Rabu, 13 April 2011

Stranger in Paradise: Keeping Up with the Pemecutans

Anak Agung Putra Anapoe, a Pemecutan Palace insider, camping it up with a green dragon effigy at Pura Batur Temple

The House of Pemecutan is the most prominent royal family in Bali —historically, and in modern times. It is generally agreed upon, by royal-watchers that they are the most ‘august’ as the house has a distinguished history as freedom fighters and also has major connections to the holy temples of Besakih, Batur, Sakenan and Uluwatu.

In Denpasar alone the family boasts 44 moncol or vassal princedoms, with an average of 18 family heads each.

Every Pemecutan male has a whip tattooed on his chest — the pecut (whip) being the emblem of this family, who once traded ponies as far away as Sumbawa.

The present Cokorda (Raja) is Anak Agung Ngurah Manik Parasara S.H., the most adored man in South Bali. During the Soeharto years — when he was titular head of Golkar, the ruling party — he enjoyed an almost messianic following, replete with Ben-Hur style political rallies and black Land Cruiser motorcades.

He was a Judo champion when studying in East Java, in the 1960s and, during the 1980s, an intelligence officer, head of the Boy Scouts in Bali, Head of P.H.D.I. (the Holy Hindu See) for West Denpasar, and a member the of National Legislative Assembly, among other posts.

And he comes from an illustrious line of super-achievers.

Many centuries ago the founder of the Pemecutan line had 555 ‘wives’ and three royal ‘queens’: the present Cokorda has been chasing that record, too.

• • •

The Cokorda’s father, Cokorda ‘Gambrong’ (“The long haired one”), took 12 bullets from the Dutch during the palace’s mass suicide (puputan) in 1906, and survived. His 1986 cremation was a riotous affair which closed nearly half of Denpasar: the present, island-wide trend for wearing tight black T-shirts to cremations dates from that day.

• • •

My love affair with the family started in the early 1970s during my university days in Sydney, when surfer mates would return from “the magical island of Bali” (now billed as “a cheap exotic gateway”) with tales of Anak Agung “Timin” Adiyasa, the Raja’s cousin, who ran a popular-flop-house and also Denpasar’s only hip radio station.

I heard tales of the torching of girly-bars in the rice fields and of the Pemecutan princes predilection for “blonde shiela” mistresses from Australia’s middle class. (I recently interviewed one who said she met her first Pemecutan prince-lover when she discovered him at Adiyasa’s losmen) pleasuring himself near her outdoor shower booth (a Balinese speciality she informed me).

“It was the start of a beautiful affair,” she said.

• • •

When I washed up on the shores of Benoa some months later I was given asylum from the red-head bigots of Australia (Rangga-phobes) by the Prince if Kepaon village, I Gusti Made Oka, a Pemecutan vassal.

His sons and cousins became my great mates: on big occasions — such as the night of the chariot of the gods return from Turtle Island, or at royal cremations and such — we would huddle near the gamelan and watch the arrival of our liege lord, the Cokorda Pemecutan, and his entourage, always immaculately dressed and groomed, and always gracious. The men often wore dark sarongs and cummerbunds of IKAT cloth — a reminder of their connections with the islands of Eastern Indonesia.

Over three decades I have documented, in this column, the big Royal Cremations and many of the goings on of the colourful Pemecutans, the family’s warm relations with South Bali’s Muslim community and their sometimes deadly palace intrigues).

I admired the Cokorda because he was a ‘People’s Prince’: he always turned up for the body-washings and cremations of all his distant cousins (some hundreds), especially those of my adopted family at Jero Dalem Lanang Tanjung Kepaon. Today a good share of Bali’s palaces are empty because the sons of the last Rajas do not want to take on the awesome responsibility.

The Cokorda and I developed what might be called a working relationship: I did the adoring — he loved to be adored.

Last month the 30 year relationship moved up a notch when I was invited to join the royal party on a juggernaut (Yatra) to Pura Batur temple on the tenth full moon. This was perhaps due to all the good press I’d be giving them lately, at a time when the palace is under siege by rumour-mongers and arrivistes

Official Pemecutan Palace line-up in the high pavilion at Pura Batur (Jero Alit priest in white fur coat)

The outing was sublime and rather regal.
Traditionally one arrives on time at the palace for these ‘yatra’ and then sits for an hour in the big burgundy velveteen brocade lounge set with the prince’s inner circle, a band of palace insiders with chequered pasts and mundane presents. There is much scandalous gossip and cruel ‘ragging’ before the Cokorda finally emerges from a back courtyard preceded by the first family, all beaming good will.

The prince is helped with his buttons — valets have long disappeared — and the coaches are called. The crown prince has a smart black Range Rover with a gold whip painted on the back window. The Cokorda and family go in a black mini bus from the family owned Grahadi Hotel (a Kuta pleasure place) and I take up the rear in my strassenpanzer, with the palace’s Charge d’Affairs, Anak Agung Poetra Anapoe, a screamer-chops of the first order, and his incredibly macho-mystic Pemecuatan cousin who lives in Kesiman, East Denpasar.

The Cokorda with his loyal driver in his famous open format jeep in the early 1990s

We all have PEMECUTAN PALACE stickers, emblazoned with the whip, on our front windscreens.

During the 90 minutes drive Anapoe doesn’t draw breath as he recounts the past glories of the Pemecutan clan and the length and breadth of their influence across the land, his favourite subject.

At the temple the barriers are lifted and we are all ushered, en masse, all 34 of us, into the royal pavilion where the Batur temple priests — visibly thrilled to have a royal presence to compliment their incredible 13 day temple festival climax (arguably the biggest and the best in the land). A certain amount of scraping and groveling goes on with the Cokorda always smiling and half-bowing, as the Thai and Japanese royals do when on show.

There is NO rubber-necking by the proletariat: the ‘presence’ has not gone un-noticed; in fact the temple courtyards are positively brimming with satisfaction that the island’s biggest royal has turned up for the climax. The Balinese are not impressed by celebrity, nor are they fazed by it (unless of course, it’s a soap star from Jakarta). It’s all just a part of the show, and the show must go on.

We are offered coffee and cakes, and then pray in the pavilion. We are then served a delicious pork and banana trunk soup lunch in the temple’s dinning hall.

A spirited cymbals player in the house gamelan at the Pura Batur Temple festival.

On the way home I quiz Anapoe as to the family’s almost royal custodian (pengemong) status at the temple: he doesn’t have an answer but his cousin, Anak Agung Putra ‘Macho-Mystic’ Gambrong, recounts how, in the 19th century, Cokorda Pemecutan sent his shaman cousins, Kyai Amecut and Kyai Anulup to help the Emperor in Klungkung rid himself of the curse of the black crow. Since then, he explained, the House of Pemecutan has always had a special ‘sakti’ power, via their magic whip, which resides at Pura Batur.

A Royal Visit to the Taman Bebek
On the way down the hill from Batur it was suggested that H.R.H. might like to stop at my petite budget boutique garden hotel, the Taman Bebek (Tamanbebekbali.com), in Sayan next to the Four Seasons.

Now, the last royal to visit the Taman Bebek was the King of Comedy, Charlie Chaplin, in 1936, when he visited musicologist Colin McPhee in his Sayan home (now the Taman Bebek) with Walter Spies, the legendary Ubud-based German painter-composer-writer.

I suggested we ring H.R.H. in the lead car, a suggestion which sent Anapoe into flap.

“It’s not that easy,” he explained breathlessly, “he keeps changing his hand phone number because his wife has thrown eight mobiles into the river this year already.”

Mr. Macho-Mystic smirked.

Fortune favours the brave as minutes later, H.R.H. rang Anapoe and graciously accepted to drop in for tea.

I quickly sms-ed the font desk to break open the Assorted Cream wafers (H.R.H’s favourite) and to ask Komang, the pretty cook who runs our café, “The Warung”, to serve us tea, topless.

Half an hour later we turned into the hotel to find the best china out and Supandhi, my loyal Javanese butler, in glamorous Pakistani mufti.

The men in the royal entourage were intrigued by this far flung hotel’s potential as a future free bolt-hole/love nest, and the palacewomen made a cursory tour of the near gardens, while H.R.H. chatted to Supandhi who speaks passable Balinese.

None of the other staff seemed the least impressed; but I was so flustered that I fluffed the only snap (see this page).

H.R.H. riveted by the company at my little gathering at Taman Bebek, Sayan.

• • •

I stayed the night at the hotel — bathing in the afterglow of the royal visit. I half expected my Balinese neighbours, who occupy the hotel’s carpark, to at least say something and be impressed.

• • •

The next morning, late morning, I was at the ‘cyber corner’ in the lobby building when our only aristocrat staff member approached from the direction of the spa, looking unusually hot and bothered.

(“This is it,” I thought “payback time for almost 40 years groveling”).

But before I could let him kiss the hand that had lead the Cokorda Pemecutan into Pura Batur temple he blurted out:
“Remember that American Gay and Lesbian travel website we joined? Well, we got two gays already and they’re in the hot-tub! Should I send the saucy mountain guide?”

Sigh! The Balinese are nothing if not practical

• • •

The incredible Baris Tekok Jago dancers from Banjar Jambe, Kerobokan perform in front of the funeral byre, at Ibu Melati’s funeral.

15th March 2011: A Royal Cremation on Sunrise Beach, Sanur
In the 1970s many first sons of Bali’s many royal families joined the tourism industry — as hotel owners, guides and hotel staff.

Bapak A.A. Alit from the Gerenceng palace in Denpasar started Alit’s Bungalows north of the Grand Bali Beach in Sanur just as Bapak I. B. Kompiang was starting the Segara Beach Village Hotel; shortly before and a host of otherr Brahman families opened a string of hotels along the Sanur coast.

January saw the death of Pak Alit’s popular wife Ibu Melati, one of the pioneers of Sanur tourism. Her cremation was a grand affair ending at Sunrise Beach North Sanur Cremation Ground. Still on the beach were remnants of this year’s riotous PENGERUPUKAN night (Nyepi Eve 5th March): floats of wildly fanciful design had been dumped on the foreshore, as in the custom in some villages. The most exotic depicted a tuxedo-clad skeleton on a push-bike wearing a sign “Victim of the Girly Bars”!

Pemecutan and Gerenceng Palace royals at Ibu Melati’s cremation.

LEFT: Prof. Dr. A.A. Putu Rai Palgunadhi; Ida Cokorda Pemecutan XI, A.A. Ngurah Agung of Gerenceng.
RIGHT: Mrs. Ngurah Agung (Biang Dayu)

At Ibu Melati’s cremation I bumped into the Cokorda Pemecutan whose grandmother is from the Grenceng palace — and my old buddy A.A. Putu Rai Palgunadhi back from India after 30 years teaching history at Delhi University! (His family noted in history for their scholarship).

After the immolation of the bull sarcophagus dancers from Banjar Jambi in Kerobokan (a vassal prince of Pemecutan) performed, beachside, in front of the disguarded funeral pyre, an exquisite magical BARIS TEKOK-JAGO dance of the celestial warriors. They darted and dove and postured with spears as Pak Alit sat with relatives on a low wall in front of his wife’s burning coffin looking at photos of the Chicago Club’s recent outing to Jakarta.

The Balinese royals are nothing if not unsentimental.