Thu, 04 May 2000

Growing tension at Besakih Temple

By Degung Santikarma

KLUNGKUNG, East Bali (JP): As the afternoon shadows lengthen across an elite neighborhood in Denpasar, a normally quiet house becomes a feverish flurry of activity.

The booming voice of the father echoes through the halls, ordering the maids to finish pressing his sarong and ceremonial shirt. The mother, who is having her lips glossed and hair woven into an elaborate construction crowned with fresh flowers and gold leaves, yells at the children to stop playing video games and start getting ready.

The houseboy checks the oil in the Mercedes, and the maids load ritual offerings and incense, artfully arranged on a silver tray, into the trunk. After warning the security guard to look after the house, the father makes certain he has everything he needs -- his mobile phone, driving glasses and hand-held hacksaw -- and shepherds the family into the car for the long drive to Besakih Temple.

According to tourist guidebooks and official Balinese Hindu bureaucracy, Parisadha Hindu Dharma Indonesia (PHDI), Besakih is Bali's "mother temple," where all Balinese have the right and obligation to worship.

Rituals are held regularly at the temple, some on a truly massive scale, such as the Eka Dasa Rudra, held every 100 years in the Balinese calendar, and the Panca Wali Krama, held every 10 years. These rituals, supported financially and supervised logistically by PHDI, attract worshipers from all over the island, for every Balinese clan can claim a link to the temple.

And with its ancient history, its elaborate architecture and its stunning location on the slopes of the sacred Mount Agung, Besakih also attracts those traveling on more secular pilgrimages: those sightseeing tourists seeking to experience authentic Hindu holiness and exotic island allure.

Indeed, for many visitors to Bali, a postcard-perfect image of Besakih reflects a condensed conception of all that is thought to be special about the island: enduring traditions, deep spirituality and harmonious relations within and between communities. But what the casual visitor might not notice is that Besakih has become, for many Balinese, a deeply divided place.

After a two-hour drive along steep winding roads, the family from Denpasar finally arrives at Besakih. Night has already fallen, but the huge parking lot at the base of the temple is a buzz of life. Thousands of Balinese, dressed in their finest traditional clothing, are making their way up the steep steps toward the temple, ready to participate in the elaborate ritual known as betara turun kabeh, or "the gods descend to earth," which takes place at the temple once every Balinese year.

But despite the festive scene, as the several thousand-strong crowd prepares to witness the sacred rejang dewa dance to welcome the gods and the tawur agung or "great sacrifice" designed to bring the visible and invisible worlds back into harmony, there is an undercurrent of anxiety in the air.

As the family steps out of their car, they spot familiar faces in the crowd, including a group of men all dressed in identical clothing and all, like the father, carrying saws.

They call out their greetings, and exchange the latest rumors about tonight's ceremony. "Is it really going to go as Parisadha promised?" asks one of the men, his red shirt emblazoned with the name of his family clan, the powerful Pande, or traditional metalsmiths of Bali.

"Don't worry, if our priest doesn't get to sit on the same level as the other priests, we're going to use these saws to cut down the platforms," the Denpasar man threatens, to the approval of the group now gathered around him.

In precolonial Bali, Besakih Temple was held by the ruler of the powerful kingdom of Klungkung. It eventually came under Dutch rule when the Klungkung army was defeated by the Dutch colonial military at the turn of the 20th century.

With Indonesian independence, the Balinese reestablished their sovereignty over the temple, turning it into an icon of nationalism and placing it under state control. But with bureaucratic intervention came politicization, and Besakih became a place to express growing tensions among different strains of Balinese Hindu ideology, especially conflicts around the issue of caste.

For the postcolonial period brought an expansion of economic opportunities, especially as Bali became a center for international tourism, and saw the emergence of a progressive, anticaste movement challenging a system which consolidated power in the hands of the triwangsa, those "three peoples" -- the Brahmana priests, Ksatria rulers and Wesia merchants -- who were regarded as having caste status. Many of these progressives were well educated and economically powerful members of those clans who were considered to fall outside of the caste structure, including the Pande, Pasek and Bujangga.

They decried the fact that within the official Balinese Hindu model they were jaba, or "outsiders," with no caste status, and that their own priests were forced to sit lower than the Brahmana priests at rituals. Ceremonies at Besakih, where Balinese from all castes, classes and clans gathered, and where these differences became visible in the spatial arrangement of worshipers, priests and offerings, became a site for articulating contesting opinions with the potential to erupt into conflict.

Even in contemporary Bali, where the ring of cash registers and the cries of protesters sometimes seem to sound louder than the bells of the priests, these social and religious rifts still have an extraordinary power to provoke dissent.

As the family makes their way to the temple, a swirl of talk surrounds them. "If our pedanda (Brahmana priest) is seated on the same level as all the other priests, I'm going to boycott the ritual," one man says to his neighbors. Another man, a noted Hindu reformist intellectual, argues to his friends, "If all the priests are not sitting together, it goes against the democracy we have all been working for.

We will have to demonstrate in front of the Parisadha office." And yet another man, whose meager salary as a tour guide has not prevented him from showing up in an expensive ritual outfit, responds worriedly, "I wish everyone would just calm down. There are tourists and TV cameras here, and we're giving a bad impression of Bali."

Nervous with anticipation, the Denpasar family finally enters the main temple grounds. Sure enough, the ritual is being conducted as a sarwa sedaka, one where "all holy people" are given equal place, rather than a tri sedaka, where Brahmana priests are given higher standing. Relieved, they stay to be blessed and take back some holy water to use for their own ceremonies. It's past midnight when they finally arrive home.

After the traditional clothes have been exchanged for pajamas and the children tucked into their beds, the father gets up and walks out the front door. "Where are you going at this time of night?" his wife calls after him worriedly. "I left the saw in the car," he says with a smile. "You never know when we might need it again."