Senin, 21 November 2011

Stranger in Paradise: Denpasar’s Radical Prince



Portrait of the Prince of Kesiman by Wedha

Things are heating up on Facebook’s Bali Cultural Group Discussion page: the Balinese are tired of being told that they are doing nothing to protect the island’s delicate ecosystem.

Young Ngurah Oka Putra says that us ‘olds’ — that would be me, and the three career bisexuals from greater Javanese universities who also contribute — should pull in our heads and let the young intellectuals have their say.

Meanwhile the destruction of the urban environment by municipal planter boxes and cheesy Malaysian modern potscapes continues apace, as does the ‘restoration’ of ancient Majapahit temples — many restored to within an inch of their lives with thick black Star Trek-style andesite ‘face lifts’.



Tourists, meanwhile, have deserted the temples and are flocking instead to shows like Dev Dan in Nusa Dua — the polished dance spectacular — and to the laser shows at drinking holes along the coast.

Good luck to them.


20th October 2011: A visit to meet the Prince of Kesiman

Denpasar has three palaces — Pemecutan, Satria and Kesiman.

Puri Agung Kesiman is in East Denpasar, in a district famous for its nice people and handsome red brick architecture.

In history, the palace is famous for the magical powers of the 19th century Kesiman prince, Cokorda Sakti Kesiman, who would often commune, divinely, with the God of Pura Luhur, Uluwatu.

Over the last 30 years this column has often featured stories of the Kesiman warriors at the fabled Pengrebongan trance dance festival, of the palace’s exquisite royal chapel, and of the palaces connection to the 19th Century Kuta-based Danish trader, Mads Lange.


Puri Agung Kesiman ceremonial gates

• • •

The Kesiman palace sits on a ‘plateau’ inside an impressive thick, brick-walled compound on a busy corner of the Denpasar–Gianyar road.

Sadly, little of the original classical palace survives only the thick compound wall, ceremonial gates and a moated ‘royal chapel’. In the 1960s the original palace was torn down and replaced with a fashionable ‘office type’ (rumah kantor) home.

• • •


The main gate of the Pura Pengerebongan, Kesiman

This morning I enter the complex via a towering split gate.

I find the Cokorda (prince) at his desk in an open, ‘lean-to’ garage just inside the entrance to the first court, he is surrounded by his paintings and books and cigarette smoke.

He proudly shows me the palace magazine “PURI AGUNG KESIMAN Meaning, Value, and Self Pride Restoration” that he and a group of local chaps have put together, and explains how the palace has just restored two of the palace gates.

I am impressed the gates have been sensitively restored, which is rare, and the palace is looking better than ever, give or take a few suburban bungalows.



I have known the prince since the early 1970s when we were the ‘Bright Young Things’ on trail bikes; of East Denpasar we used to meet at dusk at Meme Disco’s turtle satay stand near the main town square.

Unlike the other (9) royal princes of Bali who tend to be refined and ‘regal’, the Cokorda Kesiman is a bit of a wag. Once a motor-cross champion, and a member of parliament, he is today what you would call a ‘political agitator’.

His conversation is spiced with diatribes against corruption and greed.

His face is highly animated and he works his bulging eyes like a circus clown.

“Lovable rogue” is an expression which comes to mind when being entertained by him.

• • •

After coffee he drags us off to see his ‘studio’ which is 200 hundred meters west of the palace, on the same road. The Cokorda’s Penggak Men Mersi (“half past crazy” collective) studio is a hodge-podge affair in a style part disco-palace part officer’s mess from the film “Bridge over the River Kwai”. It is the sponsor and patron of many local dance and gamelan groups.

Displayed inside, on the main gallery walls, are a dozen, large satirical protest paintings by the prince; they depict various scenarios involving corrupt courtrooms, the wholesaling of Bali and the oppression of the people.





Cokorda Kesiman’s ‘Penggak Men Mersi’ (half past crazy collective) Gallery and his paintings.

An old yellow Mercedes (his father’s first car) is parked in one corner and has been painted with ‘Planet of the Apes’ type monkeys.

It is all very creative and artistic and revolutionary and one hopes that the prince can one day stir up a reformist movement or two, before it’s too late.

Together we bemoan the recent destruction on a nearby corner of Denpasar’s most famous kulkul tower — the fabulously Rococco-Balinese Abian Kapas Kaja kulkul (see photos this page and video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hffe0o2Ngx4


22nd October 2011: To Puri Banyuning Palace in Bongkasa for the royal cremation of my old friend Ibu Ida Ayu Kompiang Sutarti Oka, widow of the ‘Raja’ Bongkasa, a former Minister for Sport in Indonesia

I arrive at 9 a.m. and find a hive of activity: the local high priestess is consecrating the funeral bier and black bull sarcophagus parked in the street outside the palace. Serfs are busying themselves putting finishing touches to the ramps being built over the palace walls for the bearing of the coffin and processions later.

Inside, the deceased’s thee daughters and chief daughter-in-land Lucy are sitting in the golden ceremonial pavilion, demurely, in matching purple sarong, at the foot of the deceased’s coffin.

• • •

During the morning, family and friends and dignitaries file in; the more ‘senior take their place in the large, princes’ pavilion cum verandah that forms an eastern side to the large court. Gambang (wooden xylophone) music plays gently in the background.

It is a garden party atmosphere — unlike the pompous, bun-fight feeling that sometimes prevails at other Balinese royal houses — and the girls are looking GORGEOUS.

At noon we are all — all 500 of us — invited to the back of the palace for a sumptuous sit-down lunch before the mad dash to the cremation ground.

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Faces & Fashions
at the Royal cremation of Ida Ayu Kompyang Sutarti Oka,
Puri Banyuning Bongkasa, 22nd October 2011






At one, an honor guard of Baris Tekok Jago warrior dancers forms at the feet of the first ramp (tragtag) and the coffin is born down and out, preceded by a line of princesses bearing spirit effigies and offerings.

The procession to the cremation is a magnificent affair; the bleganjur marching gamelan band from Br. Kutuh Sayan (see video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyuepI1fY-8) has never been more theatrical, nor more outrageous. The stately tower, bull and gilt palanquins are all glistering in the mid-day sun; the lush green villagescape is a perfect backdrop.

At the entrance to the cremation ground the Kapok trees unleash a shower of seed pod packing which ‘snows’ down on the procession.

It is a fitting send-off for a great lady.


28th October 2011: More Bali-bashing in the Australian press

The WHY BOTHER article in today’s Sydney Morning Herald has put the boot into Bali again, via the pen of journalist Carolyn Webb.

The article includes paragraphs such as the below:

“In short, Ubud would be a great holiday destination, if they removed the frankly terrible street touts, and the tacky souvenir shops. I am not exaggerating to say that vendors of transport and souvenirs harass tourists from morning to night. Single women, especially, cannot walk more than 10 metres without being shouted at, approached, pleaded with, harangued and harassed with the words, “miiissss, miiisss, transport, taxi, where you going….miiiissss?” I thought my name had been changed to Miiisss”.

• • •

The next day, I am asked, indirectly, by the Age of Melbourne to defend Bali against such claims, but I can’t.

"The piece is perfectly well-reasoned and written,” I write. The girl has a point; no “counter-attack” needed. Just, perhaps, a letter saying how Bali's tourism zones have become more ‘commercial’ due to the blight of mass tourism. Point out also that, miraculously, the real culture still survives and that, behind every “transport, Miss”, is a real person. If one chooses a 'hardened' tourist destination such as Venice, Paris, Rome for a holiday one has to be prepared to work harder to keep one's personal space personal.

But, truly, why bother? Do us all a favor and go to Noosa.”

• • •

The Sydney Morning Herald is the same rag that distinguished itself the morning after the recent 6.8 level earthquake. If one googled ‘Bali Earthquake’ that morning from overseas, as I did from Bhutan, one got, first up, the Herald’s headline “Pot Boy survives horror quake in Denpasar jail.”