Friday, June 3, 2011

Balinese Moments

Though our primary area of operation is Northern Thailand from time to time guests request our assistance in facilitating or guiding them to more distant destinations. In November 2010 we had the pleasure of escorting Ed and Anne Praczukowski of Seattle on an extended visit of Bali and Lombok and ending with a road trip from Bangkok to Chiang Rai, Thailand. This blog post focuses on our cultural experiences while on Bali. One would think that after so many years of mass tourism that Bali would be spoiled and offer little in the way of traditional lifestyles for the would be observer and participant. However, with some planning and a willingness to look beyond the well traveled destinations like Kuta and Ubud one can still gain access to traditional cultural activities in non touristic settings. Of course there are many worthwhile museums in Ubud and Denpasar and for those interested, shopping opportunities abound in all the population and tourist centers.

Probably one of the first things that strikes the visitor to Bali is the artistic soul of the island which finds expression in the visual and decorative arts, architecture, crafts and the music and dance which permeate Balinese life. Besides the richly creative culture of the island Bali also offers the visitor an array of beautiful
landscapes from coastlines whose cliffs buffer giant incoming waves from the long fetch of the Indian Ocean to brooding volcanoes and intervening emerald green terraces which support the islands rice plantations.
Floral decorations.
Decoration at entrance to building.
Typical floral offerings renewed daily.
Rural Vista near Culik, East Bali.
Mount Agung (3,142m.) with Bali Sea to right.
The Indian Ocean beating against the cliffs of South Bali.

The success of any trip emphasizing off the beaten track experiences can be influenced by the not always predictable timing of cultural practices. It is indeed fortuitous when ones schedule coincides with that of a local happening. By example, a short time after landing we learned from our long time friend and guide Dewa Putu Gede that in the afternoon there would be a procession leading to the cremation of the King of Peliatan IX, Ida Dewa Agung Peliatan. This was to be a spectacular event typifying the energy and artistry expended by the royal courts of Peliatan and Ubud when carrying out important cremation ceremonies.

Venturing from the airport we arrived at an intersection near the cremation site with time to spare and soon found that we were enmeshed in a crowd of thousands braving the heat to view the proceedings. All nearby
roof tops, balconies and other overlook points were occupied.
Motorcycle park and crowds headed to procession.
Every square inch of viewing space taken.

Packed observers and participants.

One of the many teams who carried the ceremonial structures.
Large bamboo frames to support structures.
Getting the best viewing spot possible.

A large number of artists and craftsmen were required to construct and decorate the various funerary structures including an 11 tier 25.5 meter tall cremation tower or bade which was made of bamboo, wood and paper. It was reported that thousands of villagers working in relays were required to carry the many ton structure the 1.5 kilometers from the Peliatan Palace to the cremation site. Accompanying the bade was a large wooden sarcophagus shaped like a bull and painted white with gold horns. Also in the procession was a naga banda or dragon which was donated by the Ubud royal family and was used to transfer the kings body
to the bade.Prior to the procession a Hindu High Priest fired a sacred arrow into the naga banda to symbolically destroy the earthly desires which tormented the late king thus freeing his soul from temptations of the earthly material world. At the cremation site the king's remains were transferred from the bade to the sarcophagus for the actual cremation.
Two representations of old age.
The Kings sarcophagus in the form of a bull.
Detail of the sarcophagus.
Attendants riding on the sarcophagus.
The naga banda or dragon shaped bridge.
Head of the naga banda.
The naga banda folowed by the bade.
The 11 tiered bade.
The kings remains guarded by an attendant.
Detail of the front of the bade.
Bade details.
The back of the bade with intricate decoration.

In addition to the funerary structures the procession included musicians and lines of women carrying offerings and ritual items. Of course traffic ground to a halt in the vicinity of the procession and power was turned off to facilitate the passage of the bade.As the bade moved along the procession route it would be shifted in direction in order to disorient the spirit and prevent it from returning home to disturb the living. At times like these as a bystander one wondered whether the hundreds of people carrying the bade would be able to safely redirect the momentum represented by its forward movement without crushing those sandwiched along the route. Fortunately the bade passed without incident.

One of the groups of musicians accompanying the procession.


As a counterpoise to the crowds and clamor associated with the spectacle of a royal cremation we were in following days treated to another cultural event that being an Odalan ceremony for a small local temple. Most of the year Balinese temples are empty with the Odalan being the major temple event of the year. Odalan or temple anniversary ceremonies are conducted every 210 days (or one year according to the Balinese calendar). These ceremonies are quite common as there are thousands of temples in Bali. Each
village has at least three temples, the temple of death (pura dalem), temple of origin (pura puseh) and the temple for the god's council (pura desa). In addition there are individual family temples in the house compound as well as the great temples such as Besakih, Uluwatu many other kinds of temples. The Odalan celebrates the anniversary of the initial completion of the temple and the first invitation of the gods to attend.
Odalan festivals vary in size and duration from short family celebrations to events covering many days.The presence of an Odalan in a village is often announced by the presence along village roads of tall decorated bamboo poles called penjor. As noted by I Wayan Dibia the Odalan is not only a "Balinese religious ceremony. It is also a social event and an important theatrical occasion."
The outer door to a typical Balinese temple.

From a religious perspective the entire village works to fulfill the religious requirements required for the success of the festival. This effort requires cooperation of all concerned regardless of station to clean and repair the temple, make offerings, build temporary altars, decorate the temple and routes leading to the temple. The foregoing daytime activities will be followed by nighttime prayers and performances which can go on until late in the evening. Everything used in the ceremonies must be purified by a priest. Odalans may not be held if something bad or impure such as a death has occurred in the village. The group activities required to meet the ceremony requirements presents the opportunity for social interaction between people of different castes, social statuses and skills.It is also a  time for interaction between old and young when older villagers can teach skills required for the Odalan and transmit important cultural and religious information. Older people can meet friends while young people may also meet friends and maybe find romance. During the Odalan the temple becomes the theatrical center of the village. The music, dance, dramas and shadow-play performances will be enjoyed by both the villagers and people from more distant places.
Decorated shrines in middle temple area.
Shrine decorations often use black and white cloths representing good and evil.
A variety of offerings need to be made and properly handled.
 Artistic even in the smallest detail.
If one truly wants to experience Balinese arts and culture and observe religious practices then it is best to forego the more convenient, packaged and abbreviated performances  set up solely for tourists. Balinese performing arts are not static and are continuously developing and over the years have been secularized vis a vis the tourist shows on offer. Though these shows will be performed to a high standard they are missing the
context and atmosphere of a village Odalan.  None of the normal activity, smells, sounds and excitement will be there. It should be noted that in the temple context even if there were no audience the performers would continue as the performance, a form of worship is first and foremost in honor of and entertainment for the gods and ancestral spirits. Balinese temples are without roofs in order to facilitate the arrival of the gods who occupy special shrines reserved for them and who are welcomed and made happy with sights, sounds, smells, flags, banners, umbrellas, decorated buildings and shrines, sacred chants, offerings and food.
Once the essence of the food offerings have satisfied the holy guests the remains can be taken home and eaten.
Offerings and decorations in the inner sanctum.
Inner sanctum of the temple.
Our good fortune was to arrive at our friend Mr. Alit's home just as he and his colleagues were preparing to leave for a Topeng dance performance for an Odalan at a nearby village temple. Alit, a famous carver and dancer invited us to tag along and observe the festivities.Topeng or masked dances are a regular feature of Odalan festivals.The main requirement for us was to be appropriately dressed which included long pants and a sash worn round the waist.
Master mask carver and dancer Mr. Alit
Colleague who will have speaking parts to perform.
Colleague who will take clown part in performance.
Friend Dewa assisting Anne with proper attire for entrance into the temple.
The modern way of going to your performance.
Accompanied by a gamelan (gong-chime) orchestra either  a dancer or group of dancers  will by changing masks portray a variety of characters well known to the Balinese audience.  Dancers are believed to be interpreters of the gods and the various masks to have supernatural power whereby the dancers take on the spirit of the individual represented by the mask. The sacredness of the masks is gained through a careful choice of wood and when and how and from where it is cut, through the carving and painting process, the offerings made and the purification processes observed.
Member of the gamelan orchestra.

Topeng masks generally made of Pule wood may be either full face masks called Bungkulan which restrict the performer to dance, gesture and pantomine. One half or three quarter face masks known as Sibakan permit the performer to sing or speak thus providing a narration and comment on the proceedings. Full masks are generally reserved for high status characters such as gods, kings and prime minister. The Sibakan masks are thus used by storytellers, clowns and the like.
A full face or Bungkalan mask.
A partial or Sibakan mask.
The Topeng dancers maintain a particular erect posture designed to provide focus on the mask and its projection. Topeng dances are closely synchronized with the gamelan orchestra. Longer gong cycles are generally associated with high status characters while shorter gong cycles are used with funny less regal characters. Breaks in the gong cycles called angsals are signaled by cues from the dancer whether by gesture, voice or storyline and then are transmitted to the other musicians by the quick reaction of the drummer. Clearly Topeng dancers must be well versed in history, religion and current events as the dancers not only reveal the traditional meaning of the ceremony but also provide commentary on politics, morality etc.
Upon arrival a gamelan orchestra was playing in the area outside but adjacent to the temple and here dancers were resting waiting for their turn to perform. Entering a middle courtyard we immediately were thrust into the activity and environment of the Odalan. A second gamelan orchestra was playing  on a platform amidst various decorated shrines. Another doorway provided entrance into the inner sanctum or Jeroan filled with offerings and a shadow puppet play. Here too were a variety of decorated shrines and high priests praying and accepting arriving offerings.

Waiting to perform.

In the middle courtyard a group of young girls in traditional dress performed a welcome dance or Rejang.The dancers were resplendent in gold and white with high headresses  decorated with colorful flowers. The welcome dance was followed by a warrior dance or Baris Gede. Wearing distinctive triangular helmets the male performers represent the personal guards of the visiting spirits. At times carrying spears the dancers performed various military maneuvers while occasionally shouting in unison.

Graceful entrance dance.
Enjoying the performance
The Baris Gede or warrior dance.
The triangular helmet typical of Baris Gede dancers.
Typically dressed villagers watching the dancers.
A sip of special water after the performance.

Following these initial dances it was time for the Topeng dances. Prior to the performance Mr. Alit performed  a short ceremony which included the lighting of joss sticks as an act of devotion and respect. During the performance Alit and his colleagues changed masks for a number of individual performances as well as paired performances permitting dialogue between the two dancers. We were treated to characters varying from high ranking figures to low ranking  figures with partial masks who added dialogue to the performance. The last dance was the Sidhakaarya, a figure which always concludes a topeng performance. This mask features a white face, open mouth and huge teeth which stick out from oversized lips. This character is given the opportunity to get the last word in and will often make jokes about the community and its members.The
Sidhakarya characters mask is considered the most revered of the Topeng masks. Made from living wood it is kept in a special place and container seperate from other Topeng masks. It is considered spiritually dangerous and must not be handled by others out of context.

Pre performance ceremony.
Alit displaying typical stance and gesture.
A character with dialogue.
Each mask has its own personality and energy.
Taking a break between changes.
The last to perform, the Sidhakarya character.
Ed crossing generations and cultures.
We left this experience with a beginning appreciation for the numerous layers of meaning and purpose behind the Odalan and its attendant ceremonies and activities. The natural beauty of Bali will be the subject of another post. This post will end with a selection of sunset pictures taken towards Mount Agung from the island of Lombok.