Sidakarya village priest poses with village Barong at the Melasti ceremonies at Mertasari Beach, 27 July 2015
Last month the island’s principal archivist, Susi Johnston, known in her university days as Conan the Librarian, suggested that word on the Hindu Street is that Bali is losing its soul. Now, as the island’s principal documentarian, known in my university days as Pinky, I just don’t see it. Yes, I see the urban sprawl and ribbon development, and the planter -boxes from hell that line the bypass, and the rubbish everywhere; but I also see the Balinese culture shining through — in many ways more than ever.
Last month I visited Banjar Pelasa, a suburb in a lesser-known corner of East Kuta, and found, near midnight, the entire population out watching a witch play (the Calonarang) which was being staged with great theatrical prowess — mood lighting and smoke-guns included — and with all the village children filling the front stalls, glued to their iPhones , but drinking in the midnight magic. You kind of had to come to the conclusion that this island’s culture is still thriving.
The Dance of the Sisia, Banjar Pelasa Calonarang, Kuta, 25 July 2015
Days before I had watched, gobsmacked , as the children and grandchildren of my old gardeners at the Bali Hyatt performed a sensational 60-minute gamelan and dance program on the main stage at the Art Centre in Denpasar as part of the wildly successful Arts Festival held every year. It was sensational! At nearly all the festivals I witness over a calendar month, between my columns, I see children being thrust into the limelight — as musicians, dancers, and even priests (at Pura Luhur Uluwatu). Surely this is a sign that the spirit of Bali is undiminished, despite the traffic and the new Transformer-Brontasaurus temple architecture and the mushrooming budget hotels that line the green belt. Urban tourism has yet to affect the real fabric of society or its ceremonial life. Instead of weaving a path through rice-fields , the processions of beauty in South Bali — and you’re bound to see one if you’re in Bali for more than a week — now just blaze their way through concrete jungles, oblivious to the traffic that they’ve stopped (motorcycles piled five deep at the side of the road). To further prove my point, I interviewed on video the main temple priest in Pura Dalem Sidakarya in the middle of a spectacular morning of rituals. I should mention here first that, whenever I shoot videos, I narrate into the can, in English. This day I held the camera at his face level and asked, “An Island expert says that the Balinese feel that the island is losing its soul; do you agree?” He stalls before muttering in perfect English, “What do you mean?” I repeat the question in Indonesian, and he replies, “Yes, I agree.” I give up
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Minutes later I find myself in front of a trio of flouncing lady-boy trancees who are welcoming the mighty god of the mask of the Topeng Sidakarya Sudha into their temple. The gamelan is clanging, the exquisite temple forecourt is packe, and the sun is shining in on the woven penjor banners fluttering above.
Lady-boy trancees, like teenage girl trancees, are all the rage these days — another sign of a culture in keeping with the times — as are pale-face video-makers, who I see everywhere. Sidakarya, like East Kuta, is a village which lies on the fringes of a mass tourism hub, Sanur. Nearly everyone works in tourism or in some way connected to tourism but when temple time comes , their tourism jobs take a back seat. THE BALINESE NUMBER ONE JOB IS BEING BALINESE, I often say.
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MELASPAS BAGIA, MECARU & TOPENG WALI FOR PURA DALEM SIDAKARYA, DENPASAR, 22 July 2015
To Pura Luhur Uluwatu with my liege lord, Cokorda Pemecutan XI and family Heavenly atmosphere at Pura Luhur Uluwatu post sunset tonight waiting for Cokorda Pemecutan: cool breeze, cool mangku. We all bitched about the hideous new Soviet-era -style monument at the base of the temple’s stairs. Nothing quite like listening to the crashing waves below, the new Semar Pagulingan Jimbaran gamelan in the forecourt, and the sweet kidung of the Pecatu jero mangku as the breeze licks the meru of Bhatara Luhur. I usually end up west of the meru chatting to my old buddies from Puri Agung Jero Kuta, the sweet custodians of the temple.
At 7:30 pm Cokorda Pemecutan XI and Cokorda Istri and party arrive at Pura Luhur Uluwatu , the crowds part ,and the priests genuflect, beaming with pride. The ceremony of the Batara Tedun was halted while the royal party prayed. After prayers the god of Uluwatu’s daksina lingga spirit effigy was conveyed out of the meru and placed on a cushion and then on the head of the Cokorda, then his wife, then his eldest son Agung Damar Negara, who briefly flew into trance, then the second son Turah Kertagama. A lady-in-waiting then conveyed (ngampil) the effigy out and on its route back to the Pura Pererepan at Pecatu.
Walking back down the stairs, the Cokorda reminded me of the ancestral link between Dalem Majapahit (who resides in the Pemecutan family temple), Pura Tambang Badung, and the God of Uluwatu (Bhatara Luhur/Dang Hyang Dwijendra); and of how the god regularly spends a night in that temple before moving on to the Kesiman place temple (which commemorates the great mystical link, or friendship, between the 19th century Cokorda Sakti Kesiman and Bhatara Luhur).
Cokorda Pemecutan XI carries the God effigy of Batara Luhur Uluwatu, 4 August 2015