Wednesday, December 28


Acintya -- "that beyond thought", "inconceivable", or "unimaginable" in Sanskrit -- is the Supreme God of Balinese Hinduism, equivalent to the concept of Brahman. He is the Supreme God in the traditional wayang theater of shadow puppets. Acintya is also called Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa in modern Balinese usage (the term means All-In-One Destiny Controller; it was invented in the 1930s by Christian missionaries to describe the Christian God to the Balinese, but quickly co-opted into popular usage to invoke, instead, the Acintya.)

In many temples on Bali or Lombok, Acintya is symbolized by an empty throne on top of the highest pillar or remotest outcrop (the Padmasana, or "Lotus Throne".)

The empty lotus throne can be seen repeatedly in early Buddhist art, there is a 2nd-century Mathura statue that symbolizes the Buddha as the absent but immanent teacher represented by an empty throne. However, the important distinction seems to be that Acintya, while also represented by an empty-throne, is, unlike the immanent Buddha, transcendent -- He teaches nothing, He corrects nothing, He just Is, outside our sense experience.

Prayers and offerings are not made directly to Acintya, but only to the other manifestations of the deity, i.e. the regular Hindu Trinity and the various dewa.

The Balinese mind, as we shall see, has recoiled from nothingness; so there is a figure like the Sun God with flames or rays erupting from his body, infinity-symbol arrows into the void, in the mandala behind the empty throne.

Acintya and his abode, the padmasana throne, were innovations credited to the immigrant Majapahit monk Nirartha, who led a major Hindu renaissance in Bali in the 16th century.

Nirartha ("Un-Meaning") was a Hindu monk, also called Dwijendra ("Lord of the Twice-Born") or Pedanda Shakti Wawu Rauh ("Newly Arrived Powerful High Priest"), who lived in eastern Java in the district of Blambangan, i.e. just across the Bali Strait. He came to Bali in the 1540s, just as Emperor Akbar was ascending the Mughal throne in India.

In Java, Majapahit authority was in decline; the northern coast, seat of many Muslim communities (made of both foreign merchants and Javanese), was in the process of declaring its independence from the Majapahit yoke, and the times were turbulent. Demak was established as the first Islamic Sultanate on Java. Yogyakarta and Surakarta were fragmenting as the ancien regime unravelled, to be replaced by local warlords declaring themselves as Sultan, turning their attention towards bringing the coasts back under the control of the interior.

As Islam came into Java from the North and the West, Majapahit priests must have watched the 1.5 mile strip of water separating Blambangan from Bali longingly; across the water, Gelgel and other principalities flexing their muscles promised to remain Hindu strongholds even as a new agama religion gained sway in Java.

So, legend says, across the water went Nirartha.

Formal historical facts about Nirartha are hard to find. Merle Ricklefs, formerly affiliated to the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, writes in his History of Modern Indonesia:

The inward-looking tendency of [Mataram Sultan] Agung's empire was in any case clear. He did not move his court to the to the north coast, where trade could be encouraged and supervised, but stayed in Mataram, which has neither access by river to the north coast, nor any ports of its own, and where the sea offers access only to the Goddess of the Southern Ocean's Domain . His wars had devastated the coastal areas to such an extent that the export of Javanese rice was affected, at least in some years. For trade and traders he had only contempt, as he explained to the first VOC ambassador in 1614. The dynasty of Mataram had conquered the coast at enormous cost; the crucial question for the future of the fragile empire was whether the coastal districts could be governed from the interior in such a way as to encourage the prosperity of all. If this could be done, Java would become a unified economic and military force of enormous potential. But events were to show that this was not to be.

Outside Java and Sumatra there were no conquerors to be compared with the kings of Aceh and Mataram ... There were important things happening in many areas, of course, but much of the history of this period in other areas has not been studied of is inadequately documented. The internal history of the Balinese kingdom of Gelgel during its golden age of sixteenth century cannot be reconstructed with confidence. Legends tell of the greatness of King Dalem Baturenggong and his priest Nirartha. Gelgel apparently dominated all of Bali and districts elsewhere from the Eastern Salient of Java to Lombok and Sumbawa, but with the present state of knowledge little more can be said with confidence

Where SOAS could not help, I turned to Ida Bagus.

We were sipping luwak coffee. (Kopi Luwak is made from the beans of coffee berries which have been eaten by the Palm Civet Paradoxurus hermaphroditus, and then passed out through its digestive tract. In the cat's stomach, enzymes seep into the beans. After the beans have been defecated, they are gathered and roasted, yielding an aromatic coffee with little bitterness -- a Bali special.)

"Dwijendra Danghyang Nirartha Markandeya came from Mahameru in Java, sailing across the ocean on a pumpkin," he says. "One of his master's wives had fallen in love with him. He had to escape the embarrassing attention and keep his life simple." Bagus sighs and looks at the ocean in the middle distance, puffing on his kretek in silence for a while.

"He did not cross the Bali Strait, the Sultan's men always watched it closely, he went around and landed at Singaraja. The pumpkin kept him safe on a long journey. So it a taboo amongst the Brahmans of Bali, who are descended from Danghyang Nirartha, to ever cut or eat a pumpkin."

"The king Dalem Baturenggong heard of him, and invited him to desa Gelgel, to the south."

Danghyang Nirartha brought with him a belief in one Supreme God known as Acintya, and one supreme goal -- moksha -- in life. Moksha is an ancient Hindu concept meaning release from samsara and the suffering involved in being subject to the cycle of repeated death and reincarnation or rebirth; it was developed into the concept of nirvana by Buddhism. Acintya could be worshipped in his many manifestations through offerings of three elements : fire, water and fragrant flowers.

Perversely, in time the prayer and the offerings became inseparable from daily life, necessary in order to ensure the blessing of every venture. Rather than the mystic concepts grafted from Java, it was this preoccupation with offerings -- Bebali -- so dominated the everyday life that the island became known as Bali.

The word bebali is derived from we-walen, which roughly means "that which can be performed." Performed offerings are woven flowers; pagodas of fruit; spun cloth; wayang puppet shows; or dance-dramas.

Following the ouster of Sukarno in the mid-1960s, Pancasila was reinterpreted in the official Indonesian policy on religion to only recognise monotheism. The first of the silas asks for "Belief in the one and only God, (Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa.)" The concept of Acintya helped the Balinese reconcile their religion with the framework of official monotheism. Interestingly, the title of Maha Esa (Mahesha) has traditionally in Hinduism been Shiva's. The Indonesian Buddhists Organization at this time also proposed that there was a single supreme Buddhist deity, Sang Hyang Adi Buddha.

Clifford Geertz, the emeritus anthropologist of cultural symbols, writes:

Bali, where I worked both in another small provincial town, though one rather less drifting and dispirited, and, later, in an upland village of highly skilled musical instruments makers, is of course in many ways similar to Java, with which it shared a common culture to the fifteenth century. But at a deeper level, having continued Hindu while Java was, nominally at least, Islamized, it is quite different. The intricate, obsessive ritual life--Hindu, Buddhist, and Polynesian in about equal proportions--whose development was more or less cut off in Java, leaving its Indic spirit to turn reflective and phenomenological, even quietistic, in the way I have just described, flourished in Bali to reach levels of scale and flamboyance that have startled the world and made the Balinese a much more dramaturgical people with a self to match. What is philosophy in Java is theater in Bali.

As a result, there is in Bali a persistent and systematic attempt to stylize all aspects of personal expression to the point where anything idiosyncratic, anything characteristic of the individual merely because he is who he is physically, psychologically, or biographically, is muted in favor of his assigned place in the continuing and, so it is thought, never-changing pageant that is Balinese life. It is dramatis personae, not actors, that endure; indeed, it is dramatis personae, not actors, that in the proper sense really exist. Physically men come and go, mere incidents in a happenstance history, of no genuine importance even to themselves. But the masks they wear, the stage they occupy, the parts they play, and, most important, the spectacle they mount remain, and comprise not the facade but the substance of things, not least the self. Shakespeare's old-trouper view of the vanity of action in the face of mortality--all the world's a stage and we but poor players, content to strut our hour, and so on--makes no sense here. There is no make-believe; of course players perish, but the play does not, and it is the latter, the performed rather than the performer, that really matters.

... The Balinese have at least a half-dozen major sorts of labels, ascriptive, fixed, and absolute, which one person can apply to another (or, of course, to himself) to place him among his fellows. There are birth-order markers, kinship terms, caste titles, sex indicators, teknonyms, and so on and so forth, each of which consists not of a mere collection of useful tags but a distinct and bounded, internally very complex, terminological system. When one applies one of these designations or titles (or, as is more common, several at once) to someone, one therefore defines him as a determinate point in a fixed pattern, as the temporary occupant of a particular, quite untemporary, cultural locus. To identify someone, yourself or somebody else, in Bali is thus to locate him within the familiar cast of characters--"king," "grandmother," "third-born," "Brahman"--of which the social drama is, like some stock company roadshow piece-- Charley's Aunt or Springtime for Henry --inevitably composed.

Under the auspices of Nirartha's spiritual leadership the six directional Sad Kahyangan temples were built or expanded: Pura Besakih, Pura Batur, Pura Sukawana, Pura Batukaru, Pura Andakasa and Pura Lempuyang, centres of worship for all Hindu Balinese. All have high empty thrones dedicated to Acintya, standing silent as women bear pagodas of fruit and girls sway with bebali below.

At Batukaru, the Western of the the directional temples (dedicated to Mahadewa) the padmasana shrine is at the back, in the far right corner. Acintya is depicted in gold at the top, His back towards the most sacred mountain. The lowest level of the padmasana throne is supported on the back of the cosmic turtle, the Bedawang, which carries the Universe on his back. The two eternal serpents, Nagas Basukih and Anantaboga, lie coiled over the turtle to dampen the earthquakes which arise when it stirs. While the padmasana is now one of many shrines, and probably not the primary one in anything but name, the concept of Nirartha's Acintya of the ultimate liberation, transported from the Indus, to Mathura, to Java, to this remote mountain on Bali, watches forlornly over the present.

From Arun Das Gupta's essay on Rabindranath's voyage to Indonesia:

Rabindranath was looked upon in Bali as a Mahaguru, not in the sense of a university professor but of something reminiscent of the ancient Indian Hindu sage Bharata Guru Agastya. The raja of Karang Asem, who had a philosophic cast of mind, wanted the poet to interpret some passages from the sastra (Balinese religious texts) for him. [Suniti Kumar] Chatterji, with his knowledge of Sanskrit, helped out as much as possible. The raja then surprised his Indian visitors by asking a philosophical question. He asked what, if the worship of gods, the building of temples, the performance of funeral ceremonies and the observance of social codes cannot be the final aim in life, man's ultimate quest should be. Chatterji replied by asking the raja to answer the question himself. Then came the startling reply: 'Dewa Dewa tida apa, Nirvana satu' (Gods and their worship are immaterial, Nirvana is the supreme goal). Tagore was greatly touched and in his poem on Bali referred to this encounter as follows: 'We said the same mantras together, pondered over the same question of Nirvana'.

Before leaving Bali, Tagore was to write in a letter home:

The island is beautiful, the people are very nice, but my mind does not want to make a home here ... In the air of India, in her rivers and fields, in all her nature, I have seen a generosity of the spirit ... I see there a lot of pain, her human habitations are images of misfortune, but overcoming all these, in her skies a voice comes to us crossing the ages, bearing a message of the greatest of liberations. In the lower parts of India there are the shackles of pettiness, the constant hubbub of the inconsequent, and the despair of those that are less; but her upper aspect is a seat of the immense, her invitation an eternal one towards the infinite.

Nirartha lived out his life in Bali teaching and codifying. The Balinese kakawin poem Mayantaka is attributed to him. It is said that Nirartha achieved moksha in Pura Luhur Uluwatu, the last padmasana shrine built by him. The message of moksha -- that awful eternity without labels -- taken in like bitter Java, passed through the Polynesian body of Bali, to yield the fragrant and aromatic bebali.

Below, Pura Luhur Batukaru (also spelt Batukau.)

Friday, December 23

Income To Which No Tears Are Attached

A study says that Bali needs at least 516,000 hectares of productive land to feed its population. The island has only 325,000 hectares of fertile land. According to WHO standards, Bali can only sustain a population of about 1 million; 1.6 million would be 'tolerable'; the actual population is 3.32 million. On top, 2.5 million tourists visit every year.

The island's water supply is 4.7 million cubic meters per year, while 5.4 million cubic meters are used annually. The major lakes are falling, in some cases the water level goes down a foot a year. Water levels are trending down in a majority of Bali's rivers, and deep wells are being bored to make up for the loss of surface water. Of course, as ground water is pumped out, sea water from all around the island seeps in. Farmers in south Denpasar can no longer grow crops in the brackish soil, they sell their land to developers building one tourist enclave after another. Bali now has 50,000 hotel rooms; and the hotels have successfully resisted any meaningful water tax.

For a thousand years, Bali had its own traditional pulsed system of irrigation, called the subak. The subak system -- built around water temples whence allocation of water is made by a priest -- is famous among anthropologists and agronomists for its engineering, its social structure, and the guiding hand of religion.

As Bali's 400 rivers and streams issue from the central highland catchment areas, they dig deep channels in the volcanic rock. For a thousand years, farmers have cut tunnels through the rock to feed water into aqueducts, from where bamboo piping carries the water to the top of terraced rice fields. Gravity does the rest, the water flows down from terrace to terrace till it comes to down to the level of the beaches. Sluices or gates on dams are opened or closed to create pulsing -- inundating the seedlings when desired, drying them out when needed. Irrigation tunnels are precision-engineered through rock, running for kilometers at a time, to accurate delivery at the top of the fields; the oldest has inscribed on its walls AD 944 as the year of construction.

Anthropologists have enduringly viewed the rise of central state power as tied to the administration of irrigation. Karl Marx believed that "the prime necessity of an economical and common use of water .... necessitated in the Orient ... the centralizing power of government." When Engels asked him for substantiation, he replied that an "intact example" was Bali.

When the Dutch colonized Bali, they felt that control over irrigation was one of the powers they should inherit from the Balinese royal houses. They also felt that the island should be run profitably. One popular idea in the Netherlands was for the colonial government to own an opium import monopoly, by which it could sell "juice" to the natives at handsome profit, and use some of that profit to run the island.

Opium had been traditionally traded in Bali by the Bugis from Sulawesi, and also the Chinese. The merchants paid a duty to the local rajas who ruled each district in Bali. Around the 1890s, annual agricultural tax revenue in any one raja's domains did not amount to much more than 15,000 dutch guilders (each guilder or dutch florin was about 10 grams of silver.) In comparison, opium revenue for the island was close to 1,000,000 guilders.

The Dutch decided to take control, abolishing independent opium sales, forcing people to buy only from them, in Bali as in Java. The rajas who revolted were mown down with guns.

Henri Hubert van Kol, a Dutch parliamentarian, visited Bali in 1902 with the goal, alongside travel, of reporting back to the Dutch government how to administer the island better. The promotion of opium, by the time van Kol arrived, had done even more damage to the Dutch East Indies than the wars that ended in colonization. He wrote:

On Java alone, 16 million guilders are obtained from 150,000 Chinese and Javanese who could spend that money on better things than poppy juice. The native becomes poorer, and brings his jewelry, clothes and tools to be pawned. He pawns his land and would rather commit a crime than work ...

Most of the addicts were modest users, but under the monopoly opium was more expensive -- when the income of a family was scarcely 100 guilders a year, the total revenue stated by van Kol indicates that most of the users spent their entire income on opium.

H.H. van Kol lobbied strenuously to abolish the opium monopoly and develop tax revenues more along the traditional lines of agricultural land and water taxes, so that the economy of Bali could be based on "income to which no tears are attached."

Eventually his argument prevailed; but when the Dutch colonial state tried to take control of the systems of agriculture, they found to their consternation that the kings enjoyed no power over irrigation.

The princes of Bali had diffuse, overlapping kingdoms whose boundaries were entangled and disputed. Most of the kingdoms straddled watersheds and there was little possibility of controlling water upstream in one watershed without inviting retribution in another. Confounding conventional and Marxist theories, it turned out that the water was actually controlled by temples, not kings.

A subak consists of all the rice terraces irrigated from a single dam. The dams are stacked one below the other down the river canyons. From the dam, a single canal system, usually of a few kilometers' length, carries diverted water to the subak, often with the aid of overhead aqueducts or tunnels.

Individual farmers whose fields are irrigated by a subak form a congregation that then becomes affiliated with the activities of the particular water temple.

The water temple -- pura -- is headed by a Hindu priest, who draws up a calendar of water use -- when the planting season starts, which subak draws water when, and how the pulses of water flow out. Water interacts with the soil in fields as part of a complex agri-biology -- the pulsed cycles impact soil pH, temperature, nutrient circulation, aerobic conditions, micro-organism growth, pest-drowning, weed suppression etc. -- the pura calendar accounts for all these aspects. The system is fragile, even a day's disorder in water-flow will damage a farmer's crop.

Pura congregation-members prepare offerings to the gods, repair and decorate temples, clear small field canals, mend dykes and make repairs to water channels. The head priest of Pura Er Jeruk explained the system to American anthropologist Stephen Lansing thus:

There are 14 subaks all of which meet together as one here. They meet at the Temple Er Jeruk. Every decision, every rule concerning planting seasons and so forth, is always discussed here. Then, after meeting here, decisions are carried down to each subak. The subaks each call all their members together: "In accord with the meeting we held at the Temple Er Jeruk, we must fix our planting dates, beginning on day one through day ten."

For example, first subak Sango plants, then subak Somi, beginning from day ten to day twenty ...

Heeding van Kol's advice, the Dutch had tried to convert Bali into a plantation economy -- a colonial dependency with roads, railways, shipping etc., designed to support the conversion of a subsistence agriculture into cash crops. Of the process of creating this colonial dependency, Lansing writes in The Three Worlds of Bali :

The classical states of Bali were not merely conquered but obliterated: the people killed, the libraries burned, the palaces reduced to rubble. It is all the more remarkable, then, that the cultural and institutional life of Bali. Balinese civilization, in fact was able to survive...The real roots of this civilization lay elsewhere, in intertwining networks of thousands of temples where the power of the myths was guarded, nurtured, studied ...

While the Dutch destroyed what part of Bali they could see -- by abolishing the monarchy and radically remaking the visible culture, the temples tucked away in the paddies endured. Lansing notes that the Dutch did not understand the decentralized system of irrigation, nor the importance of water temples in agricultural production, and they abandoned any attempts to intervene in water management solely allowing the ancient system to transpire. They did install an irrigation bureaucracy, which consisted of collecting rice taxes, performing land surveys, and building irrigation works, yet they remained clueless as to the vital role of water temples in both agriculture and social organization.

Lansing states:

Because the Dutch model of irrigation vastly underestimated the complexity of the sociobiophysical systems involved in rice production, water temples and bureaucracies coexisted without creating technical problems in irrigation control. Most Balinese rice terraces continued to produce two crops per year, as they had before the arrival of the Dutch.

After Indonesia became independent, the new state continued on a path of development based on the bureaucratic capitalism, as designed by the colonizers. This resulted in a disastrous attempt at a Green Revolution.

The Bali Irrigation Project was launched in 1979 by the Asian Development Bank in order to improve the performance of irrigation systems while disregarding the practical role of the pura. All of the new changes contradicted the traditional water management based on ritual and religious cycles. Lansing writes:

The Green Revolution approach assumed that agriculture was a purely technical process and that production would be optimized if everyone planted high-yielding varieties of rice as often as they could. In contrast, Balinese temple priests and farmers argued that the water temples were necessary to coordinate cropping patterns so that there would be enough irrigation water for everyone and to reduce pests by coordinating fallow periods.

If farmers on adjacent fields synchronize their cropping patterns to create a uniform fallow period over a sufficiently large area, rice pests are temporarily deprived of their habitat and their populations can be sharply reduced. Field studies indicate that synchronized harvest/fallow patterns result in pest losses of around 1%, compared to losses upwards of 50% during continual cropping as imposed by the Green Revolution's "Massive Guidance."

While the first few years brought greater harvest, Massive Guidance quickly led to ecological collapse. The lack of crop rotation and natural harvest/fallow cycles resulted in less productive fields. As the pests could not be controlled by fallow fields interrupting their breeding cycles, massive use of pesticides was pushed onto the farmers. The new pesticides killed the good insects that used to eat the bad ones.

Balinese farmers began pressing the government for a return to irrigation scheduling by the pura, but were taken to task for their religious doggedness and 'conservatism.' In 1983, the US National Science Foundation sponsored Lansing to examine the role of water temples in Balinese irrigation management. Lansing subsequently tried to convey to development officials that the rituals of the water temples were a historically successful system of ecological management that should not be ignored. The Asian Development Bank wrote back:

We do not fully share the expressed concerns of Mr. Lansing. Certainly there is a direct relationship between large areas of fallow land for a considerable period and the population of pests. However, pest control programs carried out efficiently and effectively will control the pest population and allow growing of rice year-round if adequate water resources are available as is done, for example, in certain areas of Central and East Java where farmers grow three rice crops per annum. It should be noted, that there is no development without affecting traditional systems or customs. Everybody can criticize and damage a project, but only a few people can overcome those difficult problems and make the project viable.

In 1987, Lansing collaborated with a computer simulation expert, James Kremer, to calculate the effects of various crop management scenarios. Their model, using historical rainfall data, concluded that the traditional water temple system was far more effective than the government's policy. Around 1991 Jakarta started to back down; development agencies are now encouraging Balinese rice farmers to return to the system that had served them well for over a thousand years. The farmers are inching back to making $600 per year from their rice crops, i.e. subsisting on the iconic $2/day.

In the meantime, of course, tourists have discovered Bali; as mentioned the island now gets 2.5 million visitors a year and boasts of 50,000 hotel rooms. Tourism is the new opium. In the 1990s Australian college-students discovered the drunken-bikini-scene in Kuta, and more recently Liz Gilbert has opened the eyes of American single-white-females to Ubud. Rice farmers are selling out of their land, foreigners are moving in to build "Bali style" bungalows.

Outside Goa Gajah, as we draw into the parking lot an elderly parking attendant waves to Ida Bagus. "My uncle," he explains, "my mother's brother."

"If this were India," I tease him, "you would have hid from your elder that cigarette you are smoking."

"I know," says Ida Bagus. "He is always telling me to quit. My uncle's side is very .... hmm ... holy ... they used to be water-temple priests."

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald titled "Bali skirts the fine line between selling body and soul" says:

We decide over lunch that she's almost certainly a Bulgarian hooker, this girl with the blonde mullet, the full-body tan and the iPod tucked fetchingly into her G-string. With the dreamy-jerky movements of a Sim she dances alone at the centre of the beach-shack restaurant, directing her Mona Lisa smile at the dreadlocked Aussie surfers.

As her toasted pelvis rotates mesmerically, two things strike me. First, that she gives new meaning to the term Bali belly. Second, that as livings go, Bulgarian hooker probably still beats 50-kilogram top-of-the-head load-bearer for $2 a day, like the mother of the taxi driver who brought us to this out-of-the-way Balinese beach ...

"Bali style'', now a sort of global soft porn for design heads. You know the look. Dark satiny timber, broad eaves, simple planes, glancing daylight, walled courts, infinity pools, gauzy hangings, luscious views and frangipani evenings strewn with tiny lights. Far grander than Bali-colloquial, Bali style has shades of Japanese serenity, Polynesian sensuality and cool Moorish seclusion. It does for Bali architecture what Paul Simon did for Zulu music; enriching and teasing it open for Western tastes without diminishing its power.

But this very lusciousness, with its enormous drawing power, is part of the problem. Already, while tourists pad around endless azure pools on emerald lawns fringed with luxuriant tropical planting, Bali beyond the touro-strip is parched and brown.

Locals say it hasn't rained for a year. The lovely golden cattle sit emaciated on picked-bare dirt. Groundwater is depleted, rivers dry or polluted, and lakes seven metres down. Water comes by tanker over roads that are more pothole than asphalt, and then by head - yet the big hotels strenuously oppose any increase in the water tax.

For the moment, Bali continues to rotate its pelvis and smile seductively at its fat white guests. But does it, in quiet moments, wonder at what point hospitality becomes prostitution?

Below, a walk in the rice fields.

Saturday, December 17

I Made Brahma

Ida Bagus Dalem is driving us around in Bali. He solemnly hands me his card -- it states his name, his mobile phone, his village, and then, in proud red letters, "#1 Troublemaker In Bali."

Bagus is about 40, stocky and muscled, a curlicued dragon-tattoo covering his shoulder and biceps. The tourism food-chain in Bali is complicated, and Bagus is at its bottom; at the top are lenders from Java who finance cars, followed by rich people in Bali who import them, then there are fleet operators who manage them, tourist-agencies who make commission-based retail bookings, and finally the drivers who are paid daily wages. "I am a Brahman", says Bagus. "My whole village is Brahman. I work for a Satriya who runs an agency. A Wesiya leases the car. A Sudra in Kuta imported it. Most of the money you are paying goes to Muslims in Java." He seems happy with this arrangement, an inversion of the traditional Hindu caste-structure. Unusually for Bali, Bagus is single, and lives in his older brother's family compound. His sister-in-law feeds him every day, and his nephews sleep around him on those nights he is not out chasing girls.

We pass artisan villages as we head from Sanur to Ubud; here a clump of houses making silverware, there one carving statues. Prominent signs outside proclaim "I Made Rama", "I Made Budi", "I Made Indra" and so on.

This is not the pride of the sculptor, but a complicated naming system at work.

The European system of given name(s) followed by surname is a relatively recent template. In ancient times up to the middle ages people could be reasonably identified by one name: Aelfred, or Beowulf, or Cicero; you got by just as Socrates. Only by the 16th century did monarchs (Francis I of France, Henry VIII of England) require persons to take surnames. It is likely the change was fueled by increased population and increased mobility -- people were showing up in London or Paris from faraway parts and no one knew which Henri you meant. Leonardo? the one from Vinci near Florence? The Basque from Gama?

The Balinese naming system is different; it consists of rules that indicate gender, clan, birth-order, what their parents expect them to be, and so on. A baby is not named right away at birth -- parents will wait till specific days on the traditional calendar to name a newborn with a Balinese Hindu ritual.

If the child is chronically sick, or otherwise unlucky, it is felt the name was not suitable, and another can be chosen when the child is older. (Sukarno, who had a Javanese aristocratic Muslim father and Balinese Hindu Brahman mother, had to get his name changed from Kusno Sosrodihardjo to Su Karno, or Good Karna, after surviving a childhood illness.)

After marriage, the wife does not take the husband's name.

There is also widespread use of teknonyms -- when your first child is born you lose your birth-name and begin to be called "Father of Shiwa" or "Mother of Shinta". Again, when your grandchild is born, you become "Grandfather of Prayuda" or "Grandmother of Srikandi". Over time, all but a few of your contemporaries forget your birth-name.

As we drive cross- and circum-island (the owner of the agency calls every night to complain about the unexpectedly large number of miles being logged on his leased car), I have long discussions with Bagus about what goes into a Balinese name. Here are (as I understand them, no doubt imperfectly) the Balinese naming templates:

I or Ni signify gender - Male or Female.

The next part is a caste-name. Brahmans have the initial honorific of Ida, and males of the senior-most Brahman clan on Bali are titled Ida Bagus. The women of this clan are called Ida Ayu.

The Satria have caste-names like Anak Agung (male), Anak Agung Ayu or Anak Agung Istri (female); Agung means great or prominent. Putra, or Prince, for a boy, and Putri, or Princess, for a girl, are also used.

Wesiya caste-names are Gusti (meaning prominent-person, or leader, akin to the Sanskrit mahajan), Desak, and so on.

There are no special caste-names the Sudra. Traditionally they only add I for male or Ni for female in front of their names.

The next part of the name signifies birth order. Wayan/Putu/Gede/Nengah are used for the first born baby, Made/Kedek for the second born, Nyoman/Komang for the third born, and Ketut for the fourth born baby. For No. 5, you go back to Wayan, No. 6 could again be Kedek and so on. Obviously, if a couple have children there will be a Wayan, so finding someone called Wayan in Bali is like trying to find a Rama in India.

Subsequently, the name might be personalized with some circumstance of birth. If there was bad weather when the mother gave birth, a male second-born baby might be named I Made Kerug (kerug means thunder). If born on a Sunday, a male first-born baby might be named I Wayan Redite (redite means Sunday). If there are no remarkable circumstances, you name the baby after a deity or cultural concept -- e.g. I Made Wisnu.

More examples -- Ida Ayu Ngurah, meaning Brahman woman, of the most-high Long Life clan, whose personal name is Ngurah, or Gift from Heaven. Anak Agung Rai, meaning a Satriya whose personal name is King. I Gusti Ketut Rajendra, male of the Wesiya caste, fourth born, whose personal name is the Lord of Kings. Ketut Liyer, the fortune-teller from Eat Pray Love ("sometimes to lose balance for love is part of living a balanced life"), has a name that means Fourth Born Bright Light. (See here for a post-fame encounter with Ketut 'liar'.)

All over Bali you see checkered cloth (black-and-white, saffron-and-white) draped over trees or statues, or worn by people in ceremonies. The cloth is called saput poleng -- poleng means two-colored -- and it signifies the deep understanding that overcomes black-and-white thinking. The more enlightened you are, you see that sorrow is part of happiness, learn that a mistake is a path to the truth, understand that nothing is prescriptively bad or good, and accept both laughter and tears as gifts. Poleng is a common "given" name -- 'Gus Made, the most famous painter of the Balinese Pita Maha generation -- his famous tempera Legong Dance is below -- had as his full name Ida Bagus Made Poleng.

Once a child is born, the parents' birth names cease to be used. The teknonym appears; after the birth of their son Poleng, a couple whose names were Pudja and Deblog are now called Father of Poleng and Mother of Poleng.

The circularity after 4 stations -- Wayan to Made to Nyoman to Ketut back to Wayan -- also appears in the naming of generations. The word for great-grandfather -- kumpi -- is the same as that for great-grandson. This identity of generations reveals itself in prayers to the dead. The deceased's contemporaries -- siblings, cousins, friends -- will not pray to him as he is not senior to them. The dead get prayers from three generations below, but not from the fourth generation, i.e. the great-grandchildren; the kumpi are regarded as being cyclically linked back to the same generation, and not junior to the deceased. The 5th generation, i.e. consisting of the great-great-grandchildren, is regarded as senior to the deceased and would also not pray to him.

The Balinese kin group, in some ways similar to the Hindu gotra, is the dadia. We have encountered the Ida Bagus dadia. In the case of the three upper castes, the triwangsa, an illustrious Majapahit immigrant would be the common ancestor. (The Javanese conquerors of Bali in Gajah Mada's time contributed the Brahmans, Satrias and Wesiyas. 93% of the population of Bali, who represent wong Bali, i.e. the original people of Bali as distinct from the colonizing wong Majapahit, are Sudras.) Brahmans are, more specifically, said to be descended from Nirartha, the Javanese priest who came with the Majapahit and codified Balinese Hinduism.

The triwangsa are also referred to as wong jero, which means insiders (they lived inside the fortified walls of the conquerors) and the Sudras are referred to as wong jaba or outsiders (they lived outside the walls, in the country.)

Unlike gotras, however, dadia groups are not exogamous; by preference they are endogamous -- you try to marry within your circle of close kin. The ideal partner is a patriparallel cousin, which, for a male, would be his father's brother's daughter, that is, his first cousin on his father's side. The resources of the bride's family stay within the dadia, preventing fragmentation of scarce land. (In certain cases, you can pay a fine to the local ruler and be allowed to marry outside the dadia, as in the cases of elopement or abduction.)

Note that coupled-cousins are also common, for much the same reasons, within European royalty (list here). Charles Darwin married his first cousin Emma (their grandparents were also cousins), and Albert Einstein married his mother's sister's daughter Elsa, who was also his second cousin from his father's side.

The Sudra in Bali are not untouchable; while they are of lower status, the concept of touch-pollution does not exist. Inter-caste marriage is tolerated, and there always has been a certain amount of caste-mobility. The king of Klungkung, whose ancestors were installed by Gajah Mada, technically changes from being a Brahman to a Satria when he becomes the ruler (though he retains, uniquely among Satria, the title Dalem, see here.) Mixed marriages, however, still result in a change of status, and the rules concerning such status-changes are complex and reflect the power of patriarchy. A high caste triwangsa man may marry a lower caste Sudra woman; continued for three generations, high caste is lost. Till then, the children automatically receive their father's status; the wife enjoys a higher position, changing her title to jero (insider.) A high-caste woman, however, cannot marry a lower-caste man.

Today, modern economies and politics have upended the power structure of caste, but it still manifests itself in language. "For you can not speak the same Balinese language when you talk to a Sudra as you do when you talk to a Brahman like me." says Bagus. "It is a taboo."

There are three caste-contexted dialects of the Balinese language; they are Bali Alus (from halus, decorum; the highest level), Bali Madya (middle level) and Bali Sor (the lowest level). Bali Madya and Bali Sor are spoken in Balinese daily life, and can be used amongst friends or people of the same caste. Bali Alus must be used when talking to someone of a higher caste.

"Have you had your lunch?", in each caste-contexted dialect is:
Bali Alus : Sampun ngrayunang?
Bali Madya : Sampun Ngajeng?
Bali Sor : Sube medaar?

Think of the difference as being that between English greetings based on the tone of familiarity the speaker wishes to strike:
Good Morning, Sir!,
'Morning!, and
How's goes it, dude!
Only, in Bali, the entire language is so stratified, and all speech must follow the caste-context. Even a waiter or a bellboy, if suspected to be a Brahman, would normally be spoken to in High Balinese as a mark of respect for his caste.

When a Sudra meets a Brahman he reflexively bows his head. Pavilions in palaces and houses are tiered to allow people to sit in accordance with their status -- a delicate way to ascertain a person's caste is to ask where they want to sit -- "Oh, I'd prefer downstairs." At meals, the highest-caste-rank person eats first, and it is not polite to leave until he gets up. This makes Ida Bagus Dalem very uncomfortable, to the point he refuses to eat with others.

In India, caste is, theoretically, an outcome of one's karma in previous incarnations; and, practically, it used to denote distance from political power (after becoming Chhatrapati, Shivaji brought Gagabhat of Varanasi to establish his lineage into the Rajput Kshatriya Sisodias.)

In Bali, caste does not have much of a theoretical explanation, but indicates (in ways similar to Aryan peripheries) how much one's Majapahit paternal line has mixed with aboriginal Balinese maternal ones.

As we drive to Singaraja, we pass a number of shops belonging to the Pande clan: Manik Pande's Kris Daggers, Sidarta Pande's Blades. In India, Pande would be a Brahmin surname, but in Bali the Pandes are a hereditary clan, set apart from the caste system. They are the smiths; the most influential among them being blacksmiths: Pande besi. You can learn how to make steel, but you cannot be called a blacksmith; the only way to become a blacksmith is to be born a Pande besi.

In Bali, many clan groups wrote lontars, formal religious charter documents, to codify, and amplify, their right to status greater than mere Sudra. The Pande clan's lontar, called the Prasasti Sira Pande Mpu, offers a history that is vivid and full of the molten-metal-worker's hubris. The Prasasti Sira Pande Mpu outlines a pre-Hindu mythology that describes the creation of Brahma, who appears in elemental Fire -- here, truly, 'I Made Brahma.' Mpu Pradah is proclaimed the first head of Pande clan. The lontar states that the Brahmans obtained their knowledge and power from the Pande, that the Pande are older than the Brahmans, and that they are of greater power and prestige. Pandes are not permitted to obtain holy water from Brahman priests because such priests are the inferior younger-brothers of the Pandes. Pande areas have their own temples and their own pemangku lay priests, who make their own holy water for use only by the Pande people.

The document also includes a declaration of independence, for those skilled clans who had the knowledge-base to refute agama Hindu hegemonies. The lontar contains warnings to other caste-less people, that, rather than follow the triwangsa, they should emulate the Pandes.

In the old days, even Brahmans spoke to those working as smiths in High Balinese. Pandes are also permitted to have 11 tiers on their cremation towers, an honor only accorded to persons of very high caste.

Bagus claims, half-preening and half-sheepish, that young Brahman single men like him are the playboys of Bali, able to catch girls easily; a Sudra girl still dreams of climbing the hierarchy and becoming a Jero, a newly-minted Brahman woman; she will, fantasizes Bagus, offer herself to any young Brahman who beckons with a finger. What about Sudra boys? "Their goal, every weekend," says Bagus solemnly "is to bring a Brahman girl into their arms. That is a very nice target for them."

And what language would be used? He guffaws -- "In bed? Of course the most familiar!"

Below - Bagus takes us into the Uluwatu temple.

Sunday, December 11


At the highest point in the range of hills above Yogyakarta, where on a clear day you can see the planes forever taking off from Adisucipto, is Candi Ijo -- a 9th century Shaivite temple. Near it has been found, curiously, the only statue of Vishnu's Narasimha (Man-Lion) avatar encountered in Indonesia. The 4th avatar of Vishnu is Narasinga to the Javanese.

We are far down, on Malioboro St in Yogya, crushed within throngs of revelers celebrating, with a carnival, a royal wedding. Sultan Hamengkubuwono X’s fifth (and youngest) daughter, Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Bendara, a hotel management graduate from Switzerland, is getting married to a Sumatran civil servant (who has been elevated to royalty as Prince Yudanegara) at a mosque inside the Palace complex (story here.) President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is in town with the First Lady, and so is everyone else: the procession we are in the midst of was supposed to draw 100,000 souls.

"Too squishy." Mr. M says stoically as we watch, from the head of the parade, the floats set off one by one.

One of the floats is under police protection, perhaps the only one with a religious motif. A cop on a motorcycle is parked abreast of a statue of a fierce Vishnu with a lion's head (i.e. the Man-Lion or Narasimha avatar), attacking the demon-king Hiranyakashipu, who was about to kill his own son Prahlada because he worshipped Vishnu. The demon-king has collapsed, lying across Narasimha's thigh, his head hanging down, his arms hanging helplessly and his legs in the air in aimless struggle. Narasimha is ripping open the demon-king's abdomen with two hands, the entrails dangling.

A quick recap of the story from the Puranas:

In his previous avatar of Varaha (Boar), Vishnu had killed the demon Hiranyaksha whose depredations had become intolerable to mankind.

Hiranyaksha's brother Hiranyakashipu, greatly angered, decided the only fit revenge would be to kill Vishnu (the Protector of the Universe to Hindus.) Since only the most supernatural of powers would do, he believed Brahma, the Creator, might be the sole recourse, if he managed to conduct the right penances. This seemed to work; pleased with Hiranyakashipu's long austerities, Brahma appeared and offered him a boon. Hiranyakashipu wished thusly:

O my lord, O best of the givers of benediction, if you will kindly grant me the benediction I desire, please let me not meet death from any of the living entities created by you. Grant me that I not die within any residence or outside any residence, during the daytime or at night, nor on the ground or in the sky. Grant me that my death not be brought about by any weapon, nor by any human being or animal. Grant me that I not meet death from any entity, living or nonliving created by you. Grant me, further, that I not be killed by any demigod or demon or by any great snake from the lower planets. Since no one can kill you in the battlefield, you have no competitor. Therefore, grant me the benediction that I too may have no rival. Give me sole lordship over all the living entities and presiding deities, and give me all the glories obtained by that position. Furthermore, give me all the mystic powers attained by long austerities and the practice of yoga, for these cannot be lost at any time.

One day while Hiranyakashipu is performing austerities at Mandaracala Mountain, his home is attacked by Indra and the other gods. At this point the divine sage Narada intervenes to protect Hiranyakashipu's consort Kayadu, who he describes as sinless. Narada takes Kayadu into his care and her unborn child (Hiranyakashipu's son) Prahlada, becomes affected by the transcendental mantras of the sage, in utero. As he grows into boyhood, Prahlada is recognized as a devoted follower of Vishnu, first to his father's consternation, then to his livid rage.

Hiranyakashipu attempts to kill the boy; Prahlada is always protected by Vishnu's power. When asked to devote himself only to his father-king, Prahlada refuses to acknowledge his father as the supreme lord of the universe and claims that it is Vishnu who is omnipotent and omnipresent. Hiranyakashipu points to a nearby pillar and asks if 'his Vishnu' is in it:

O most unfortunate Prahlada, you have always described a Supreme Being other than me, a Supreme Being Who is above everything, Who is the controller of everyone, and Who is all-pervading. But where is He? If He is everywhere, then why is He not present before me in this pillar?

Prahlada calmly answers:

He was, He is and He will be. He is in pillars, and He is in the smallest twig.

Hiranyakashipu, unable to control his anger, smashes the pillar with his mace, and sets upon destroying his son. Following a tumultuous sound, Vishnu in the form of a Man-Lion appears from within the pillar, in defence of Prahlada. In order to kill Hiranyakashipu, yet not violate the boon given by Brahma, the form of Narasimha is chosen. Hiranyakashipu can not be killed by human, animal or god. Narasimha is neither -- he is a form of Vishnu incarnate as a part-human, part-animal. He comes upon Hiranyakashipu at twilight (when it is neither day nor night) on the threshold of a courtyard (neither indoors nor out), and puts the demon on his thighs (neither on earth nor in space), using his sharp fingernails (neither animate nor inanimate) as weapons, he disembowels and kills the demon.

At exhibitions of Indonesian art, the sculpture from Candi Ijo (above) is often shown. When at the Met in NY, a wall label extolling the "calmer, gentler spirit" of the Indonesians was placed next to the Narasimha sculpture; perhaps the curators thought a Thai massage was in progress.

At the Candi Ijo, high up in the green hills, there is a mantra written 16 times in the stone in foot-high mandalas: Om Sarva-vinasa, Om Sarva-vinasa (Hail, All-Destroyer) -- presumably invoking Shiva. It is a little odd that the Narasimha statue was found in this location. The vajra in the hands of the carnival Narasimha is also curious.

Below -- the carnival Narasimha. A fuller video of the floats is here.

Saturday, December 10


The story of Ravana, from a paraphrase of the Malay/Indonesian Hikayat Seri Rama, compiled by Shellabear and quoted in Rama Legends and Rama Reliefs in Indonesia:

Maharaja Ravana with his ten heads and twenty arms was sent by his father on a ship to Bukit Serandib, because he had behaved very badly. His father was Citra Baha and his mother Raksa Pandi, the daughter of Dati Kavaca. Reaching Serandib he carried out penance in that island. He hung himself down from a tree with his head downwards.

While Adam was living on earth, he saw him hanging there and was requested by the ascetic to speak for him in front of Allah that he should get four kingdoms. As his penance had been crowned with great success he got married. To begin with he entered into matrimony with the princess from the world of spirits, Nila Utama, who bore him, in due course of time, a son, Indera Jata. This prince had three heads and six arms and he was made the king of the kingdom of spirits at the age of twelve.

After that Ravana married the princess of the earth, Puteri Pertivi Devi, who also bore him a son, called Patala Mahirajan. Even he became a king at the age of twelve, on earth. A third marriage was made with the queen of the seas: Ganga Mahadevi. The son from this marriage was Ganga Mahasuri, who became the king of the seas at the age of twelve.

Thus Maharaja Ravana was the lord of all the worlds from the east to west. There were, however, four kingdoms which were not under his rule. The first was Indera Puri, the second Biruhasya Purva, the third Lagur Katagina, and the fourth Ispaha Boga. But, apart from these, there was everything on and in the earth, in the sea and within air, subject to the kind of reksasas, who had a magnificent palace built for him on the Bukit Serandib: Lanka Puri.

From the Hikayat tradition collected by Roorda van Eysinga, again quoted from the same source:

Dasarata the king of Ispaha Boga, the fourth of the kingdoms independent from Ravana, was the son of Dasarata Cakravati. Raman was the son Dasarata, the son of Nabi Adam.

As Maharaja Dasarata was still childless, after many years he tries to liberate himself from this terrible worry by the advice of a holy man. After consulting the sacred books, his advice was as follows, "Sacrifice for three days in the middle of the field."

Accompanied by one thousand disciples, the holy man flew through the air to the palace city of Mandura Pura and carries out a solemn sacrifice, after he has been solemnly fetched. The sacrificial rice was divided up into six balls. From these three balls were given to (Dasarata's first wife) Mandu Dari, and three to (the second wife) Balia Dari. But suddenly a crow, in actual fact an ancestor of Maharaja Ravana, all of a sudden came there and carried away one of the balls meant for Balia dari. In great rage the holy man cursed the crow and said that it would die by the hand of Mandu Dari's son and further whoever eats this rice ball would get a daughter, who would marry that son. The bird then flew to Lanka Puri, and reported to Ravana what had happened. On hearing this Ravana ate the rice.

After some time Mandu Dari gave birth to a son called Seri Rama, whose body color was emerald green and whose face was a beautiful as the full moon. She gave birth to a second son called Laksemana. Balia Dari gives birth to two sons Berdana and Citradana and after that to a daughter Kikuvi Devi. As Maharaja Dasarata once gets very ill with an abcess in the groin region his life was again saved by Balia Dari who sucked out the pus.

Ravana, on hearing about Mandu Dari, immediately leaves for Mandura Pura, disguised as a brahmin. He comes there to a gate with seven locks which, however, opened by itself on his muttering a magic formula and allows him to enter the palace. In the middle of the front coutryard, he sits down and begins to play his lyre. Dasarata, who was sleeping at Mandu Dari's side, was woken by the music, and as he went to the door, he saw a Brahmin in whom he recognized Ravana.

After a short talk, the latter lets Dasarata know that he wants to take Mandu Dari with him. Dasarata refuses in the beginning because of the children, but then finally promises to give her to him. But his wife is not apparently agreeable to this decision because she goes in her palace and scratches off her skin and makes a ball as big an egg from the skin. She puts this on a golden plate and sacrifices it. As a result the ball changes into a green frog. Even this is brought as a sacrifice and finally turns into a beautiful woman, a replica of Mandu Dari. Ravana goes off in great haste with this pseudo Mandu Dari (she is called Mandu Daki from now onwards, since daki = thrown off skin.) Dasarata who is very surprised to see own wife again, since he has seen his guest going away with her, accepts what has happened temporarily.

... After some time Mandu Daki gave birth to a daughter as beautiful as gold. Ravana sends immediately for his brother Maharaja Bibu Sanam, who comes with his pupils to Lanka Puri because he was a famous magician.

The horoscopes are drawn up but with a shake of his head Bibu Sanam relates that whosoever marries this child would kill its father and rule over the four worlds. Ravana was naturally unhappy at this prophecy and wanted to kill the girl immediately, but the mother suggested that it should be put in an iron box, and thrown into the sea and so it happens. The baby is given the breast for the last time, given over to its enang (governess), who then gives it back to Ravana. He gives the child to Bibu Sanam who throws the casket into the sea.

In the meantime the child in the iron casket floated from Lanka Puri to Darvati Purva to Maharesi Kali. One morning the saint was worshipping the sun. While doing do he stood with his navel in the sea, when the casket hit against his legs. After he had finished his prayers, he took it with him to his wife Manuram Devi. To the surprise of both, the whole house is filled with light as soon as the casket is opened and from the breast of Manuram Devi milk flows. It is clear to them that it has been destined by the gods that they become foster parents of this beautiful girl. Then Maharesi Kali plants forty palm trees in a row and says: "he who can cut through all these forty palm trees with one shot, he should marry this girl who was named Sita Devi."

As Sita Devi is twelve years old kings come from all regions to Maharesi Kali in order to fulfil his wager and to win his daughter as their wife. Even Ravana came in his flying chariot and it was like the heaven falling down. Maharesi Kali, however, missed the sons of Dasarata among the princes and did not wish to give Ravana any chance, before these princes were invited. On the advice of his wife, he went to bring Seri Rama and Laksemana and left for Mandura Pura.

AK Ramanujan asks in his essay Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation:

How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas , a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas have there been? ...

In several of the later Ramayanas (such as the AdhyatmaRamayana , 16th C.), when Rama is exiled, he does not want Sita to go with him into the forest. Sita argues with him. At first she uses the usual arguments: she is his wife, she should share his sufferings, exile herself in his exile, and so on. When he still resists the idea, she is furious. She bursts out, "Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sita doesn't go with Rama to the forest?" That clinches the argument, and she goes with him.

In his essay, Ramanujan compares the story of Ahalya in Valmiki's Ramayana against that in the Ramayana of Kampan. The choice is interesting. The beauty of A-halya (the unploughed) is that of land not yet brought under cultivation. Sita's beauty is that of the furrow in new ploughed land. Rama is green as the new crop. His sons Lav (to scythe) and Kush (spear-grass) have strong connection to the furrow. Ahalya lets a stranger into her home because the stranger has taken on the form of her Brahmin husband - but is actually the god Indra. Sita lets a demon cross the 'Lakhsman rekha' of the hut's threshold because the stranger has taken the shape of a Brahmin sage. Both are punished for being object of a stranger's lust.

During their visit to Java in 1927, Tagore and Suniti Chatterjee encountered the tradition that Rama and Sita were siblings (or at least half-siblings.) Tagore found this interesting, and talked with Dutch orientalists, who confirmed that in their opinion the incest myth was the older one, and that it had been rewritten in the Indian tradition but not in the dispersed ones living on in South East Asia. In a letter home Rabindranath wrote:

If this opinion were to be true, I see some huge congruences between the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. At the root of both the stories are two marriages. Both the marriages are, according to custom, inadmissible. In Buddhist histories we hear of brother-sister marriages but it is completely against our traditions. On the other side, one woman being married to five brothers at once is also novel and non-traditional. The second congruence is the test-of-arms at the first step of each marriage, even as that test is irrelevant to the purpose of each marriage. The third congruence is that neither bride is born from the womb of a woman -- Sita is the Earth's daughter, discovered in a furrow at the tip of the plough, Draupadi (Krishnaa) is created from a Yajna. The fourth congruence is the grooms in each case being subjected to usurpation of their kingdom and banishment to the forests with their wife. The fifth congruence in both stories is the molestation of the wife by the hands of the enemy, and revenge for the molestation.

Suniti Chatterjee, perhaps the greatest comparative-linguist in modern Bengal, was to cause a furore late in his life by claiming that the Ramayana had its origin in the Buddhist tradition, in the Dasaratha Jataka which was older than the Hindu sources. In an extempore lecture at the Asiatic Society, Kolkata, in January 1976, he contended that Rama was the sister of Sita, whom he married. See here for the Jataka, which carries the motif of Rahul's mother being the Buddha's sister.

And tinikidanuphanirayaramayanadakavigalabharadali? By the fourteenth century, there were already so many Ramayanas that Gadhugina Veera Naranappa (the classical Vijayanagara poet, whose nom-de-plume was Kumaravyasa) chose to write a Mahabharata instead, because he had heard the cosmic serpent who upholds the earth groaning under the burden of all the cacophonous Ramayana poets ( tinikidanu-phaniraya-ramayana-daka-vigala-bharadali)!

Thursday, December 8


Towards the end of his reign, Kublai Khan of the Mongol Yuan dynasty became vexed with the rising power, influence, and wealth of the Javanese Singhasari empire.

Singhasari had formed an alliance with Champa (the Indianized kingdom of the Cham people, based in what is now Vietnam). Both Singhasari and Champa were worried about Mongol expansion, and raids against neighboring states, such as the raid of Bagan (Pagan) in Burma. In 1280, Kublai Khan sent an emissary to King Kertanegara, demanding submission and tribute to the great Khan. The demand was refused. The next year in 1281, the Khan sent another envoy, demanding the same terms, to be refused again. Eight years later, in 1289, the last envoy Men Shi or Meng-qi (孟琪) was sent; King Kertanegara responded by branding Meng-qi's face with hot iron like a common criminal, cutting off his ears, and sending him packing. The whimpering ambassador returned to China with the answer of the Javanese king written onto his face.

Enraged by this humiliation and the disgrace committed against his envoy and his patience, in late 1292 the great Kublai Khan sent a massive armada of 1,000 war junks in a punitive expedition that would have arrived off the coast of Tuban, Java in early 1293. The officers were the Mongol Shi-bi, the Uyghur Ike Mese, and the Chinese Gaoxing. What kind of ships they used for the campaign is not mentioned in the History of the Yuan, but they were apparently large since smaller boats had to be constructed for entering the rivers of Java.

In the meantime, a coup had befallen Kertanegara. In 1292, Jayakatwang, a vassal king from the Kingdom of Daha (also known as Kediri or Gelang-gelang), prepared his army to conquer Singhasari and kill its king if possible, assisted by Arya Wiraraja, a regent from Sumenep on the island of Madura.

The Daha army attacked Singhasari simultaneously from both north and south. The king only realized the invasion from the north and sent his son-in-law, Nararya Sangramawijaya, famously known as Raden Wijaya, northward to vanquish the rebellion. The northern attack was put at bay, but the southern attackers successfully remained undetected until they reached and sacked the unprepared capital city of Kutaraja. Jayakatwang killed Kertanagara during a tantric ceremony and usurped the throne, bringing an end to the Singhasari kingdom.

Raden Wijaya tried to retake Singhasari but failed. He and three friends Ranggalawe, Sora and Nambi, went into exile under the favor of Nambi's father, the same Arya Wiraraja of Madura, who had by now turned his back on Jayakatwang. With Arya Wiraraja's patronage, Raden Wijaya, pretending to submit to Jayakatwang, won favor from the new monarch of Daha, who granted him permission to open a new settlement north of mount Arjuna (the Tarik forest.) In this wilderness, Raden Wijaya started to clear the jungle for a city. At work, one of the men felt hungry and went to look for food. Lo, there stood a Maja tree with large green fruit. The man broke into the fruit, and immediately said Maja pahit -- bitter Maja. Thus was named the future settlement and empire. The Maja tree is Aegle Marmelos Correa -- close to the Bengal quince also known in India as Bael. (We would encounter bitter Maja in Bali; see this video at around 1:20.)

Meanwhile, in early 1293, the Mongol naval forces arrived on the north coast of Java (near Tuban) and at the mouth of the Brantas River, in order to outflank what they thought was Singhasari. Raden Wijaya found an opportunity -- to use the unsuspecting Mongols in overthrowing Jayakatwang. Leading them to believe Jayakatwang was Kertanegara, Raden Wijaya’s army allied with the Mongols in March of 1293. Battle ensued between the Mongols and the Daha forces in the creek bed of Kali Mas river, a distributary of the Brantas. The Mongols stormed Daha, Jayakatwang surrendered only to be summarily executed.

Raden Wijaya immediately wheeled his troops to launch a surprise attack inside and outside the Mongol army columns, creating chaos and forcing his former allies to withdraw from the island of Java. Panicked, stricken with tropical fevers, the Mongol army found themselves at sea, surrounding coasts controlled by alien hostile peoples. The monsoon sea-winds that could carry them home were ebbing; they would otherwise have had to wait for the next monsoon in hostile waters for the next sea-wind. The scowling horde gave up and their junks headed back to China.

Prince Wijaya, son-in-law of Kertanegara the last Singhasari king, ascended the throne as Kertajasa Jayawardhana, the first king of the great Majapahit Empire, on November 12, 1293.

The spirit of religious tolerance and reconciliation between Buddhist and Hindu subjects was an essential element in the foundation and security of the Majapahit. The 14th century poet sage of the Majapahit, Mpu Tantular, is said to have committed the phrase Bhinnêka Tunggal Ika ("Even in difference , the same kind"; i.e. unity in diversity) to writing for the first time. It is today the motto of the Republic of Indonesia.

Rwâneka dhâtu winuwus Buddha Wiswa,
Bhinnêki rakwa ring apan kena parwanosen,
Mangka ng Jinatwa kalawan Siwatatwa tunggal,
Bhinnêka tunggal ika tan hana dharma mangrwa

It is said that the well-known Buddha and Shiva are two different substances.
Indeed they're different, yet possible to recognise the difference at a glance,
Since the truth of Jina (Buddha) and the truth of Shiva is one.
Indeed different, yet they're the same, there is no duality in Truth.

The Majapahit empire reached the height of its power and influence under the hand of the prime minister Gajah Mada. The statues of Harihara above and Prajnaparamita below, from the national museum in Jakarta, are from Majapahit times.

Gajah Mada or Elephant Chief (c. 1290 – c. 1364) was, according to Javanese manuscripts, poems and mythology, the most powerful military leader and mahapatih or prime minister of the Majapahit Empire, credited with bringing the empire to its peak of glory. He took an oath called Sumpah Palapa, in which he vowed not to eat any food containing meat or spices until he had conquered all of the Southeast Asian archipelago of Nusantara for Majapahit. In modern Indonesia, he serves as a national hero and symbol of patriotism.

The Palapa (phal = fruit, a-pal = no meat) oath is found in the text of the Javanese epic Pararaton , which says:

Lamun huwus kalah nusantara isun amukti palapa, lamun kalah ring Gurun, ring Seran, Tañjung Pura, ring Haru, ring Pahang, Dompo, ring Bali, Sunda, Palembang, Tumasik, samana isun amukti palapa.

If it has overcome Nusantara, I (will) let go of the fast. If you beat the Gurun, Ceram, Tanjung Pura, Haru, Pahang, Dompo, Balinese, Sundanese, Palembang, Tumasik, so I (will) let go of the fast.

Gurun is Nusa Penida, an island off Bali.
Seran is today's Ceram, near Ambon in the Moluccas
Tañjung Pura is Kerajaan Tanjungpura, Ketapang, Kalimantan Barat (West.)
Haru is Northern Sumatra (Karo)
Pahang is the third largest state in Malaysia, after Sarawak and Sabah, occupying the huge Pahang River river basin.
Dompo is Sumbawa, an Indonesian island, located in the middle of the Lesser Sunda Islands chain, with Lombok to the west, Flores to the east, and Sumba further to the southeast.
Bali is Bali
Sunda is Sunda
Palembang is the capital city of the South Sumatra province in Indonesia, and one of the oldest cities in Indonesia; it was part of the Sriwijaya empire, the Chinese monk I-Tsing, wrote that he visited Sriwijaya in the year 671 for 6 months.
Tumasik is Singapura or Singapore.

Note the word nusantara in the oath. Nusantara is today an Indonesian word for the Indonesian archipelago. In Javanese, Nusantara literally means "inter-island" (from nusa, "island", antara which in Sanskrit is inter, i.e the periphery which is away from the Javanese core ). Based on the Majapahit concept of state, the monarch had the power over three circles:

Negara Agung, or the Grand State, the core kingdom. This includes the capital and the surrounding area. In the context of the Majapahit empire, this area covers East Java and its surrounding area.

Mancanegara, areas surrounding Negara Agung, i.e. directly influenced by Javanese culture. In the context of Majapahit empire, this includes the entire islands of Java, Madura, and Bali, as well as Lampung and Palembang in South Sumatra.

Nusantara, areas which do not reflect Javanese culture, but are colonies, i.e. they have to pay tribute. In the context of Majapahit empire, this includes the modern territories of Indonesia, Malaysia,Singapore, the Philippines, Brunei, East Timor and southern Thailand.

In the year 1920, Ernest Francois Eugene Douwes Dekker (1879-1950), the Indonesian freedom fighter of Eurasian descent, who took the nom-de-guerre Setiabudi (from the Sanskrit sthita-buddhi, constant-spirit) introduced the name Nusantara in the belief that this didn't contain any words etymologically inherited from Indian languages -- he did not appreciate the origin of 'antara' was Indic. Setiabudi's Nusantara is the first instance of the term appearing after it had been written into the Pararaton manuscript. The definition of Nusantara introduced by Setiabudi is, however, at variance to the 14th century meaning of the term. During the Majapahit era, Nusantara described vassal areas to be brought under submission; Setiabudi didn't want this aggressive connotation, so he defined Nusantara as all the Indonesian regions from Sabang as far as Merauke.

Gajah Mada's origins are obscure; we know he rose through Majapahit ranks to become commander of the Bhayangkara, an elite guard for the royal family. When Rakrian Kuti, one of the officials in Majapahit, rebelled c. 1321 against the Majapahit king Jayanegara, son of Raden Wijaya who ruled 1309-1328, Gajah Mada and the then-prime-minister Arya Tadah helped the king and his family escape the capital city of Trowulan. Later, Gajah Mada helped crush the rebellion and aided the king's return to the capital. Seven years later, Jayanegara was murdered by Rakrian Tanca, the court physcian, one of Rakrian Kuti's aides. Tribhuwana Wijayatunggadewi, Raden Wijaya's daughter, became queen regnant and the third monarch of Majapahit empire, reigning from 1328 to 1350. She appointed Gajah Mada as prime minister. The Elephant Chief pursued a massive expansion of the empire.

Even his closest friends were at first doubtful of his oath, but Gajah Mada kept pursuing his dream to unify Nusantara under the glory of Majapahit. Soon he conquered the surrounding territory of Bedahulu (Bali) and Lombok (1343). He then sent the navy westward to attack the remnants of Sriwijaya in Palembang.

He then conquered the first Islamic sultanate in Southeast Asia, Samudra Pasai, and another state in Svarnadvipa (Sumatra). Gajah Mada also conquered Bintan, Tumasik (Singapore), Melayu (now known as Jambi), and Kalimantan.

It was during Gajah Mada's reign as mahapatih, around the year 1345, that the famous Islamic traveller Ibn Batuta visited Sumatra.

Gajah Mada was not a handsome man -- his statue reveals a prizefighter's face with broken nose and uneven teeth. It is said that during the conquest of Bali he met the love of his life -- a girl named Gunti Ayu Bebet. She turned the great general down, he was too ugly.

When her son reached 16 in 1350, Wijayatunggadewi stepped down and Hayam Wuruk -- the term means Scholar Rooster --- became king. Gajah Mada retained his position as mahapatih under the new king and continued his military campaign by expanding eastward, westward and north. He thus effectively brought the modern Indonesian archipelago under Majapahit control, and his conquests spanned not only the territory of today's Indonesia, but also that of Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and the southern Philippines.

By 1357, the only remaining state refusing to acknowledge Majapahit's hegemony was Sunda, in West Java, bordering the Negara Agung. King Hayam Wuruk intended to marry Pitaloka Citraresmi, a princess of Sunda and the daughter of Sunda's king. Gajah Mada was given the task to go to the Bubat square at the northern part of Trowulan to welcome the princess as she arrived with her father, and escort her to the Majapahit palace. Gajah Mada took this opportunity to demand Sundanese submission under Majapahit rule. The Sundanese King had thought that the royal marriage was a sign of a new alliance between Sunda and Majapahit, and was shocked when Gajah Mada stated that the Princess of Sunda is not to be hailed as the new queen consort of Majapahit, but merely as a concubine. The embarrassment led to hostile words, which quickly became a skirmish and then a full scale rout. The Sundanese king, with all of his guards and the royal party, was butchered by Gajah Mada's troops. The heartbroken princess Citraresmi committed suicide in the midst of the bodies of her clansmen.

Hayam Wuruk was shocked at the tragedy. Majapahit courtiers, ministers and nobles, all blamed Gajah Mada for his recklessness. This kind of brutalitiy was not to the taste of the Scholar Rooster. Gajah Mada was demoted and spent the rest of his days in the estate of Madakaripura in Probolinggo in East Java. He died in obscurity in 1364.

The Scholar Rooster would become Indonesia's greatest gastronome. The Nagarakertagama chronicles the King Hayam Wuruk's expeditions to corners of the empire wrought by Gajah Meda. Each of these dramatic royal expeditions took up to ten months at a time, and mobilized hundreds of troops, palace maids, musicians following the king and the queen on horses, elephants and carriages.

The expeditions were in search of dishes native to each part of the empire. The general menu was:
1. A pre-expedition ceremony with a feast in the palace compound;
2. A welcome banquet featuring local food when passing through each district;
3. Ceremonies in the temples paying tribute to the founder of the Majapahit and other ancestors, followed by more dinners presented by the local villagers;
4. Ceremonial dining with the local villagers, throughout the return voyage back to the capital;
5. A blessing banquet upon returning safe to the palace, featuring a recap of the most interesting dishes encountered in the trip.

Majapahit slowly fell into decline after the death of Hayam Wuruk.

During Indonesia's struggle against colonization, Sukarno often cited Gajah Mada and his oath as an inspiration -- that Indonesians could unite, despite vast territory and various cultures. In 1942, only 230 Indonesians had a tertiary degree. The first state university was established at the end of Japanese occupation, and for the first time native Indonesians could be freely admitted, to Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta. Indonesia's first telecommunication satellite was called Satelit Palapa after Gajah Mada's Nusantara oath. Almost all cities in Indonesia have a street named after Gajah Mada. (In the Sundanese city of Bandung, however, there is not a single Jalan Gajah Mada.)

Below, the Lara Djonggrang restaurant in Jakarta, featuring dishes from Hayam Wuruk's culinary expeditions; its decor, modeled to resemble the atmospherics of an opium den, also tells the story of the thousand statues.