On with rhe Show
Turtle island's Sakenan festival in the Age of Development
The ancient temple Pura Sakenan on Turtle Island is one of the holiest on Bali. Perched on a picturesque prominontry on the small island’s northern tip the complex of pagodas, towering shrines and ancient trees has been a worshipping site since at least the 10 th century, when the Kingdom of Dalem Kesari in Belanjong, South Sanur ruled the coastal waters. The present temple was built by Dang Hyang Niratha, the priest-architect who introduced classic Javanese-Hinduism to Bali in the early 15 th century. Pura Luhur at Uluwatu was built at the same time, in the same style, using the same coral material and it was here that Niratha achieved moksa, oneness with the godhead, in a magic ball of fire.
The Pura Sakenan temple festival has always been a main event on South Bali’s religious calender. For the pious it is an important pilgrimage : for teenagers it is a dating place par excellence (above the din of screaming priests one could always discern the gentle rub of lurex on lurex).
Nyoman Wisura in Rangda costume before his devilish debut at the Sakenan festival
As most of the gods of the coastal temples between Sanur and Kuta are descended from Ratu Dalem Sakenan, the mighty god of the Sakenan temple, the sight of multi-hued processions ferrying gods and gamelan to the island, gliding through the moonlit mangroves on brightly-painted boats, has long been one of the most poetic on the island. The South Bali Villages with pagoda shrines on the island traditionally send their gods, gamelans and devotees on the Friday afternoon, the eve of Hari Raya Kuningan, the most ‘golden’ day of the ceremonial season. These villages provide the priests and support services for the pilgrims who arrive in the tens of thousands on Kuningan Saturday : in exchange the royal families of these villages are each awarded a piece of land just outside the temple’s walls on which to camp.
The climax of the three day event is the Saturday night ODALAN festival when the temple, deserted of day-trippers, devotees asleep under festooned pagodas, celebrates with wildly, truly, madly Bali dances and wierd trance rituals.
27 th September 1997, Hari Raya Kuningan, the first Sakenan Festival since the new causeway connecting the Turtle Island Development Corporation to the mainland
In 1990 I met Edwin Suryajaya, hier to the Indonesian company that markets Toyota, at a Batujimbar party. He said, rather cockily, that “he had plans to turn turtle island into an integrated resort”. Breathlessly I explained the magic and significance of the Sakenan festival to the South Balinese as I watched his eyes glaze over with indifference.
“We’ll move the temple” he chirped (within six months his bank had folded and ASTRA corporation, the country’s oldest and biggest family-run empire, was on its knees, never to recover).
Over the past fews years I’ve recorded in my column the various milestones in the selling of Sakenan and have over the past 18 months slept with the hum of the giant dredger a perpetual reminder of the developers’ march against the truly romantic and the unique. In Jakarta one smoggy day I met a brace of brash Brisbane architects who had just completed a sunshine coast clone masterplan : I gave them the sign of the cross, cursed their rickshaw and was off.
Tonight I approached the bright lights of the temple festival reflected in the tidal flats with severe trepidation. Chaos reigned in the new carpark. There was no recognition at the ticket booth. Dutifully I trudged around the new “Bay of Capri”, past the grave of the red sand beach (soon to be South East Asia’s longest mall) where Bali’s witch masks have traditionally been “empowered” (with other-worldly life force), and into the temple grounds ....... where all was in place, in form and in the mood. In fact never has the temple looked more beautiful and the festival been fashioned more fierce. Over the evening there were more air-borne priests, spread-eagled, nostril’s-flaring, and more pendet dancers tripping the light fantastic than ever before. Among the dancers were priests and priestess, young and old from the thirty temples that ‘support’ Sakenan : for an hour they wove around the temple’s grassy inner court carrying sandalwood burners and tall woven offerings, showing off their snake hip wiggles and ‘free programme’ antics as the shrines were one by one given their six-monthly waft and ‘cleanse’
After the quirkish pendet performance a ‘circle’ of priests formed in front of the seven-tiered meru to the god of holy Mt. Agung. While a mask dance entertained the audience of revellers, shrieking with mirth in one comer of the temple, the priests gathered for the most solemn ‘kedatengan’ (lit. “arrival”) ritual. One by one the gods of the holiest temples of the land descended into the entranced priests bodies: the god-in-priest of Ratu Mayun of Kepaon, ‘grandson’ of the god of Sakenan, soon raced off to his pagoda adjacent the magic circle, only to be appeased by a mouthful of incense sticks, a bottle of “Fire” brand arak and a choir of youths chanting an ancient pre-hindu hymm. A grandstand of all stars shrieked and swooned as the god of Uluwatu spate his siblings in full cry; two ancient androgynes in nefertitti night-gowns battled it out on the ‘ padang’. Bevies of beauties fanned the flames.
It was an incredible night : of contrasts and contradictions : the mask dancers making an impassioned plea for respect for the environment as the multitudes rained plastic cups on the land fill; the blue laser from the fake Mt. Agung at the new TAMAN FESTIVAL theme park slashed across the night sky as the god of the real Mt. Agung hosted the best trance circle in living memory. To cap the evening Nyoman Wisura, son of the great composer, Nyoman Kaler of Mogan, danced the frenzied spooky RANGDA witch dance at 2 a.m. as lovers and exhausted priests claimed their nocturnal nests under the pagoda shrines.
Next year will be very different. With the causeway proven accessible the devotees will be numbered in the hundreds not tens of thousands. The whole festival will be stage-managed by a battalion of priests with walkie-talkies and tourists in hot pants will be flung down the steps (probably by me). The contribution box will be burgeoning, the feud between the families which traditionally run the festival will move into hyperspace and artshops will line the approach. The traditional sunset retreat—miles of devotees, umbrellas and shoulder-borne god effigies threading west through the tidal flats—may be gone forever and, for most of the year, the picturesque temple just a back drop for lateral condominia, but, in Bali, you can’t keep a good show down.