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THE BALI COLLECTION
- Bukit Badung and the new West

Three years ago, the only other Indians at our hotel in Bali were a diffident newly-wed couple bearing one of Bombay’s famous industrial names. But judging by the number and quality of Indian families this Christmas, the Kundu Special has obviously arrived at this remote outpost of Agama Hindu (Hindu Dharma) that Jawaharlal Nehru called “the morning of the world.”

Equally obviously, the global Indian is in full stride in the groaning breakfast buffet overlooking splashing water, palms, ferns, brilliant tropical fish, even more brilliantly hued lizards among grey rocks, and, beyond them, the sea. This is not any old seaside pension for Australian backpackers to kip down for an easy joint and easier lay. The Sultan of Brunei’s ornate property is “incontestably the showcase hotel of the island…designed expressly to impress visitors with its ostentatious luxury and the profuse ornamentation intended to create a ‘typically Balinese’ atmosphere”. The writer, Michel Picard, had a dig at tourists and those who service them. “The super-abundance of décor signifying the Balinese character of the place is in fact absolutely necessary,” he wrote, because “having isolated the clients of Nusa Dua from the Balinese, it gives them the impression that they are, after all, in Bali.”

I could believe him on Christmas Eve as orphaned Balinese children in satin dresses sang the old carols in unfamiliar accents. No dainty girls’ legong or boisterous kebyar dance for boys, no tinkling gamelan or booming gong, the sights and sounds of Hindu Bali banished not by Christian proselytization but the urge to imitate the West. It’s a new West. Australian accents have disappeared, bombed out of existence one might say. Many of the nasal American tones emanate from the flat Mongolian features of Chinese-American visitors. The Japanese are quiet save for clicking cameras. Most guests — if you exclude south Asians — are Russian. That’s where new money oozes. There is even a Russian tour desk with large signs in Cyrillic. Shops and restaurants also flaunt Cyrillic notices.

We first came to this extravaganza of a hotel by accident. Normally, it would have been beyond my means but the tourism trade was stunned after the horrendous Sari club bombing. The Nusa Dua Galleria shopping complex languished, died and was much later reborn as Bali Collection. The hill-top restaurant at Bukit Jambul was less fortunate. Its thatch roof has caved in on carved pillars, weeds cover the winding path, and the bankrupt owner has fled. My Singapore travel agent was able to get us a good deal during that period of desolation. He chose this hotel in the Bukit Badung peninsula hanging like a fruit about to drop off from Bali’s southern coast because of my insistence on uninterrupted surf and sand. The Sari was then still a charred husk; the gleaming memorial in front not yet contemplated.

But what of all the other subcontinentals' A sprinkling of others — a Malaysian Sikh with trimmed beard and a turban that fits like a cap with his Chinese wife and children, a stocky, bearded Bangladeshi and his son, and sharply dressed Pakistani families — highlights India’s numerical strength and colourful variety. Smart women from Bombay showing off shapely bare shoulders, rumbustious Delhi families and a Tamil woman with a huge bindi sketching one of the hotel’s elaborate fountains. At one time, people from Boston to Barcelona expressed surprise at an “Indian from India” for all the Indians they knew insisted New Jersey or Bradford was home. The proprietor of a Bali internet café was scathing in 2003 about Hindu Londoners.

Now, most South Asians are Indians from India. You hear and see it in the loud voices, commanding gestures, heaped breakfast platters. I am reminded of a hubbub in London’s Selfridges when the Australian friend I was with asked why well-to-do Indians always had to make their presence known. The signals tell you that these have not crept furtively out of the woodwork of exiled ghettoes. Even more than a nuclear power to be reckoned with, they represent the confidence of the rupee’s spending power.

What drives them to Bali' We hardly ever saw an Indian on the beach which is Bukit Badung’s only attraction. It would almost appear as if people from the land of Hindus — which, historically, includes Pakistan and Bangladesh — share this far-flung Hindu community’s horror of the waves. Balinese believe demons infest the sea. That explains why their villages are located at a respectful distance from the beach and why the tourist industry has been able to snap up the palm-fringed coastal strip. Nusa Dua’s small and lonely Pura Segara Amrta, Temple of the Nectar of the Ocean, approaches as near the water’s edge as any Balinese dare. I used to like its wind-worn isolation. Now, the surrounding sand is covered by the exposed reddening flesh of Russian sunbathers. No fanged monsters of the deep haunt their lotus-eating.

If the Balinese abhor the sea, they adore the mountains. It’s where their deities live, their kings pray. Gunung Agung volcano, source of fertility and life, seat of the gods and of deified ancestors, rising to more than 10,000 ft, is the most sacred of all. But the sons and daughters of the land to which Bali traces its culture were not to be seen there either. Nor at the massive sprawl of the Besakih temple complex, the mother temple, holiest in the land, at least 1,000 years old, clinging to Gunung Agung’s side. Its three main clusters of temples honour Siva, Vishnu and Brahma. Four separate sanctuaries cater to Hinduism’s four castes. Each of Bali’s eight royal dynasties has its own chapel consisting of courtyards, shrines and monuments.

The stateliest of them is the 600-year-old ancestral temple of the Klungkung royal family, Bali’s premier dynasty and last link with what, improving on Basham, one might call “the Wonder that was Greater India”. The first Klungkung king was also sole survivor of the last of the Indianized states of southeast Asia. The story is that when the inexorable tide of Islam engulfed Java’s Majapahit empire in the 15th century, the last king’s son fled across the water to Bali and set up his own court at Gelgel. The Dewa Agung, Great God, as he was styled, to whom other Balinese princes paid homage, moved in 1686 to Klungkung where only the original gateway recalls lost primacy. Ironically, it faces a splendid mayoral mansion that dwarfs the royal residence next door, recalling how Bangalore’s Vidhan Soudha had to be bigger and grander than the maharajah’s palace to convince Mysoreans that power had passed into new hands.

A black obelisk commemorates Klungkung’s puputan or fight to the finish. Here, on April 28, 1908, the Dewa Agung surrounded by his Brahmins, courtiers and soldiers staged the last ritual suicide by advancing in ceremonial procession into the Dutch army’s firing. They preferred dignified martyrdom to enslavement. It is said that as the Balinese fell, they threw their gold and jewels at the invaders to show their contempt.

A mullah’s call to prayer pierces the silence, signifying a new invasion no puputan can arrest. An Indian couple stops briefly for the man to take a quick picture of his wife against Klungkung’s gateway. Otherwise, Indian tourists shun the royal ruins as severely as they shun temples and beaches. So where do they go' I wondered until the money changer at Kuta, wedged among fancy boutiques bursting with luxury goods, handed me a wad of rupiahs (out of which he had surreptitiously removed a lakh for the profit motive rides hard under the charm and grace) with one word, “Shopping!”

When an Indian travel desk replaces or supplements the Russian one, it need announce only exchange rates and the names and direction of stores. The Balinese would probably welcome that unabashed worship of commerce. There’s a higher percentage in selling other people’s merchandise than their own agonized past.

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