Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the NOW! Bali Magazine, January 2014)



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

The Majapahit Empire strikes back

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.

17 November 2013: Live from Candi Penataran, Blitar, East Java, 11 a.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 — 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 is 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.

(See Video: http://youtu.be/GRA-smO6Amo)

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.

23 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 http://www.ultimatebali.com)

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  Snapper 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: http://youtu.be/7GKdth2HIyg)

Bongkasa palace ladies

Aunties arrive in the rain

Village boy plays the palace gamelan

Pedanda Istri Bongkasa

The celebrant


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