Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the NOW! Bali Magazine, March 2011)



Putu Suarsa, the last of the gentleman-bodjies, posing on the steps of the Pura Luhur Uluwatu

Posers in Paradise

No-one poses like the Balinese: they know their best angles and how to catch the light.
There is an urban myth — well suburban — that the Balinese are all so nice and docile and pious and well-behaved, but it’s not true: lurking just beneath the surface are a million ribald, mischievous personalities — think “Angels and Rascals” or Joan Rivers meets Rick Gervais meets Eddie Izzard. The angel look often comes during photos taken at temples; the rascal personalities are unleashed at cremation time. Less so, it must be noted, in Gianyar province — where everyone’s busy playing cardboard serfs or plastic princesses — but in North Bali (Singaraja) and South Bali in particular, the comics and posers rule the roost.
Even the masked dramas held in palace and temple courts are often smutty and surreal in equal measure.
One only has to look at the outrageous names and postings of the Balinese on Facebook.
Many of today’s Balinese university students are court jesters: here’s a good example.
Last month dear old Mémé Retig — the 85 year old mother of my landlord — finally fell off the twig; and a disrespectful grandson seized on the occasion to post a photo of gentle Mémé giving everyone ‘the bird’ ON HER FUNERAL BIER, no less!
This is an isolated incident but perhaps portentous: will the high-spirited Balinese soon get jack of all this tacky mass tourism — which portrays them as mincing masseurs and kowtowing waitresses — and come out of their corners screaming and punching?
How many thousands of Bali’s finest will be shipped off to Miami to become laundry boys on Caribbean cruise ships before someone notices the brain drain?
Certainly the ceremonial activity that is the islanders’ mainstay is a great outlet for theatricality and excellence, but it must also be noted that the ‘Two Balis’ — the touristic Bali being sold as a “cheap exotic tropical holiday”, and the Bali as it really is (now known as “Secret Bali”, in the trade) — are drifting further and further apart.
The fact that the artificial ‘Bali Goddess’ production from the Bali Safari and Marine Park was chosen to entertain President Obama last year — rather than one of the magical classical dances — was a shock to the Bali art community.
On the positive side, however, there are developments: the standoff between the gods and the villagers on Turtle Island has been resolved; a new Balinese television channel — ALAM T.V., which features mostly cultural and educational programmes — is a great success; and, lately, cremations and temple festivals just keep getting bigger and better.
Blessed are the meek!
Now read on:


The late Mémé Retig gives the world the bird from her funeral bier

17th January 2010: To Suwung Kangin to visit my landlord’s mother’s body
Today I posted on Facebook:
“My landlord Gusti Putu Sudiarna's ancient mother Mémé has died: she was a cousin of Putu Suarsa’s Aunt “Iwa”. By chance their cremations will be on the same day. "Emé, as she was known, had a cheeky disposition and an independent streak. Last time I saw her — stricken, like a broken sparrow on an old sofa — she feigned dementia, until a claw finally unfurled and she asked for Rp. 50,000.”
Tonight ‘Émé’ is well packed, in dry ice, in a neat polystyrene coffin held together with masking tape (the latest in Balinese funeral kit).
The body washing and the soul-effigy-making (ngajum) and the cremation are to be in 4 days time.
Both ‘Mémé’ and ‘Iwa’ were from a generation of gentle, hard-working, duty-bound women and both married into wealthy families — but they never betrayed their humble beginnings and virtues.


Priests at Pura Luhur Uluwatu.

Gusti Made Ariesta Krishna who did the current photoshop of his grandmother on preceding page.

In the courtyard at Mémé Retig’s body-washing.

Monger, toothless gong basher of Sidakarya

Iwa’s cremation will be a riotous-affair, I predict, because her three sons and daughter are very active in the village — key players in adat (custom) events.
In Bali it’s not so much one’s ‘station’ or ‘caste’ that is rewarded — with screaming and yelping on the way to the cremation ground — but one’s devotion to the community.
If one has been a lazy sod the banjar community that buries one just leaves the funeral bier at the roadside and goes home.
A fate worse than death.

19th January 2011: To Jakarta for the launch of the Indonesian language version of my book “Tropical Garden Design”
Now, I wouldn’t be telling this story — coz I loath the way the other diarist mentions her cafés in every column — but that’s there’s a message of hope therein.

Mirta Kartohadiprojo, Made Wijaya, Putu Semiada & Jenny A. Kartawinata


From Jakarta battleaxe Mirta Kartohadiprodjo, Publisher of Femina and Dewi Magazines has today arranged a gathering of the Jakarta Fern Queens (Menteng matrons of a horticultural bent) who are so enthusiastic and well-coiffed that I forget, momentarily, that the garden design world has been taken over by aliens.
These women — all from famous families — are the last bastion of floral fashion against mindless minimalism, and are a force to be reckoned with.
Maybe hope dies last.

2nd February 2011: To Penebel north of Tabanan with a convoy from the Pemecutan palace
Every noble family in Bali has its kawitan or family house ‘shrine’ of origin: tonight I am going with my big love Ida Cokorde Pemecutan XI to the former farmer’s hut (kubu) of Arya Damar — the Javanese Majapahit era warrior-priest who founded the Pemecutan dynasty — which is now such a shrine.
The evening starts at the Pemecutan palace in Denpasar — sitting with a group of courtiers in a ghost-train like vestibule on soggy velvet sofas —with my host Anak Agung Mertajaya from Jero Abian Timbul, Sanur, a Pemecutan off-shoot.
The Cokorda is keeping us all waiting but nobody cares — we are all thrilled to be part of the re-enactment of this ancient ritual and we all love our liege lord who can do no wrong.
At six p.m. the heavens open on the pretty fern-draped garden; speckled roosters and giant cockatoos scream noisily from red and gold cages.
I sit with a Facebook pal, the Cokorda’s cousin Anak Agung Poetra Anoepan, former head of laundry at Putri Bali Hotel, Nusa Dua, who has a bachelor son who ‘runs’ a Cherokee casino in the U.S.
“Look at Tameng sitting there all crumpled up,” he enthuses, pointing to one of our group, “he used to be a contender — thick moustache, five wives fighting for his sperm; he used to lop off heads with one stroke and drink the blood — now he’s all spent. Ahahaha.”

To the Pemecutan ancestor temple near Penebel


“Here comes the empress,” he continues, gesturing to the Cokorda’s wife, as she sweeps in with a golden offering bowl, “her bottoms have sagged but she still rules the roost; did you know that the old Cokorda had eight wives — all hotties, wonderful women, make your teeth ache they were so beautiful.”
Finally the cokorda emerges and nods royally at the gathered cousins and gets on a big black bus belonging to the Gamudi Hotel — a Pemecutan-sponsored Karaoke centre — and speeds off.
Numerous black Land Cruisers speed off in pursuit — all have with low number plates and the family insignia (a golden whip) printed on the rear window.
Much of the next hour is spent lost in the hills way north of Tabanan until by miracle the Cokorda’s black bus speeds past again — he had detoured to do some shopping — and we all speed off.
We arrive at the Pura Kubon Pingguh Temple which is a small, magical three courtyard affair — somewhat in the Hindu Javanese Kramat temple style — and are ushered straight to the front of the prayer queue and set up in a pavilion, with a Barong, and his consorts a few Rangda masks).
The Cokorda and his immediate family — including two giant sons and two cute grand sons for good measure — lead us in prayers which are short but meaningful.
After prayers I excuse myself so I can case the courtyard for clues to the provenance of this extraordinary temple, tonight brimming with nobles from all over Bali.

The main two tiered shrine — called candi gunung, or mountain shrine — has a ficus tree growing through it; it is bedecked with weird and wonderful offerings and one souvenir quality garuda statue.
I take a family photo of the royal family in front of this ancestral shrine, in the outer court; all with the aforementioned Poetra texting on his Blackberry in every snap.
As we leave there is an honor guard of priests desperate to give the Cokorda the voodoo handshake and express their undying devotion. Cokorda Pemecutan is a prince devoted to his people: crowds part at the sight of him and knees tremble; but he is always affable and kind.
The Cokorda is however looking frail because he is troubled by all sorts of family infighting. On the drive home Poetra tells me that “the Cokorda’s father took eight bullets and survived the Puputan battle against the Dutch and it will take a lot more to bring him one down.”


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