Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Stranger in Paradise: The Majapahit Empire strikes back

Young Hindu-Javanese Blitar girls, dressed in Rejang Dewa temple dance costume at Candi Penataran on the Fifth Full Moon.

500 years ago, thousands of East Javanese Hindus — peasants, priests, princes and artists from the last great Hindu Kingdom of Majapahit — fled to Bali rather than convert to Islam.
Last month the Balinese descendents of this great exodus returned to Candi Penataran in Blitar, East Java, for a mighty re-unification with their distant relatives — the Javanese Hindus who have been hiding in the hills of Java for a very long time.
The Balinese swells are much admired by the Javanese country cousins, as much for their wealth as for the majesty of the Majapahit rituals they have preserved. It was a joyous occasion all around.
My eye-witness report, below, is a tad cynical as many purists regard these attempts at grafting Balinese Hinduism back onto the remains of Hindu Java with a dash of scepticism. To me, it seems inevitable that the Javaneseness of the original will be lost if it is swamped by too much Balinese panache and expansionism.

Intrepid Majapahitista Tim Street-Porter, house model for Wijaya Words coming ‘Majapahit Styles.

17th November 2013: Live from Candi Penataran, Blitar, East Java, 11a.m.
Seven Hindu-Javanese priests (symbolic descendents of the Sapta Rsi who first brought the Hindu religion to Bali) and seven Balinese sulinggih high priests are lined up in front of a sea of offerings facing the main magnificent candi of the Penataran Temple complex. A Javanese gamelan is playing a version of the national anthem, ‘Indonesia Raya’. A local Hindu MC is rhapsodizing about the importance of this heroic Hindu be-in.
The 1,000 or so devotees are divided into two camps: the Javanese Hindus, who are very tense and serious and self-absorbed, and the Balinese ‘yatra-istas’ for whom this is just another day at the office party.
The climax of the proceedings — led by Romo Dukun Sakti from Tengger, East Java and a Balinese high priest after 500 years even if only counterpart — is a procession of vials of holy waters from the top terrace of the main temple down to the seven large terracotta vats lined up in front of the priests’ pavilion.
As celebrants swoon, white doves are let off. Cameramen in blangkon and batik crane, the Vedic incantations wind down and a very dour Kanjeng from the Keraton of Solo, Central Java, comes forward and has a stack of Veda books put on his head. In front of a fluttering Indonesian flag he gifted a vial of holy water from a Balinese nobleman. They hug like long lost brothers. The MC's rhetoric rises to a feveredpitch. The gathering dissolves into one a melee of photo opportunities. The Balinese priests look hungry and leave.
Thousands of domestic tourists flood back in and trample the offerings.
It is amazing to see Candi Penataran back in action, after 500 years, even if only for a few hours — the setting, the solemnity — but there's no real hening ( mystical magic), just rather a lot of posturing mixed with gorgeous Hindu-Bali style ceremony. If this is the arus balik Majapahit (the return of Majapahit Hinduism) it still has a long way to go to catch the hearts and minds of the Hindu-Javanese Street in Blitar.
Full marks to the regional Hindu See, however, for staging such a magnificent ceremony in the middle of no-where on the fifth full moon.
23rd November 2013: Foodie Bali
Last month I drove down, down to the Bukit Peninsular, past New Kuta and almost to Uluwatu, in search of the perfect spiced octopus tapas.
I turned right after Nirmala Supermarket, as instructed, and wound in and in and in, following the extreme sunset and the blue signs that said ‘El Kabron’ even though my secretary had given us a Google map to Kuta Condotel (both have ‘el’ and ‘Ko’ in their names, you see).
It was my 16-year-old godson’s birthday, and he had chosen this new trendy eatery because it is a two-hour drive from Canggu, if you can find it.
The lovely El Kabron restaurant, near Uluwatu (Photo courtesy of
I found it and was not disappointed. There was a perfectly round pool with a white sand deck at cliff’s edge, and row after row of attractive slim young chain-smoking Jakartans, and matching expats, on sky blue beanbags: it was like business class on Virgin Dirigible. The customers seemed kind of depleted, like the beanbags, and not talking, just staring off the cliff edge like lemmings. Blue lights bathed the ‘Pooftah Palms’ (Washingtonia homoensis) arranged in a neat matrix on the dining decks. Oil paintings of Bilbao and bull-fights adorned the actual dining room walls. Hispanic house music blared
Lots of very professional Balinese waiters and waitresses buzzed around prodding the beanbag occupants at regular intervals to see if they were still conscious and still ordering.
The thing is: you have to order, or you sink into a blue stupor and get carted off.
The food was excellent and the music certainly improved after 7:30, when the main menu kicked in and the serious ‘foodies’ arrived, all dressed up nice-like in couture Milo caftans.
I slunk out after a life-affirming 90 minutes and sped back to Sidakarya where the final rehearsal for the Banjar Kangin Sidakarya kiddies’ gamelan concert was in progress. Painted polystyrene arches were being set in place; three-tiered yellow temple umbrellas were being stuck into any empty space at the Banjar entrance, just as tourist restaurants used to do.
Balineseness is not encouraged at top end restaurants any more: it’s considered old hat. This is a shame, because a Balinese garden setting is most appetite-inducing.
I’m racking my brain to think of any exception: in Seminyak, Bonita’s has a fabulous Balinese garden, and Warisan a view over simulated rice field on its carpark roof, but most high-end foodism is about brown things evenly spaced, in rows.
The new ‘Merah Putih’ on Jalan Petitenget has an exciting interior that would make any Las Vegas nightclub proud — and it showcases the best of Indonesia design — but no garden.
Bamboo hangers are the new Balinese garden: giant ingeniously designed free-form space frames with big bamboo bones.
Set them in a Cairns Airport garden setting and turn on the till and the foodies stampede in.
But seriously: Bali, once a backpackers’ food court, is now a top destination for the cuisine-conscious. You should hear them gushing about the gazpacho! You should see them fingering their Frittata Florentine with fish fool.
Me, I still like me Fish ’n’ Chips from Man Fryday in Mertasari. Ever since I discovered that potatoes are alkaline I order out battered Red Schapper and Chips, at sunset, after a few desultory laps in my pool,  and sit in my Balinese garden feeding my cats and my driver (60) who needs the protein or we’ll end up at Kuta Condotel.
It’s not that I’m a cat person. It’s just that all the dogs died. Don’t ever get attached to a dog, or even a bakso vendor, on Jalan Pengembak: they all have very short shelf-lives.
But that’s another story.
Sanur is now swamped with fabulous new restaurants and hooters bars. Amongst the former: Grocer and Grind, Three Monkeys, Café Batujimbar, and The Village are my favourites; and the Tanjung Sari on the beach is the best for lunch (amazing for people-watching!).
The hooters bars are great for people-watching too — people on poles with most of their clothes off. The chips are soggy there, and the pies frozen, but the Banyuwangi take-away is to die for, one pundit told me.
In Ubud my favourite haunt is Mendez’s on the Penestanan Road just above Blanco’s, and around the corner and along a bit.
The roast goat ribs on Thursday night, Daddies Night, are amazing. Anything you can’t eat you can put in a ‘Daddy-bag’ provided by the café’s debonair owner, Mendez, who is still consultant chef to Sir Warwick Purser’s hospitality chain.

Tigang Oton ceremony for A.A.Gede Agung Bagus Janesvara Banyuning,
Puri Banyuning, Bongkasa, 11 December 2014
(see video:

Bongkasa palace ladies

Aunties arrive in the rain

Village boy plays the palace gamelan

Pedanda Istri Bongkasa

The celebrant

Travel Diaries: Blitar - Sydney

14th Century Candi Sawentar, Blitar.

There is a surge in interest in  East Java’s Hindu past after a recent outbreak of Majapahit-mania. The Trowulan Tourism Authority (East Java) seem to be starting a Hindu Theme park around the old 14th Century capital — the cause for conservation of Majapahit monuments increasingly intertwined with fervent nationalism — and all sorts of mystics and spirit-worshippers have jumped onto the bad wagon, including me.
Last month I went to Blitar, to Candi Penataran — the Majapahit Empire’s answer to Pura Besakih, Bali’s Mother Temple — for a unification ceremony aimed at cementing relations between the Holy Hindu Bali and the Holy Hindu Java sees.

My first Majapahit runscape (1984) still intact at the lovely Hotel Bumi (ex-Hyatt) in Surabaya.

President Soekarno statue on the outskirts of Blitar

Famed architectural photographer Tim Street-Porter admiring the topiary at Candi Kotes, Blitar.
Talk about smells and bells: there were seven high priests from Bali and seven from Java — descendents of the famed Sapta Rsi I was told there were more Majapahit daggers in the air than a Kuta Beach keris dance.
My photographer friends and I stayed at the charming Tugu Blitar hotel, an old colonial bungalow converted into a budget boutique resort by the clever owners of the quirkish Tugu  chain. The interiors in the public areas and the East Javanese art and Soekarno era memorabilia make Tugu a perfect base for Majapahit enthusiasts wanting to see all the monuments around Blitar. The East Javanese food in the hotel is excellent too.

The entrance tunnel into the Tugu Hotel, Blitar.

Lobby, Tugu Hotel, Blitar.

Veranda on the old Dutch bungalow, Tugu Hotel, Blitar.
•    •    •
On the second day our guide took us to sample some of the Nasi Pecel that Blitar is famous for, at Mbak Bari’s, next to President Soekarno’s elaborate tomb complex.
After lunch, we visited some delightful candi including the fully restored Candi ……………….. and the rare and unique Candi Kotes, 14th Century Javanese temple that is similar to family house temples (merajan) in today’s Balinese homes.
Interested parties can watch my video of the ceremony at ………………………. and another of the Blitar antiquities, at ………………
The scenery around Blitar is sublime: Javanese pastoral with a backdrop of sea green hills and mountains. The coastal towns 20 kilometres south, are well worth the detour: Bale Kambang island South Coast  Java’s answer to Tanah Lot.

The beautiful 10th Century Garuda-Wisnu statue, the centerpiece of Candi Belahan, near Pandaan, Malang, now at the Museum Majapahit, Trowulan.

Garuda statue is believed to be the statue of Menak-Jinggo
Travel Advice:
The drive from Surabaya – Blitar, at five hours, is a bit grueling. Better to drive two hours to Malang, to the lovely Tugu hotel and spend a day visiting the important candi ruins there, and sampling the local food, then take the scenic route to Blitar (two hours) the next day.
Sunday, 8 December, 2013: To Bogor, West Java, to design a Chinese grave garden
I have never travelled around the Sundanese villages near Bogor and I can’t say I really recommend it. The food is good, at the local warung, and of course the amazing Kebun Raya Botanical Gardens, but it’s all a bit congested, with the peak hour traffic often unbearable. These days Bandung has suffered a similar fate. It is easier to fly to Singapore or Bali.

Customer at warung

Warung-owner has lunch, Bogor, West Java.
•     •     •
From Jakarta I flew to Sydney on a new Airbus 330. The passenger out of Jakarta — mostly Indonesia students and holiday-makers — is so much nicer than the uncouth hordes that leave Bali nightly, dripping sweat and beer cans.

Gardenista Wendy Whitely in her secret garden, Lavender Bay, Sydney.

Before landing in Sydney, a few conservative Muslim Indonesian ladies climbed out of their burkha, exposing svelte figures in tight jeans. It reminded me of flights from Saudi Arabia to Heathrow, where the same thing happens.
I spent a few days in Sydney — heavenly in early December — before flying back to Bali on Garuda.
19 December, 2013, EAST BALI UPDATE:
Sweeping into the Amankila at dusk this afternoon, I am thrilled to notice a row of black Innovas In the car park, all with their windscreen wipers ‘at attention’.

The bar at the Amankila, Manggis, East Bali (by Ed Tuttle).
Minutes later, in the lobby rest rooms, I experienced a similar euphoria looking down and seeing a pair of frangipani flowers equidistant from the urinal’s flushpipe.
Perfect symmetry is such a personal thing, and nowhere is it better celebrated than in the Amans across the land.
To be honest, I used to be slightly allergic to the perfectness of brown objects in straight lines evenly spaced: I now find it immensely soothing, after the chaos that rules in the outer sphere. 
The bar at the Amankila is Bali's last bastion of regal splendour, achieved through designer Ed Tuttle's sublime balance of exquisite pavilion architecture and finely crafted interiors. Add to this mix the waiters in their smart Puri Gianyar circa 1970s livery — a sight for sore eyes after the sorry sartorial escapades of other high end hotels — and the trademark Aman service, refined and not overly attentive. Here you can have moments that turn into memories... Oh Mama.
23 December 2013: 3On the way home to Sydney again, for Christmas.
Bali Airport Update: International Departures.
After weeks of weathering criticism over the obscene openness of the parkway approaches, the Denpasar Airport authorities have now added ethnic-lite statues — rumoured to be from the Grand Bali Beach 1995 fire sale — every five metres or so along the kerbs and herbaceous borders. These add a dash of Hindu Bali to an otherwise New Asian “Blade-runner” urban experience.

New Denpasar International Airport.
In another enlightened gesture, the airport managers have now placed a giant, waist-high Hindu-look ashtray right at the corner  as one enters the ‘Bali Temple’ forecourt: this provides a pre-smoking room ambience and post Armageddon-in-miniature vistas achieved with of almost concentric circles of hundreds of half-sucked cigarettes in a sea of black sand. The airport stylists have thrown in some Beng-Beng wrappers and spent gum to simulate a festive, ‘back of temple’ look.
Once inside the terminal building the Departures section of the exciting new Denpasar Airport-cum-Balinese Theme Park is much better than arrivals. After immigration one can take the scenic route — through the back of the world's longest duty free loop — via Tobblerone, John Hardy (take in the cutting-edge video on dots), Bin House and Paul Ropp and cut 350 meters off the retail route. (This route also allows you to stay on a polished surface for ease of wheelie-bag control).

Monday, 16 December 2013

ROYAL CHRISTENING: 42 day Ceremony for CPXI's 11th Grandchild

Third son of A. A. Ngurah Damar Negara and Agung istri Pramiyanti Damara, Puri Pemecutan Denpasar


UPACARA TIGANG OTON di Puri Banyuning, Bongkasa. 11 Dec 2013