Friday, July 18, 2008

From village to tourist resort--Balinese dance

Yesterday we drove about 1 1/2 hours to Asak, a village in Karangasam for the "usaba sumbu" ceremony, which I understand is held once a year in honor of the rice goddess and the god of wealth. When we arrived a little after 9am about 40 (I will need to look at the photo and count) young women were already dancing. There were only a few other people at the temple, most of whom were working preparing food, testing the mic, etc. Gradually a steady stream of families arrived, with the women carrying towering offerings of food on their heads. Occassionally an entire roasted pig was carried in on a long bamboo pole, which steamed as the pig was slid off onto the offering platform in the center of the temple courtyard. Villagers prayed and were given holy water by the priests, and then people hung around and waited for the main cermony.

Most of the morning, the young women continued their dance. They stood in columns, each holding the sash of the girl behind her over her right shoulder. The dance was a few simple steps and dips, and arms sweeps with multiple colored dance sashes. They wore elaborate golden headdresses and very little makeup as compared to the dancers you see in performances intended for tourists. No one besides us payed much attention to the dancers. When I mentioned this to some Bali experts they explained this is because the dance was for the gods not necessarily people.

Mats were laid down and people began to sit down in what shade they could find from the archway of palm branches that were placed there for the ceremony. One side of the dance column moved over to allow more space for people to sit. The platform was now full of offerings. Finally the dance ended and anyone left standing now sat (including us). The priest performed a ritual in a small altar hut near the offerings. He was mic'd and chanted and people raised hands in prayer at various points or held up a small flower (id they had one) near their chests at others. At some points everyone joined in saying the prayers. The priests then came around with holy water which was sprinkled on heads and poured into hands for three drinks. We were off to the side, but the priest could tell we wished to be blessed as well, and with a slight roll of his eyes, gave us holy water too. Once this was complete many people collected their offerings and left the temple.

In the very same day, we experienced a very different form of Balinese dance--that of a professionally trained group that, from what I can tell, performs mostly for foreign tourists, called Tandjung Sari, who performed for a dinner party for the Jade Circle at the Tandjung Sari Hotel. These dancers were impressively well trained and performed with a fine precision. More impressive still was the young ages of the dancers, the youngest were 5 years old. The boy who performed the Baris (warrior dance) was particularly impressive. There were few Balinese watching the performance. The dancers were heavily made up, there were stage lights (which made my videotaping much easier) and had very elaborate, and fine costumes.

For me it was a wonderful demonstration of the dichotomy I have often heard about--Balinese art created for the Balinese (or more accurately perhaps, art for the gods) and art created for the tourists. I don't have time at this sitting to explore this issue further but will come back to this in future, with some suggested readings.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bali Royal Cremation Ceremony July 15, 2008

The Ubud Royal Cremation yesterday, July 15, 2008, was unbelievable. The towers were like a 10 story building, and carried by 100 or so guys, sometimes moving very fast. They had to cut down some trees beside the road and all the telephone wires were down for a few hours to allow the towers to pass. The procession started at the Ubud royal palace and traveled down the main road about 1/2 mile to the Royal Cemetery. There were ramps built at both ends to load the bodies into and out of the towers some 30 feet off the ground.

There were mobs of people--I went to the cremation ground early to try to get a good spot from which to video, but all efforts were rather futile once the throngs arrived and jockeyed for sight lines. I was often holding my camera overhead using the tripod. I had a good view of the front of the procession of the immediate family members, with two younger members dressed really finely in traditional costume and carried in palanquins.

When the towers arrived, there was a swelling of excitement in the crowd. It was so impressive to see these massive things move, you almost couldn't believe what you were seeing--like some sci-fi movie of a giant walking down the street. Bearers climbed up the ramp to bring the bodies down. There were two elegant caskets, probably TJOKORDA GDE AGUNG SUYASA, head of the Ubud Royal Family and the leader of the traditional community in Ubud since 1976 and TJOKORDA GEDE RAKA, a senior officer in the police force in Denpasar until his retirement in 1992. One person was in a plain white cloth. Perhaps this was the effigy of GUNG NIANG RAKA.

The bearers held the three bodies overhead for more than an hour while the bull sarcophagi were positioned on the cremation platform. The space was tight and there were so many people it was like threading a needle with these huge unwieldy sculptures.

Everyone, not least of which, the purple-shirted bearers, cheered loudly when they finally placed the second bull on the platform. The backs of the bulls were cut open to place the bodies inside.

The MC asked everyone to sit for the sacred ceremony, which none of us could really see or hear, but took about another hour. I did see some offerings and beautiful cloths being carefully placed on top of the deceased and heard faint singing or chanting from the platform. Some family members said final farewells from scaffolding placed adjacent to the bull openings. One man came down and was very distraught, but was immediately surrounded by others to comfort and shield him from the hundreds of cameras. Finally the top of the bull was re-attached enclosing the bodies.

The family which led the procession reemerged from the pavilion and circumambulated the cremation platform several times with offerings. Meanwhile a warrior dance was performed with live gamelan, crowds surrounding and almost moving with the spear-weilding dancers. Suddenly the naga serpent appeared, as if swimming through the sea of people, and danced around a little before it too was placed on the platform between the two bulls.

It was now almost completely dark. You could see people loading kindling and chopped firewood beneath the bulls. Then the fire was lit. It started as a small glow, then quickly grew into a roaring fire with red ashes soaring up. Hundreds of camera flashes added to the light show. I was standing about 50 yards away and could feel the heat of the fire. It was strangely comforting, not too hot or smokey as I feared it might be. The heavens seemed to be drawing all the smoke and fire upwards and away. It was stunningly beautiful. You could still make out the beautiful bulls' heads almost the whole time, at one point they seemed to be spewing steam from their mouths. Eventually both heads fell over.

As soon as the fire seemed a little out of control the fire truck waiting nearby sprung into action, spraying down areas that might pose danger to the crowds around. It was amazing to watch them control the blaze, alternately fueling it with fire accelerant hoses and diminishing it with water. It was the most finely orchestrated planned mayhem I have ever witnessed. It surely cost the royal family a mint, and one wonders how long they will be able to keep up with cremation costs, as the cost of living in Bali has greatly increased in recent years.

We had been standing for about 12 hours with little water a no food. We were completely spent, but certainly we were nowhere near as tired as any one of the participants, from the royal family members who have been sitting vigil for months, making offerings, taking care of volunteers, and visitors; to the scores of vounteer bearers, whose back-breaking work was in some ways the most moving contribution to the event. Surely they could more easily load the towers onto large trucks, like the Macy's Parade, but this would make absolutely no sense in this context, where personal effort must be expended to make the whole thing work. To show the deceased how much they were loved in life, and how much they are and will continue to be honored in death.

I have yet to download pictures, but when I do, I will post them. Please check back for some images and video footage.

--posted from Marco Polo Business Center internet cafe in Ubud

Saturday, July 12, 2008

countdown to Bali

In less than 24 hours I will be boarding a plane to Bali. It is a long journey and I am tight on carry on space so I have to decide what to bring to read. I may have to hit the bookstore at the airport if it is still open at 11pm.

Here is one of Dennis L's latest photos from the Jade Circle trip. Soon my own eyes will see such gorgeous scenes. Dennis is quite the photographer. I will soon try to compete with him using my new Canon Rebel XTi 400D.

I have to work tomorrow, we have a tea program, but I am mostly packed. Someone remind me to bring my passport, OK?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bali in the words of Margaret Mead

My colleage Natasha emailed me this evocative quote by Margaret Mead with the remark "a bit objectifying, but..."

Upon the hundreds of stone altars of Bali, there lay not merely a fruit and a flower, placed as visible offering to the many gods, but hundreds of finely wrought and elaborately conceived offerings made of palm leaf and flowers, twisted, folded, stitched, embroidered, brocaded into myriad traditional forms and fancies. There were flowers made of sugar and combined into representations of the rainbow, and swords and spears cut from the snow-white fat of sacrificial pigs. The whole world was patterned, from the hillsides elaborately terraced to give the maximum rice yield, to the air which was shot through with music, the temple gates festooned with temporary palm-leaf arras over their permanent carved façade, to the crowds of people who, as they lounged, watching an opera or clustered around two fighting cocks, composed themselves into a frieze…Their lives were packed in intricate and formal delights

Preparing to visit Bali

It has been a while since my last post. I have been swamped getting ready for my 3 weeks in Indonesia--getting camera equipment, batteries, gifts, summer clothes, sunscreen, and trying to talk to lots of people about whom we should meet, and what performances we should see and document.

Some members of the Jade Circle Bali trip have already arrived and have posted some images, such as these gorgeous shots by Dennis L.

Even though planning for the Asian Art Museum's Bali exhibition is the main reason for my visit to Indonesia, I felt compelled to add a detour to Java. I will visit Borobudur and will also meet up with my San Francisco-based Sundanese dance teacher and his master teacher in Bandung, Pak Achmad Farmis.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

personal account of a cremation ceremony

Those of us non-Balinese fortunate to be in Bali for the upcoming royal cremation may experience the event as an overwhelming, exotic spectacle.

With the road in front of the Palace now closed, Ubud’s traffic is starting to slow to a snail’s pace. There is a feeling of excitement in the air, of a great event about to happen. There is no denying Ubud is the cultural center of Bali; a title of which we are proud but one that has been upheld through a consistent commitment to the religion and the people.

And on July 15, with the royal white bulls leading the way, followed by more than sixty black bulls and red tigers racing down Jl. Raya to their respective cemeteries, you are guaranteed to be filled with emotion. This is the culmination of a thousand or more hours of work.

This quote comes from a blog post "Ubud busily prepares for a royal cremation" by Janet Deneefe, which also chronicles her personal experience of preparing for the cremation ceremonies of her parents. Janet's moving essay makes real the long days of preparation, the survivors' sacrifice of money, time, comfort, and sleep, and the coming together of community support to ensure that the dead are celebrated in death like they never could have been in life.

She also provides some helpful details about what to expect on July 15. I will post what images I can from Bali and will surely set up a Flickr set about the ceremony after my return on August 1.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

What to wear to a Balinese Temple

The group going to Bali from the Asian Art Museum talked about appropriate wear for visiting a Balinese temple. I will have to buy my temple outfit when I arrive, but I have a simple cotton batik kain or kamben (often mistakenly called a sarong by us Westerners). The difference is that a true sarong is a tube of fabric which you step into, and gather around the waist. As I understand, it is more informal than a kamben, which a long rectangle of fabric that is wrapped around the waist and tied. I have no idea of the proper way to tie these, and hope someone knowledgeable in Bali will help me.

I found two helpful descriptions of Balinese dress online at:

and some photos of people wearing it

Balinese girls in sarong and kebaya
Photo by Nick O'Neill

Ubud Banten
Photo by Damian White