Friday, 18 May 2012

Stranger in Paradise: THAT OLD WHITE MAGIC

Parekan attendants at Samuan Tiga Temple convey the seven sacred peselang effigies down the temple’s central steps during the climax of the odalan festival, 6 May 2012.

Once upon a time in the magical middle kingdom of Bedulu, a dynamic Hindu-Javanese holy man held a big pow-wow with the aim of uniting all of Bali’s religious sects.
1000 years later, Hindu-Java is long gone but that ‘conference’ (pesamuan) is still being commemorated once a year at Pura Samuan Tiga.
The priest’s name, Empu Kuturan, has gone down in history as the father of Hindu-Bali — that branch of ceremonially-rich Siwa-Buddhism that is still practiced, fervently, across the island.
Last month was the temple’s odalan anniversary — I was lucky to record a series of magical moments that left me numb with awe.
“If only the Balinese could turn their organizational skills to the baggage trolleys at the airport” one cynic dryly observed while watching the temple’s courtyards in perfect synchronized action.
It was a magnificent show.
Pre-teen rejang dancers await their call at Pura Maospahit, Denpasar, 5 May 2012.
The day before I had traveled from the chaos that is Denpasar’s airport, through the chaos that is now west Denpasar, to the odalan of another ancient temple, the exquisite Pura Maospahit in Grenceng, Central Denpasar.
I had met one of the temple’s priests on line on Facebook and was invited to record the event.
As the tourists get dumb and dumber — eschewing the delights of Real Bali in favour of the cheap thrills of ‘New (pasteurized) Beep-Bop Bali’ — the Balinese are getting bigger and brighter, even reading my column to reaffirm their belief in their own wonderfulness.
Amongst the Balinese there is a huge renaissance in interest in all things classical, in inverse proportion to the interest expressed within the tourist and expatriate communities. These days, one hardly ever sees a tourist at a big temple event.
The 21 day long temple festival at Pura Besakih which also culminated last month — the 10th and 11th months on the Balinese calendar holier than others — was packed like never before.
The high priests had walkie-talkies and the temple wardens (pecalang) were like sacred service agents herding devotees from courtyard to courtyard like souped-up shepherds. Besakih even has a new corps of ojek motorbike taxis that ferry the faithful from their increasingly bigger buses in increasing more distant car parks. Many were dressed like Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront”. (See photo “Ojek Chic” in the top).
This year the bus which my office rented had a smoking section and a toilet and a dashingly good looking driver who caused quite a stir in the front seats when he sounded his mega claxon. (See my video ‘Besakih is a Mood’:
Now read on!

Temple Samuan Tiga, Gianyar
9 May 2012: To Samuan Tiga for the “Siat Sampiyan” (Battle of the dangling offerings) ceremonies
Balinese temples often ‘host’ ceremonial battles. Most famous is the Perang Dewa ‘Battle of the Gods’ held in a temple at Satria village East of Klungkung on Kuningan holyday. During this ritual, devotees in a trance-like state carry palanquin of seated deities around and around like dodgem cars.
At Tenganan, the Bali Aga village, one temple festival is celebrated with half-naked young men wielding wicker shields battle each other with sheaths of prickly pandanus leaves. 
In Munggu Village, west of Seminyak, also on Kuningan, hundreds of villagers take to the streets with bamboo poles which are crossed and bashed in the air as turmoil erupts.
Perhaps the most photographed ritual ‘battle’ is the SIAT SAMPIYAN at Pura Samuan Tiga, made famous in a series of images published by Ubud-based photographer Rio Helmi in the 1980s.
• • •
This morning I arrive at 10 a.m. to find groups of permas lady temple attendants fluttering in front of shrines — today they are wearing an abundance of red and white flowers in their top knots and elegant two-tone black and white costumes.
These attendants make all the offerings and, with the 300 or so male attendants, called parakan, decorate the shrines and run all the rituals. There is no royal patron for Samuan Tiga; six pekraman (sub-village units) run the 30 day event every year with approximately 1000 families paying Rp.100.000 each.
By 11 a.m. the thee main courtyards of the 10th century ‘state temple’ are packed; there are three gamelan orchestras playing and the press corps has been corralled, against its will, in a sunny spot north of the Bale Pegat ‘Pavilion of Oath’. Regular announcements threaten expulsion if we disobey.
I don’t carry a big lens or a saddle bag so I manage to avoid arrest by sidling up to the temple’s ‘Chief Prosecutor’, and guardian, Mr. Wayan Patra and give him a copy of the  video I made two days ago at the temple’s big day (See ‘Mapeselang Pura Samuan Tiga’:
Siat Sampiyan
Battle of the dangling offering at Pura Samuan Tiga, Gianyar, 9 May 2012
We are soon fast friends and I am pressed to donate a carpark or ten varieties of coconut. (Apparently there’s a pale-face priest in the village called Wayan Hawaii who’s very generous).
He confirms, as Rio Helmi had, that the Pralingga Peselang gods, unique to this temple, symbolize Buddhism, whilst the temple’s other gods represent Siwa-ite Hinduism.
As we discuss the fascinating 1000 year old history of this festival, congo-lines of permas attendants start weaving around  the temple in perambulations similar to those I have seen in the Buddhist temples of Burma and Bhutan.
By noon the 500 or so parekan surge down the temple’s central processional stair and, holding hands in a long daisy chain, start ricocheting of shrine bases and walls as they perambulate in frenzied fashion.
The gamelan music turns nasty.
The permas start wailing.

The head priest of Pura Samuan Tiga witnesses the mock battle from his podium perch

Lady attendants pray before the start of the rituals.
The groups race pell mell, from shrine to shrine, offering prayers. In front of the main paruman shrine the sweaty, heaving mass of men erupt into a sort of Ketjak Dance as the head priest comes down the shrine’s central stair, not unlike a Vegas diva, with a shining silver vat of holy water.
It’s all terribly theatrical and photogenic; “like a scout jamboree on jungle juice”, one cynic pronounces. (As such events get more and more ‘choreographed’ in Bali, cynicism is bound to creep in with the theatre critics.Ed.).
The next ‘act’ involves the parekan players grabbing the sampiyan — large woven shine ‘earings’ — and beating each other around the central court.
In other corners of the temple’s main court a gamelan thrashes out a beefy beleganjur melody, while photographers resist arrest, the High Priest beams blissfully from his holy perch as glee-filled gladiators  erupt into a melee of woven coconut and boisterousness below.
A riotously good show comes to its end: the final act in a temple festival that has raged for almost a month, with huge heapings of devotion, decoration and drama!
Enthusiasts can watch the video:
Director's cut: SIAT SAMPIYAN, Pura Samuan Tiga