Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Stranger in Paradise: It’s Show Time

Devotee from Padang Kertha, East Bali at the mass-melukat (bathing ritual) on 9th March at Pura Kedasan, Suwung Kauh

Last month Bali was taken off Huffington Post’s Bucket List, Schapelle Corby was released from Kerobokan jail, and Ketut Rhonda, of the television advertisement fame, was romantically linked to Schapelle by the gutter press in Australia.
The tweed fedora she wore with a rayon print fascinator became an instant trend on the high street in Coolangatta, but not in Kuta. Facebook’s Bali Crime page added 20,000 new members and Facebook’s Bali Expat page rallied to rescue an old Kiwi left in a bad state after a mugging. Sadly he died. 200 new confusion restaurants opened across the island, many with pale-face maitre de. Porters were banned from the arrival halls at Denpasar airport after the Japanese Consul complained of rip-offs.
In Ubud, a Californian mystic started reading the froth in people’s cappuccino at ten dollars a session.
In March, a prominent American expat Aids activist was stabbed 136 times in the neck by a male escort, and died; a prominent Brahman high priest in Denpasar was murdered by his drug-crazed son; a man fell off his brother’s funeral bier in Tabanan and died; and a rangda dancer stabbed himself to death during a barong performance in Karangasem.
The Balinese have decided that the time is right for some major appeasement rituals directed at the negative forces. Such ceremonies, called Tawur Agung, usually happen yearly, on the 9th full moon before Nyepi, the Day of Silence, but last month it was decided that they need augmenting, due to the rise in violent and unusual crimes.
Massive rites are the Balinese antidote to mass tourism and urban sprawl. Production lines of tantric sivaite rituals can, presumably, cancel out the influence of waves of hedonism and creepy deaths.
The High priests of Bali, the sulinggih, have taken over from the government, in a way, to address imbalances. Cleansing the land with rituals is one route to redemption. Another path to harmony and balance in the universe is by re-aligning people’s bodily cakra (energy centres) through cleansing rituals.
Now read on ….
9 March 2014, Banyu Pinaruh, the holiday after Hari Raya Saraswati, the feast day for the Goddess of Kerobokan and the Arts when the Balinese all go to the beach for a purifying bath
Last week I got a text message from a high priestess inviting me to the malarial swamps south of Suwung-Kepaon a for an early (5.a.m.) mass melukat (ritual bathing).
The venue is near the altar in the mangroves where our village gods go for Melasti once a year before Nyepi, to wash ritual implements in the sea and give homage to Dewa Baruna, God of the Oceans.
I woke late and headed off at 7 a.m., hoping to find salvation and some copy for this column.
The road outside my Mertasari Sanur home is abuzz with bathers on bikes on their way to or from Mertasari Beach, the people’s beach.
I sped to the mangroves in my temple best.
[ Click image to enlarge ]
At Suwung I turn off by the busy by-pass and park at the entrance to the mangrove forest. I can hear the intonations of bell-ringing Brahmans through the thick bush; waves of wet devotees are walking back from the ceremonial place, all beaming with bliss.
I walk into the mangrove forest for about 800 metres, turn two corners and am suddenly confronted with a scene out of the Mahabrata! Eight high priests and priestesses, exquisitely attired, are all sitting in a long roofed pavilion dousing a production line of  devotees with petalled water.
The priests’ pavilion faces a new Pura Taman-style moated temple which is beautifully decorated and full of offerings and pilgrims.
My hero, high priest Ida Pedanda Bang, a friendly fundamentalist is leading the proceedings, barking out incantations on a remote mike as he rings his bell. An entire medieval court of gorgeous devotees and handsome assistants go through the cycle of ceremonies below.
Beauty rules.
[ For full coverage, see my video: ]
Devotees first pray at the temple and then line up, young yellow coconut in hand, to be splashed by the high priests. The first priest empties the coconut water on their head then some petalled lioly water from a big plastic bucket.
Done and doused devotees collected a benang tridatu commemorate bracelet at the at the fire altar, the Agni Astra — a new addition to the proceedings from the old Hindu-Java world popularized by Pedanda Bang.
It is a joyous affair: all ringing, all splashing, all bathed in bliss.
14 March 2014: To Dalem Tunon in the grounds of the Bintang Bali Hotel Kuta for a spooky trance dance
The scene outside the temple is now scarier than inside: this part of town, recently renamed Bouganvillea or North Perth, is a thick mass of day-feeding marsupials, that breed of my fellow countrymen born with stubbies in their hand. As a redhead male in a long white frock I feel vulnerable easing my through the mob of smelly singlet-clad-he-men and their hefty, beaded shiela consorts looking for the nearest McDonalds or pedicurist. 
14 March 2013: Outrageous beauty at Kuta Trance-Fest: the old black magic is alive and thrashing 
Today's is legendary legong dancer and megastar/guru-grannie Ketut Arini's 72nd birthday — she is still dancing and is an amazing presence on Facebook, where she comments graciously, as the eminence gris  of Balinese dance and fine lady that she is.
For some reason I remember a night in the forecourt of the Tanjung Sari hotel lobby, in Sanur, when Ketut Arini and Agung Susilawati danced a legong for British couturier Sir Hardy Amies. The hotel had made an arena for the command performance with walls of woven coconut. Palm leaf torcheres provided the only light. It was still spooky in Sanur at night in those days and the atmosphere was uniquely Balinese — luscious and lovely but slightly menacing. 40 odd years later I still get flashes of that old spooky night atmosphere in a temple  setting , most often in Sanur or Kuta or far eastern Bali (Pengerupukan/Ogoh-Ogoh night) in Mucan (Muncan?) ten years ago for example) where the force is still strong.
Last night was one such night.
Linggar Putra Wayan from the Kuta Foto Club (KFC) had invited me to a Barong ceremony at Pura Dalem Tunon which is on the beach near the Ramada Bali Bintang. ‘Go in through there and ask’ were the directions. I hate descending into the valley of death, that is anywhere one mile either side of the Discovery Mall. The drive in via the airport was fraught with tension, so ugly the architecture and tourists. Security at the vast hotel gates were friendly and knew the temple and said we could park inside and walk 200 metres down the beach. “Walk!” I thought, down South Kuta beach at night! I'll have to check my kidneys at the door. 
Barong Mapajar at Pura Dalem Tunon, Kuta

We parked illegally in front of Joop Ave's old retirement villa near the beach and navigated past some middle-eastern tourists under an artificial but gayly lit waterfall which tumbled out from a bar with chrome rails from where a lone Batak sang “Tie a yellow ribbon....”. We walked on the new dimly lit beach promenade, past a big empty restaurant called ‘The Wharf’ (how do they come with these dumb names in a sea of rich local culture I think; hoteliers must just close their eyes and think of Dubai) and an almost open microwave-oven style spa complex called ‘The Rheta’ and then past a high walled alleyway. We then broke out onto an idyllic nocturnal beach seating bathed in moonlight — beachside from the temple hundreds of Balinese in white temple dress were watching the waves and texting lovers. It seemed impossible that such loveliness could still survive in a sea of crass commercialism. It was as if I had gone through a worm hole and come out in the Twilight Zone. 

The patih warriors of the sesuwunan (Barong) of Pura Dalem Tunon Kuta threaten the evil witch Rangda.
(Photograph by Linggar Saputra Wayan)
[ For full coverage, see my video: ]
I turned on my handy-cam and walked past the satay vendors and gambling groups and into the magnificent grass forecourt of the limestone temple. The barong was already parked under the banyan tree and crisply dressed children formed a front stalls around the performance court. There was only one other pale-face — a die-hard anthropologist type with a big camera bag shooting enthusiastically with a flash. I swept past her saying “you can start now” (she hissed) and into the temple which was a wonder world of barong and rangda in high pavilions with devotees praying. As the trance-dancers were being splashed  and the gombrang (rangda dancer) getting into his elaborate costume I spoke to the local prince and royal custodian of the temple Dewa Manik of Puri Satria Kaleran (North of Jogger) an offshoot of Puri Agung Jero Kuta, the royal custodians of Pura Luhur Uluwatu. He explained how tonight was a very special performance for the temple’s barong (four other Kuta barong were in attendance) as on Monday the mask will be removed and the fur changed.

There seemed to be thirty  mangku priests present, dispensing holy water and bringing down magic kris for the evening's trance dance and jab-a-thon (no one does it better than Kuta; Surfies really fit the bill as athletic half-naked trancees). Two stars emerged from the evening's spectacular: Dewa Made, Jumping Jauk Flash, the smaller of the four fabulous furry freak brother jauk dancers who preceded the main program, and the corps de ballet of Kuta cowboys who ran at the rangda, menacingly, during the confrontation sequence, just as they do in the old photographs of Cartier-Bresson in the 1930s. It was wondrous to behold.
The force is still strong in Kuta
March 17, 2014: Barong sheds his mask at a massive trance-in at Puri Satria Kaleran, Kuta
This evening, in the family house temple of the quite ancient Puri Satria Kaleran Kuta palace (ex-GelGel) between Jogger and Supernova, I witnessed yet another trance-in of epic proportions. Not only were all the surfies back on deck frothing at the mouth but tonight their grandfathers, also in wild trance, were wrapped into Majapahit-era costumes to perform the clipping off of the barong and rangda masks. Even the Jamie Fox look-a-like kris-wallah of last Friday night at Pura Dalem Tunon (see my Saturday morning posting) went into trance, ripping off his shirt and shrieking for two pegs of arak. Your mother could barely stand up. What you got to do for a free drink around here. I thought of faking a trance and demanding a fat doobie.
The climax of the evening came when the senior palace priests in full trance were dressed as Majapahit warriors and lead to the podium of barong and rangda headdresses. With the entire courtyard in a screaming frenzy and the gamelan playing the scariest of trance-inducing music, the tripped out warriors brandished a magic keris dagger and released the masks from the full headdresses. With each snipping the front row descended into pandemonium, assistant priests screaming as if they'd seen a ghost. Squashed in between trances, wherever I moved, I felt like I had a middle seat on air freak-out.
The show took four hours which seemed to pass in fifteen minutes. There were three full courtyard trance sessions with gamelan frenzies supplied by a brilliant boy band, cakes 'n' coffee, and a sekehe santi choir of baritones sending waves of tantric melodies through the priests' pavilion.
[ For full coverage, see my video: ]
This ceremony is performed once a decade, when the barong's hair needs a change, but it all went as perfectly as a well rehearsed Broadway musical.
Kuta, you rule!

Ceremonies at The Kuta Palace Barong Mask-off, Munggel Pelawatan Barong at Puri Satria Kaleran Kuta, 17 March 2014