Monday, 25 October 2010

Stranger in Paradise: Glam-Brams on Parade

Pedanda Gede Geria Ketewel in action at last month’s Ngasti at Ketewel.

Glam-Brams on Parade

“In India a ‘Tam-Bram’ is an expression for a Brahman
from the southern state of Tamil Nadu—generally a pushy one.”

In photographs of old Bali one occasionally sees a Brahman high priest, in a loose black jacket and white sarong — hair tied in a neat chignon — standing quietly next to heavily decorated, male-peacock Raja.

Things have changed.

Over the last decade Bali’s bigger Brahman houses — Jero Gede in Sanur and Geria Tapakgangsul in Denpasar in particular — have joined the high fashion stakes, with ladies swanning about in socialite-look sarong-kebaya and gym-toned men sporting heavy white flannel jackets ‘teamed’ with the event’s decorative theme (Lovely Lilac or Daisies and Dolphins for example).

There are no more stampedes of half naked men down river banks — these days giant T.V. screens stand where village serfs once cowered.

This is not to say that the Brahmans and their ceremonies — the backbone of the island’s ritualistic Bakti Yoga — are any less potent: last month alone I saw Hindu holy men bring to life a giant dragon and perform mass beatification rites for 200 odd souls, all between sips of coffee.

And the new ‘glam-brams’ are still gentle-natured compared to the fierce feudalism of the princes of the realm, their cousins (last count 7,942).

1937 photograph of princes and brahmans.

The major difference between India and Bali — which follows a form of South Indian ritualistic Hinduism — is that in Bali the Brahmans don’t ‘run’ the temples, just the major ceremonies.

And in Bali it is often women who act as ‘field-marshas’ at important religious events.

These women are nearly always women from either a Brahman (priestly) or Ksatriya (princely) house: they co-ordinate the truck loads of offerings and rituals at major weddings, cremations and temple festivals.

The lay priests, called pemangku, run everything else.
Now read on:

Friday, 15th October 2010: To Ubud, to help fetch a princess

Over the years, I have written about the Brahmans of Kepaon, the family I adopted in 1973.

They are distinctly non-glam in the sense that they are relative new-comers to this princely village and have for generations been content to just till the land and, very occasionally, do the last rites at local body washings and cremations.

My ‘brother’ in this family, Ida Bagus Susila, really wanted the family to be more ‘priestly’: he was well on the way to becoming Kepaon’s first Pedanda high priest when he succumbed to liver cancer in 1998 (see ‘Angel and Ashes’, January 1999).

Since his death the small geria compound has doubled in size and tripled in importance: Susila’s son now officiates at tooth-flings and cremations; Susila’s brother is now BENDESA ADAT chief of religious affairs and recently went to India, which he hated, with many of Bali’s other Bendesa Adat; Susila’s widow, Dayu Gede, is now a three-star ‘field-marsha’ — woe be to anyone who ignores her call to prayer.

Glamour at the Geria, Eka and Ayu are married.

Today the Bendesa’s only son, the meek Ida Bagus Eka, is to fetch his fiancée, Desak Ayu, a pretty girl from a minor noble family in Ubud.

We all meet at Kepaon — there are relatives from Lombok and Tabanan I hadn’t seen for 20 years, and over 40 Gustis from the palace — and proceed, in convoy, to the Ubud ‘show ground’ where Ubud palace pecalang are waiting to assist, as parking attendants.

Desak’s house is small but ornate, like Desak. Desak’s mum is a ravishing beauty and her brother, jumping around a lot with a very large camera, is a blond Balinese Adonis with an engaging squint.

I am looked upon by the Ubud family as some yoga hag the Brahmans have dragged in from Starbucks, but am recognized by the parking attendants, so my pride is still in palace.

Once inside the Ubud house Eka, the groom, disappears for an age, in a side room, to emerge in an extraordinary purple brocade confection with gold kris rampant and ruby-studded broaches dripping near every orifice.

The bells are still ringing inside Desak’s secret chamber ─ some archaic ritual for the bride’s hair and make-up team — but she soon emerges under a canary yellow beaded body veil.

Soon the veil slips off and the courtyard gasps: she is a vision of loveliness — like Cleopatra at the gates of Luxor!

The morning is a huge success: the ceremonies proceed smoothly.

• • •

On the way back in the car, Dayu Gede, Eka’s aunt, complains that the whole show was “over the top” and that her heart cried when Eka, a brahman, was made sit and pray on a wesia’s courtyard floor.

Aji Gede, the groom’s grandfather, tells Dayu Gede to get a life and asks the driver to step on the gas because it is almost closing time at the toddy stall.

‘Field-Marsha’ Dayu Gede bosses the newlyweds.

Monday, 18th October 2010: Geria Kepaon enters the Glam-Bram stakes

I arrive home at 9 a.m. to find all the ladies in purple outfits with thick false eyelashes. Giant screens have been erected next to the chicken pens and hideous sepia pre-wedding photographs of Eka and Ayu are everywhere, on easels, in ‘Louis Who’ frames.

“How much did they cost?” I scream.

It seems that no expense or colour scheme has been spared, to impress the Ubud family.

And they are impressed: not so much by the decoration but by the well dressed princes and brahmans from South Bali’s noble families perched high on the Northern and Eastern pavilion verandas; there are representatives from Pemecutan, Kesiman, Sanur-Intaran, Cau-Marga and Kamasan.

Sweet Pedanda Sidemen officiates: even he now has a new-look indigo and ivory cummerbund which his wife tells me they had made from ‘tourists scarfs’!

Peace reigns amidst the purple: Dayu Gede is bossing everyone about, the prawn cutlets are flying off the buffet; and Eka and Ayu are not crumbling under the weigh if their golden crowns.

And God bless glamour!