Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, May 2014)



Chief priest at Puri Satria Kaleran, Kuta, releasing the mask of the barong (photo: Linggar Saputra Wayan)

Mayhem in The Moonlight

I was sick most of March — down with the eight-week flu — so I just padded around my maximum security retirement village and spa, fiddling in the garden.
I got into lots of friendly skirmishes on Facebook too, trolling through the Bali Expat sites — I have a combative nature — and went out to a few extraordinary ceremonial events in Kuta and Sanur, which make up the bulk of my reporting in this column.
Lazing about, fighting off the virus with one hand on my iPad, I gave thanks to God for Facebook, and all the serious discourse.
I enjoyed a few funny moments too.
One day I was in bed on my nebulizer watching Downtown Abbey with Amir, my loyal aide, massaging my legs. Suddenly my valve slammed shut and I couldn’t breathe. I reached for Amir, as did Mary Magdalene when they were hoisting our Lord up onto the cross, but he froze. Turning blue, I then threw two arms up. He stepped back. I now suspect he wants me dead so he can inherit my wigs and harem pants.


Luvvie ogoh-ogoh from Banjar Binan, Dyana Pura, Seminyak

Another time I had to climb into my Balinese glad-rags and struggle out to a priest’s ordination at a good friend’s palace in Sanur.
It was 6 a.m. His uncle and his wife had just committed ritual suicide but were to be bought back to life and taught how to tie priestly top-knots at dawn. I was assigned to keep the prince of Kesiman company: everyone else was busy attending to the quasi-corpses. The prince kept complaining about the state of Bali today. I could have stayed home and gone on line to the Bali Expat page.

Another day I went to a big palace wedding in Peliatan where all the ladies were in the fashionable new Broadway version of Balinese dress (read: massive paste broches and tiaras; miles of dyed gauze; satin hipster belts set with rhinestones and make-up by House of Horrors).
The Ubud traffic was gruesome — bumper to bumper. I had been reading Bali Crime Report on Facebook so I kept my window up in case snatch-thieves wielding wooden planks imbedded with nails made an attack. I stayed well within the car for fear of being caught up in the Tsunami of veggie poo generated by Yogini’s at the Spirit Festivals (source: Ubud Community FB).
Of all the demented expat FB sites Ubud Community is by far the most literate, humorous, and Bali-loving. Even Balinese satirists have taken to parodying the expats plaintive cries for servants, bamboo beds and colonic immigration.
(I take this opportunity to apologize to them for a mistake I made in a recent column I wrote, called Ubud Community Confidential, now amended).
I mean, one can get into serious trouble on a nebulizer with an iPad.
After the Ubud fright-fest I had a few more days bed rest before venturing out on the 10th full moon to my beloved Pura Tambangan Badung, seat of the deity Dalem Majapahit and family temple of our big love, Cokorda Pemecutan XI (CP XI), the Raja Badung.

• • •                   

On arrival at 9 p.m. at the beyond busy festival. I was pleased to note that the Denpasar rites have not gone ga-ga with the gossamer and gauze: traditional fashion still reigns supreme, with only a new Ali Baba twist and gingham trim on the temple guardians’ headdresses. In the back corner of the temple sat my raja in trademark Roy Orbison shades — his giant ruby rings glinting in the neon light. His handsome son, Ngurah Damar, sat beaming next to him. I sat next to a Balinese police chief and an army major bathing in our raja’s glory. Sweat poured down my face. Temple courtyards swirled behind us.
CP XI loves to test-run his English when I am in the presence. “Home sweet home” and “You look fat today, Rhonda” are his favourite expressions. Then he launches into historical tirades against other royal families sprinkled with unique snippets of Balinese folk-lore that really only he knows.
10,000 devotees are dressed in versions of Pemecutan-prescribed fashion and you feel that, were the Bali expats to get serious about their silly OCCUPY ADAT movement, all the king’s men would pick up sabres and storm Seminyak. Wakakakka….
Now read on …..

17 March 2014: Barong Mask removed in wild ceremony in Kuta palace
This evening, in the family house temple of the quite ancient Puri Satria Kaleran Kuta palace (ex-Gelgel), between Joger and Supernova, I witness yet another trance-in of epic proportions. Not only are all the surfies back on deck frothing at the mouth (see last month’s Stranger’s video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTp9VkhOLKI, but tonight their grandfathers are also in wild trance, being 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 goes into trance, ripping off his shirt and shrieking for two pegs of arak. Your mother could barely stand up. What you gotta do for a free drink around here!
I thought of faking a trance and demanding a fat doobie.

The climax of the evening comes when the senior palace priests in full trance, dressed as Majapahit warriors, are 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 brandishing magic keris, release he masks from the headdresses. With each snipping the front row descends into pandemonium; assistant priests scream as if they'd seen a ghost. Squashed in between trancees wherever I move I feel like I have a middle seat on air freak-out.

The show takes 4 hours which seems to pass in 15 minutes. There are three full courtyard trance sessions with gamelan frenzies supplied by a brilliant boy band. There’s cakes 'n coffee between trance sessions and a sekehe pesantian choir of baritones who send waves of tantric melodies through the courtyard all night long.
This ceremony is performed once a decade, when the barong's hair needs a change. Tonight, it all went well, like a well rehearsed Broadway musical.
Kuta, you rule.

See video:  Munggel Palawatan Barong http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFJbTTxTn2I

14 April 2014: Padiksan (ordination) in Sanur’s main palace Jero Gede Abiantimbul
In Bali it is generally the brahmans who provide the high priests for the community, but occasionally a prince takes the holy vows and becomes a bhagawan or Sri Rsi (see www.strangerinparadise.com, December 2013).


Now fully ordained, the two freshly minted priests pray at their family’s ancestral shrine with their children witnessing.

Today A.A. Gede Asmara, the Jakarta-based uncle of my dear friend Agung Subamia, and his wife go through the final rituals of their pediksan. Their guru priest (pedanda nabe), Ida Pedanda Putra Beluwangan, is from the next door Geria Delod Peken, Sanur’s oldest brahman house. The pedanda is an ex-army wizard of the Vedic waft.


Calon diksa Mrs. Asmara sucks the sakti out if the mentor priest’s toe (a rarely captured brahmanic ritual).

Priests-to-be at the feet of their mentor

All of the Asmara’s children are here from Jakarta including Herr Steiger, a Swiss son-in-law (most Balinese palace families have western or Japanese in-laws now, unlike Java).


The lovely ladies of Jero Abiantimbul, Intaran, Sanur.

The Asmaras will return to Jakarta in a few days to continue their work, as priests, administering to the thousands of Balinese who live there.


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