “Long live the King.”


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