Bali: Season of The Witch
I am sitting in the back of a van, behind smoked windows, relieved that someone else is driving, that the driver is a local in case of accident, in narrow thronged roads, lined with rather frightening red and black flags with a bull's head, eyes glinting fiercely; here and there a giant banner, with a stunningly unattractive silk screen image of Megawati, a candidate in the upcoming elections, and her party's cut line: PDI STRUGGLE!; several times we pass through a swarm of youths on motorcycles clothed and draped in the red and black, their gaze soberingly grim. This is Bali, 1999; I have returned to my favorite playground after an absence of ten years, and the shock of the accumulated changes which have happened in the interval has startled me into a state of hyper-alertness.
We are heading to the Mother Temple Besakih, my client and host, her driver, and several people on her staff who had not yet gone for the ceremony.
The court psychics had prophesied a year of tribulation for Bali, one that would see either a bloody civil war, a diastrous eruption of Mt Agung, or, in the very least, severe storms and flooding. The priests of the island had called a month-long great ceremony to make entreaty for the third option.
Every family would send at least one member to pray; there were three days left. It was raining off and on, and had been every day since before my arrival, and there was a unspoken sense that things might be alright after all. (The rain stopped the following week.)
. . .
A few days later I would return to my old hometown, Seminyak, on the coast, a few miles up from Kuta-Legian. In the bright sunshine, the red flags lining the roads looked less menacing; they reminded me of the red poppies along the roadsides in southern europe, said to grow where blood was spilled in past wars.
As we approached the coast, the roads were unrecognizable to me; I was glad to have hired a driver, for I would have been utterly lost. Where there had been one main narrow road, there was now a matrix of indistinguishable shop-jammed streets, some kind of southeast asian Tijuana. It was with great relief I entered the gates of my friend's compound, where a reserve of peace, lovely gardens, and swimming pool were protected from the raging bedlam outside.
That evening, a gathering of old friends for dinner: Paul tells about a recent encounter with a giant sunfish in the Lombok Straits. He describes sitting at the bow of his sailboat and grabbing on to the vertical fin sticking 6' above the water, and watching the monster below, 12 feet deep, take him for a ride.
. . .
Bali is crowded, more than ever; the Balinese population had increased from 3 to 5 million in 15 years, and the island had become the safe refuge for thousands of chinese families driven from Java and other islands during the violence of the preceeding year which brought an end to the 30 year rule of Suharto and his gang. The economic collapse of 98 sent thousands of migrants from other islands to the still vibrant cash economy of Bali, many from Madura, a poor island off Java, particularly since the electric cables to the island had been cut by a supertanker the year before and not yet repaired, leaving the population there without power.
Many Madurese had set up unlicensed shops and stands along the beach and roads in Kuta and Legian; they paid no taxes, through some arrangement with the local police, and the Balinese shopowners were angry. One night the rampage began, and more than a hundred Madurese owned stalls were torched, and reportedly 4 Madurese killed. The next day a rumour passed that several Balinese were killed in revenge. The city of Kuta was put under dusk to dawn curfew, and the Australian foreign minister warned Australians departing for Bali to avoid crowds and remain their hotel rooms at night.
. . .
All over the island, the military had been setting up roadblocks, searching for 'troublemakers' and weapons. In the power vacuum which followed the collapse of the Suharto regime, dark forces were vying with a powerful popular democracy movement. Indonesian youth knew this was a once in a generation chance for freedom and change, and they sensed that the old powers would do anything to hold on to their fiefdoms, including stir up chaos and violence- vis East Timor- in order to justify a military coup. These dark forces were demonstrating their capability with the horrific mayhem continuing in the Moluccas, and now and then would light a fire in Borneo, or somewhere else in the archipelago of 13,000 islands.
Bali was on edge. My friend described an encounter with a swarm of angry PDI youth who accosted her party in a parking lot, as they were boarding their van, and kept them prisoner behind locked doors for sveral minutes, angrily shouting at them and banging on the sealed windows before dispersing.
Megawati is a daughter of Indonesia's founder Sukarno, by his Balinese wife. Sukarno was overthrown by a clique of generals under the leadership of Suharto in 1963 during a murky and bloody crisis that left hundreds of thousands dead and a quasi-dictatorship in command of the country. In Bali, Megawati is the new heroine of this saga, and, in spite of her lack of political skills, the great hope for the future; her election would give weight to Bali, until now only a much-manipulated cash cow, in this Java- dominated empire. To the extent she has announced a vision and policy, it seems to be a modernized -and careful- version of her father's idiosyncratic populism. There is much fear that the old guard will stage a coup before or following the elections to prevent her coming to power.
. . .
In a small town near Ubud, I hear of a man recently abducted by a water-spirit. The whole village knew about this; apparently these water spirits appear as beautiful young women to a man bathing in the river. The man, a gardener, followed the spirit beneath the water to her realm where he remained for ten days until managing to escape. This kind of belief is part of Bali's charm, but I had to ask- did his wife believe this story? Puzzlement, yes of course.
There is a darker side to this: numerous people seemed consumed with stories of black magic; bizarre happenings, and black magic attacks on one another; jealousies and rumour become rage. I wonder if this is what happens at street level when a sublime spiritual tradition rots and collapses in the onslaught of a new world: black magic wars.
. . .
Balinese religion recognizes this aspect of life, in the concepts of balance between the dark and the light. The temple cloths which drape the statues are checkered black and white. In one of the great transformative ritual 'dances', or ceremonies, a dozen men who have fasted and prepared themselves will go into trance, and when the great witch Rangda appears, will attack the evil they see her embodying, by lunging at her with their magical krises- wavy bladed daggers originally forged of meteoritic nickel and iron. Rangda is a real spirit of discord and fear, and the wearer of the Rangda mask channels this spirit to appear in the ceremony. Rangda feeds on this energy, so as the trancers see her as the source of evil, she grows more powerful. She is powerful: I can honestly say that the hair on the back of my neck stood up when she appeared. As the men approach her with their daggers to kill this evil, she turns them back struggling on themselves, their daggers sticking into their own chests. They will know that evil resides there, not in the witch, and it is there in their own hearts that it must be expunged. As the frenzy climaxes, the Barong appears, a friendly, furry beast with a magical beard, and the madness of this polarized and projected struggle against evil is sedated; the barong is life in balance, life in acceptance, love, and wisdom.
Temple officials, priests, and the police are there to assure that after having gone over the edge of control, the trancers come back to the world; some may continue to run about waving their daggers in the crowd, some have fallen in fits, or are catatonic on the ground. It takes a half hour for things to quiet down.
This is a feature of Balinese ceremonial magic: going over the edge. During a funeral, the body, encased in a wooden bull, is raised up on a tall platform above a crowd of men, which hold the posts which support it. The crowd pushes this way and that chaotically as the procession moves, and no-one is in control; it is in this zone beyond will and form where the spirits become most active. To push things over the edge is to invite the spirits to take control.
. . .
In June, Megawati wins the national election, and excitement and anxiety rise several notches in Bali: the parliament will decide who is to be president, and the muslim factions have already been grumbling about the inappropriateness of a woman leader. New rumours of a coup. The parliamentary vote is delayed.
The crisis comes in the fall. Violence seems to be spreading in the archipelago; the implied threat to Bali is clear when riots break out in quiet Lombok, just next door, and tourist hotels are besieged. A disaster is close. I wonder if the US Sixth Fleet would land to evacuate westerners.
Megawati has not forged a coalition of support in the parliament, and she is bypassed for the office of president in favor of Wahid, a reformer, but nevertheless a half-blind and elder cleric who had come in third in the elections. That night, Bali erupts. Roadblocks are thrown up all over the island, government buildings, telphone exchanges, and banks are burned. In the morning, the parliament elects Megawati vice-president, and she appeals for calm. The roadblocks come down, and Bali retreats from the brink... for the moment.
6 months later, the telephone exchanges which were destroyed are still not functioning; clearly the drama is not over yet.
. . .
I went once to the beach, down by the "Blue Ocean", where I used to bodysurf every morning. A new road now ran along the shore, and shops and restaurants had proliferated. In the crowd, a massage lady called out to me by name and rushed over with a big smile, very excited to see me. I was touched, I had casually chatted with her now and then ten years before, and she must have seen hundreds of foreigners a day over all these years, and yet recognized me and remembered my name, even greeting me with a warmth rare in the west. I can only hope that the extraordinary gentility of this people, like the Barong in the witch dance, will protect them during the dramas ahead.
- Peter S. Hillmen