The Majapahit Empire Strikes Back
In the present stampede for ultra modern environments it is easy to forget Bali’s classical architecture.
Island-wide, the interest in classical culture is on the rise — the average age of players in Sidakarya village’s temple gamelan, for example, is 7 years old — but in the tourism belts it is getting harder and harder to find a street ceremony or dance in a Balinese setting. Urban sprawl and unchecked development have created a glut of glitzy concrete canyons and boulevards embellished with ugly billboards.
Last month I was pleasantly surprised to be invited to a friend’s house in Denpasar where I discovered a whole new world of loveliness.
The tourism industry seems so focused on providing an artificial “Bali experience” that many visitors don’t experience anything of the real Bali or see any real Balinese buildings.
Surprisingly some pockets of classical architecture remain.
In Denpasar, south Bali’s capitol, late Majapahit architecture is still fashionable and the noble families descended from Hindu-Java’s Majapahit era (13th– 16th century) are consecrating new towers, gates and temples with increased regularity.
To put things in perspective: the royal house of Pemecutan has over 200 branch palaces around Denpasar and each palace is ‘custodian’ to one or more Majapahit (red brick) era temples. The palaces of Seminyak, Legian and Singgi Sanur are also Pemecutan affiliated and are still proudly red-brick classical.
Sadly many of Bali’s temples have recently undergone Hindu-Transformer (Black) renovations so the surviving gems are all the more precious.
Please read on:
24 August 2012: To the Puri Tanjung Sari Pemecutan (ex-Batan Perek) for a kul-kul (slit-drum) tower and new palace gate ceremony
Many of Denpasar’s Pemecutan family palaces have recently been renamed to reflect their status and provenance i.e. to indicate how far ‘removed’ they are from the head palace. This was done to make it easier to tell the true Denpasar palaces from the manywannabes popping up in the suburbs, particularly those in the royalist – Consulate – Government – Pizza Parlor stronghold of Renon.
All the royals from Puri Tanjung Sari now live outside the palace — in Renon and Sanur — so I wasn’t expecting much of a turn-out.
The palace sits in the narrow street that separates Pemecutan from Denpasar’s commercial quarter. On arrival at 5 p.m. I find a packed courtyard and a full compliment of priests and princes; the ceremony is about to climax. Bamboo scaffolds are in place around the handsome new gate and the kul-kul tower — to facilitate the moving up and down of priests and offerings. A high priest and a gamelan orchestra are in full swing. Three brand-new slit-drums — ‘dressed’ in savory and sash for their purification — are lined up inside the ceremonial gate. A Topeng Sidakarya mask dancer is weaving around the courtyard while two palace lady priests go into wild dance trance; this form of dance offering to the ground spirits towards whom the bulk of the Pemelaspasan ceremonies are being directed.
Just before sunset the drums are ceremonially hoisted into place and the gate is blessed — a generation of Majapahit beauty is guaranteed.
Juniors from all the ‘branch-palaces’ then line up at the high priest’s stand to complete a Pewintenan blessing — a ritual completing arites de passage which enhances their spiritual authority as defenders of the faith.
As the dust settles and the high priest starts packing up his magic wand I wander deeper into the palace, which is a part of the mighty Pemecutan Palace complex which takes up a few city blocks. In a back courtyard I discover a meten pavilion with Javanese support posts — a gift from the royal kraton palace of Solo in Central Java. I am reminded of the old South Indian tradition of the Hindu maharajas donating pillars from their palaces for new mosque.
For a fuller description of this ceremony, see my video: http://youtu.be/MiXzBpDz430
10 September 2012: “PEMAPAGAN MONDAY” — the gods of Dalem Kepaon temple arrive back from Sakenan Turtle Island after a weekend away
Dalem Kepaon Palace sits next to Pura Dalem Kepala temple. The residing deity Ratu Dalem Kepala is the ‘grandson’ of Dalem Sakenan, one of Bali’s most revered deities. Pura Dalem Sakenan is one of the island’s six Sad Kahyangan (mighty temples). Tonight the ‘son’ of Dalem Sakenan — who resides in Suwung Gede, three kilometers South of Kepaon village, between the by-pass and Ace’s Hardware — leads the procession of gods heading home.
Ratu Agung is the only god in Bali to be met by a water buffalo-drawn chariot, called a pedati. The pair of water buffalos, who bear the legendary Majapahit names Anggrek Wulan and Yos Merana, reside inside the Dalem Kepala Temple. This year the mighty Baring Mogan also accompanies the returning gods.
After half an hour on the road the gods, chariot, barong, gamelan bleganjur and devotees turn left and cross a narrow bridge. Soon the small square in front of the temple’s main gate is full.
From inside the temple the Barong Medwi, trailing consorts, priests and ‘patih’ warriors (kris-dancers), files out between the 16th Century Portuguese canons to greet (mapag) the returning deities. Medwi is a village near Legian that once asked Kepaon village for wood for the village’s Barong mask.
Almost immediately the Medwi priests start their pendet dance and mendak rituals of welcome, with the gods and Barong flanking the tiny arena.
The head of the palace stands guard in front of the parked pedati. Three gamelans beat up a furious atmosphere. The kris dances start.
The first trancee dips the point of his dagger into the pasapan brassier then into a carpet of offerings — the welcome ‘mat’, — before performing a trance-dance-dagger-bender in front of the palace’s head), then the Barong (jaw chatting wildly) and finally the dress circle of village deities.
One by one the twenty or so ‘pengayah’ (kris-dancers) perform controlled ‘Hara-kiri’ all wildly different — we have eyeball-pokers, twin-stroke grannies, mayhem stab merchants — first to the royal presence, then to the Barong and the gathered deities.
In 40 years of attending this ceremony the feudal allegiance has never been so pointed. The prince receives the adoration of the trance-warriors with characteristic grace — his deified ancestors are, after all, the village’s deities.
As a card-carrying, conservative-monarchist / Pemecutan-groupie in an age of soya-froth republicans I feel an enormous swell of pride.
See my video: http://youtu.be/FoiK2DuUQh0