Friday, 17 May 2013

TRAVEL DIARIES: Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

Bugis house in the rice fields outside Makassar.

Tana Toraja, that remarkably beautiful series of river valleys in Central Sulawesi, is the tropic’s answer to Bhutan.
It is well worth the 9 hour drive from Makassar (regular flights to Rantepao resume this August). One can do this in a leisurely fashion, as I did — taking in the coastal scenery, the Bugis villages and the cavalcade of local snacks for sale at the roadside — or one can take the luxury night bus and be there in time for down.
I left Makassar at 5.30. a.m. I was rewarded, just out of town, with a dramatic sunrise over the southern mountains. 
Early morning light   bathed the rice padis in an ethereal smokey light.
In Pare-Pare on the coast, I had breakfast at the kitschy Lucky Café and then started the climb to the central tablelands.

Star street busker in Pare-Pare, South Sulawesi.
(see my video:  Bugis Road Trip: , for a full report on Pare-Pare)
Just outside Enrekang we stopped at Lina’s Café for a mie kering noodle.  The karaoke café is perched on the banks of the raging Sa’dan river. In Enrekang we sampled the local cottage cheese, called Danke, which is served fried and salted with rice.

Mie kering noodle & Karaoke

Bugis basket-seller on the Makassar – Pare Pare road.
We arrived at the rather dramatic “Gateway to Tana Toraja” at 3 p.m. and  spent the next two hours with our eyes on sticks so beautiful were the rice padi-strewn valleys wrapped around bamboo-forested hillocks and bamboo draped rivers. Liberally interspersed amongst all the natural beauty were clusters of the tongkonan stilt-houses for which Toraja is famous.

Makale town, Tana Toraja — municipally robust.
The Sa’dan river which follows the roads as one travels up from Makale to Rantepao is the lifeblood of the people of Toraja, as the Sa’dan irrigates the surrounding fertile ricefields and provides water for both humans and cattle in this largely agricultural land.
I wanted to stay in a village in Northern Toraja where most of the attractions are, and had the fortune to stumble on-line onto a “village stay” run by a young Toraja fire-brand lady named Manaek Londe (website:
Tana Toraja is actually a trekkers’ and mountain bikers’ paradise, but I just wanted to pot  around in an Innova discovering things.

Hostess with the mostess Manaek Lande of “Village Stay” homestay near  Siguntu, Rantepao, Tana Toraja.
On day one I discovered a warung at the water buffalo market — an amazing ‘happening’ in a vast arena involving hundreds of the stately beasts — which had an atmosphere like the saloon in a Hollywood western but with bucket-loads of chicken and pork curries on the tables. It was all male and high testosterone but with Jesus Christ posters on the walls.

Starboy buffalo-herd at the Rantepao Buffalo market.
The chicken curry had banana trunk vegetables mixed in and the pork had been cooked in bamboo. Big water-buffalo washing men sat on the veranda platforms entwined. (Same sex affection is the sign of a civilized society I always say).
The whole scene reminded me of the Lake Toba district of North Sumatra but without all the macho-agro that comes with the tuwak-swilling Batak men-folk. The Torajan men and women are hard-working, surprisingly artistic (like the Balinese) and humble. They have a spring in their step and their zest for life is infectious: I just wanted to wash every dappled water buffalo I saw.
After the Rantepao market we went to the heritage village of Pallawa with its “architectural chorus” (Tim Street-Porter) of Tongkonan houses (see photo opposite page). The Torajan ‘attractions’ don’t disappoint: one always gets a sense of discovering something unique and unspoiled. There are no greedy  artshop vendors to break the spell of enchantment: Mass tourism has yet to arrive!
Rustic charm decorations on a tongkonan rice loft, Tanah Toraja.
On the way home we visited Lamo, one of the royal graveyards for which Tana Toraja is famous. One first enters a verdant secret valley with backdrops of limestone cliffs. High up into the cliffs are cave-like tombs for the internment of coffins. Wooden human effigies in day dress, called Tao-tao, form dress circles of eternal audience in verandah-like perches also hewn into the cliff.
Night life in a village in the cool mountain air consists of lots of heavy sleep and dogs barking, rather like Bali before the advent of the café cewek and super highways.

Megaliths at the royal tombs at Bori, Tana Toraja, Central Sulawesi.
On Day Two we took in the megaliths at Bori — many anthropologists believe that the Tana Toraja culture descends from the megalithic cultures of Palu and Poso valleys to the north, the roots of whose populations can be traced to Southern Taiwan — and the village of Perunding where we stumbled across a Toraja wedding. The village square had become a giant party space and benign drunkards were hanging out on the platforms below the rice lofts. There was some exotic line-dancing and loose talking and masses of pork meat.
The Torajans are all devout Christians but, like the Bataks, have managed to keep most of their ancient tribal customs. Unlike the Bataks, they are not great singers, so the roofs stay on the churches at Sunday Service, the girls do, however, wear the same 1950s party frocks to mass, which does look

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Stranger in Paradise: Tale of two Puris

The chief priest Gusti Mangku Gede and his assistants in the Paruman Agung shrine distribute holy water
to the frenzied parakan devotees, 28th April 2013
Tale of two Puris
Denpasar has four royal palaces, if one counts Puri Agung Jero Kuta, the custodian of Uluwatu temple.
Of the three main palaces, Puri Pemecutan takes up most of the oxygen — so manly and worldly its princes, descended, as a they all are, from Cokorda Pemecutan III who had 500 wives. Next comes the rival Puri Satria Palace whose prince has political ambitions and some very fine clothes, and then the sweetie-Puri Kesiman, known for its gentle princes and the spiritual prowess of the line's founder, Cokorda Sakti (1813 – 1861).
Last month I went to functions in the royal 'chapels' (temples, in fact) of two of the palaces — Pemecutan and Kesiman —  both of which involved the mighty god of Uluwatu and a battalion of followers from Pecatu village, the surfer’s paradise of Bali.
Above (left): the main gate of Pura Penambangan Badung and (right) the main gate of the Puri Kesiman palace.
I was so impressed by the verve and macho mastery of the first event — a night event  at Pura Tambangan Badung which included a frantic race of palace groupies three times around the temple with all the pengawin (spears and flags) that I almost didn't go to the lesser palace the next day. I am so glad that I did because the atmosphere in Kesiman was equally electric and the processions exquisite. Kesiman palace rivalled with tenderness and beauty all the bravado of Pemecutan, where the prince sits in state, as it were, while delectable young maidens in “hit and run” chemise parade to and fro.
“Hit and run” is a fashion term coined by Gianyar's Hawai'i-born fashion policeman Garrett Kam (a.k.a. parekan Nyoman Hawaii) of the mighty Samuan Tiga Temple. The term describes the outfits of the Denpasar elite temple fashionista who are these days stretching the boundaries of the Paris Hilton meets Hindu Holiday look.
At Kesiman it was less show but more go.  The show started late afternoon outside the palace’s grand walls on the main Denpasar to Gianyar road.  The gods of Uluwatu arrived in a phalanx of loveliness at the crossroads at 5 p.m.: Mangku Juri, Pecatu village's celebrity priest, leading the procession. It was a full on spiritual face-off, with Kesiman's superior pageantry and plethora of palace temple gods rather outshining the simple but stately Pecatu juggernaut.
•   •   •

Climactic moments at the 11 day temple festival at Pura Samuan Tiga. The 10th century temple annually holds the ombak-ombak ritual of 400 screaming parekan hurling themselves around the temple courtyards in a King-congo line, 28th April 2013
I went to another amazing temple festival last month too and made some fashion notes.
At the mighty Samuan Tiga Temple festival it was a relief to record that some chic young temple devotees have deserted the white-on-white psychiatric-nurse temple dress look — with its stiff jackets and headscarves — in favour of a more louche ‘Olde Bali’ look. The truth is: the culture is just so dynamic that fashion changes every week and it is hard keeping up with the latest trends.
In temple decoration the fashion is moving away from the simple-classical towards the Imee Marcos' wedding look (see last month’s column). Even the once classically simple boxes which house the spooky witch masks (rangda) now resemble chocolate boxes from Darrel Lee, Melbourne-based purveyor of glitzy-looking confectionery to the Australian public.
Despite the sometimes scary fashion trends, the culture continues to roar!
Now read on:
25 April 2013: Pura Penembahan (Tambangan) Badung for the annual tenth full moon festival
Tambangan Badung Temple is actually the Merajan Agung (royal chapel) of the old Pemecutan Palace; the original palace having been destroyed during the puputan suicide battle against the Dutch in 1906.
It is one of Bali’s largest and grandest Merajan Agung, on a par with Pura Taman Ayun (the Mengwi royal family’s temple); it is also one of Denpasar’s most important temples.
The annual odalan is the height of Denpasar’s ceremonial calendar: the rituals run all day and well into the morning, when the barong and trance dances finally wind up.
Tonight the guards are all in special Tambangan Badung canon-motif skirt clothes (saput) and shirts and all are sporting batik udeng head scarves tied in the Javanese manner; the temple is, after all, the home of Dalem Majapahit, the Javanese ancestor spirit of the Pemecutan clan.
I find the Cokorda asleep at his post on the verandah he likes to occupy in the kitchen section. It is 7 p.m.: it has been a long temple day.
The Grebeg  ritual is just starting and the fabulous Bleganjur Pemecutan marching band is whipping up frenzy. Soon all the temple’s pengawin (spears and flags) are being raced around the temple three times.
For 5 hours I watch the constant stream of Denpasar devotees, and priests and barongs, waiting for the pray-in. In the kitchen all the king’s men lobby for position with the charismatic Cokorda.
At midnight the crowd parts and the royal family come forward to pray. The Pecatu (Uluwatu) devotees are ordered down from the semanggen pavilion they have occupied with their god: no-one sits higher than the raja at Tambangan Badung.
This year the chief priest is wearing a portable microphone as are the septuagenarian dancers inside the giant Barong puppets — technology meets temple.
After solemn prayers the temple turns into a stage for Legong, Barong and Jauk dance offerings.
It is an amazing 18 hour series of rituals right in the heart of Denpasar.
26 April 2013: To the Puri Kesiman Palace, East Denpasar, for their temple festival
Last night one of the Kesiman princes reminded me that the Uluwatu god moves to Kesiman today to pay respects to that palace. I decide to go and pay my respects.

The Kesiman palace gods line up.
I arrive at 4 p.m. to find a gorgeous gong suling (flute ensemble) from Peliatan playing in the outer ancak  saji  court as retainers hurry to and fro with umbrellas and spears and pieces. Panjak devotees are arriving and filling up the ranks. The Cokorda, Ngurah Agung Kusuma Wardhana, is holding court from his garage-side perch behind a pile of books and bottles. He has a student radical personality and bulging eyes. His wife, Agung Istri Mas, is working the crowd: she is a saintly dance instructor and fashion plate (See photo below).
Images from Mendak Batara Luhur Uluwatu ceremony
at Puri Kesiman, Denpasar 26th April 2013.

Ngurah Putra and Agung Istri Mas.

The Kesiman palace priests greet the God of Uluwatu.
There are but a few pecalang guards accompanying the procession of palace gods which files out at 5 p.m. to meet the arriving Uluwatu god and his contingent (800 strong).  The kulkul drum sounds from its massive red-brick tower. With the main Gianyar road closed, and the afternoon sun picking out the brightly coloured umbrellas and gilt arca deity figures, it is an enchanting scene. The flute ensemble purrs in the background. The gods meet in a ‘face-off’ and the Kesiman priests collapse into trance — so overpowering is the presence of Bathara Luhur in the middle of the road on a Friday afternoon.
Eventually all the gods head off to Pura Musen and the beji holy spring for a ‘wash’ before the night’s rituals begin.
Both puris have put on wondrous spectacles: it’s hard to imagine downtown Denpasar without its palaces.

PERANG SAMPIYAN, Odalan Pura Samuan Tiga, Bedulu, Gianyar, 28 April 2013