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Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Pelebon, Puri Saren Ubud

15th July 2008:
To Puri Saren, ‘Ubud, Bali’s prettiest palace’, for the gargantuan cremation of Ubud’s popular prince, Tjokorda Gede Agung Suyasa, and other family members

The two main lembu parked outside the palace

At 10 a.m., I arrive at the palace after a long walk west from the VIP-B car park, past purple-shirted serfs clustered at the feet of colossal black bull sarcophagi and golden-winged cremation towers.
I traipse through ten or so courtyards like a big pink gorilla in drag in a cake-shop filled with Asian aristocrats (from all corners of the archipelago) and past the well-packed pavilion of rajas, past Poppy Darsono pretending to be the daughter of the late Sunan of Solo (Pakubuwono XII), past Sir Warwick Purser in tan flares; well past Linda Garland, wearing an elegant golden lace kebaya and very dark wine-red, almost brown, songket plus beautiful jewellery (old style Majapahit) plus mauve surgical stockings, ‘yin-yang bling’ earrings (gold-tipped Zen walnuts fashioned by one-armed Timor Leste lesbians from the humanely-culled scrotal sacs of highland Dani tribes-men) and past press gangs and make-up artists and a glittering Naga Banda dragon parked in its pavilion in the Ancak Saji
(Javanese: pancak suji) court, finally to find Jero Asri, ‘Australia’s own princess in Bali’, in the north-western courtyard. She is monitoring her daughter Maya’s maquillage for her big moment on the procession’s royal palanquin. An old flame (of mine, not Maya’s) is applying the false eye-lashes.
• • •
On a visit to Ubud two weeks back, fresh from Solo, I was reminded of the difference in Balinese and Javanese palaces at times of ceremonial activity. The Javanese palaces are vast and sedate: courtiers and nobles are everywhere, plotting intrigues in courtyard corners. The ceremonies happen according to a programme with general lounging in the off-limits (to most) royal apartments in between. In Ubud, serfs, tourists, priests and princes intermingle to an extent. Balinese palaces, particularly Puri Saren, Ubud, are alive with ceremonial/social/logistical (offering-making etc.) activity for the weeks that surround the big events! While the cremation atmosphere is hardly ‘festive’, the mood is relaxed and jovial, with lots of comic relief; unlike the rather sombre courtliness of the rituals of Javanese palaces.
• • •
Jero Asri and her daughter, Tjok Sri Maya Kerthyasa

Today Jero Asri is surrounded by her Australian ladies-in-waiting; her friend la Barone Gill Marais, author of ‘Sex in the Puri’, a new film series on Balinese palace life, chats to her first grandson.
After a sumptuous lunch and a few hours of palace people-watching we all file out for one of the greatest shows on earth: an Ubud royal cremation spectacle.

Stepping out of the rarefied atmosphere of the puri into the New Year’s Revellers at Luna Park atmosphere on the now closed main road, alive with battalions of funeral float bearers in bright purple, is like “stepping on to a giant tab of acid” (to quote Bill Dawson).

Dignitaries are surveying the amazing scenes form the palace’s corner belvedere: there is the Minister of Tourism, Jero Wacik; the new governor-elect, Major General Made Mangku Pastika; Sukmawati Soekarnoputri (again!); ex-minister Moerdiono (upon whose life a new “The Sopranos—style TV series is to be based); and handsome Gung Bagus from Peliatan, the elder-Puri!

One by one the floats are hoisted up and moved into position. The crowd cheers. Tjokorda Raka Kerthyasa is commanding. (“He was particularly close to the deceased,” Wayan Juniartha reports, in a fabulous feature story in today’s Jakarta Post).
Tjokorda Raka Kerthyasa and family members in the Semanggen court on the morning of the cremation

Last of all the giant Naga Banda dragon is conveyed out of the palace and into the last slot on the ‘tarmac’ (floats and bull sarcophagi waiting like taxiing jumbos on side ramps). Quietly the crowd parts and old Pedanda Lingsir from Aan, East Bali appears with a full retinue of retainers, gold offerings and a gleaming magic bow and arrow. After some Vedic rituals the high priest ‘fires’ arrows to the four cardinal directions, then up and down, to clear all paths to the after-life.
Finally, after two hour in the crowd outside the palace, gongs starts beating, bleganjur gamelan pounding, and Tjok Raka drops the red flag. We’re off!

“It’s vulgar,” I hear woolite heiress and puri refusenik Carole Muller complain as vigilantes start chopping down trees to clear the path. Spectators are lined ten deep and up the side of the buildings! All the rooftops along the one mile of the processional route are crammed with people.
After 200 metres, the big float stalls, squashing two Chinese Jakartas and three drunk Germans at a roadside ATM.

As the palace seniors frantic—on the float—struggle to free the trapped beliemoth, I race down the mall like a streakier in a fancy dress—”Run Fat Boy Run”, screams the crowd—just in time to catch the first float (bearing the coffin of Tjok Suyasa’s auntie) as it turns up the hill to the cremation ground.

The beleganjur marching band has gone berserk: the relief drummers are dancing in the street, so joyous is the mood (“Ubud is a mood,” screams Leonard Leuras from a nearby massage parlour). This royal family, so beloved by the masses, is sent off with great style.
Gooooo..........!!! (left to right);Tjok Kerthyasa, Tjok Putra Sukawati and
Tjok Alit Dharma Putra on Tjok Suyasa’s badé float