Bali’s high priests have stepped it up a few notches of late — in jewelry, showmanship, and stamina. As more and more Balinese opt for the higher utama form of ceremony, which require high priests, pedanda are these days busier criss-crossing the island at all hours. Fourteen of them went off to East Java last month, to re-consecrate a 14th century Hindu-Javanese temple, the mighty Candi Penataran.

This article was first featured in NOW! Bali in 2013, written by the late Stranger in Paradise, otherwise known as Made Wijaya, or Michael White. We share this in remembrance of him and in light of NOW! Bali’s 10th Anniversary Issue.


Brahman cremations are looking like ‘beins’ for holy fathers (and mothers) with often up to 20 high priests baying for position on the Veda platforms. The celebrity high priest Pedanda Gunung has a school of disciples, including fashion impresario Milo, whom he regularly leads on yatra to such farflung destinations as Mt Kailash in Nepal.

Pedanda Bang a nabé class spiritual warrior last month ordained two new non-brahmana high priests from a Denpasar palace. These Bhagawan high-priests hit the white carpet running sending out BBM messages from golden smart-phones with blinking Ongkara (AUM) as their profile pics. As a group of spiritual seniors, the sulinggih of Bali run rings around Rome’s College of Cardinals. Unlike their fierce Indian confreres, the Balinese pandita (pedanda) are kind and caring and given to gushing.


I was fortunate enough to grow up in a humble Brahman house, as an Aussie groupie in the 1970s. In my six years there, I was often in the company of pedanda, and to this day I often seek out their company at events, partly because there is always a step to sit on in their special prayer pavilion, and partly because they have the best gossips. Many are my old buddies from my Sanur hotel guide days. (During the 1970s, many of the first sons of Denpasar’s first families worked in Housekeeping or Accounting at five star hotels).

These days the first sons tend to work for the government, or they run Harley Davidson dealerships or spiritual retreats.

Schmoozing up to the high priests is also a way of escaping the boorishness that goes down in the princes’ pavilions at ceremonies the incessant chick-talk and gruesome tales of intra-family feuding and the high priests get superior cake trays with Vuitton-look cozies and faux-Wedgewood teapots. Pedanda are only allowed to do five prayer sessions a day, something to do with the spiritual batteries I guess, which range from two to three hours, so there is little downtime.

Vacations are spent on caring for Java, or shopping in Singapore for smart white clothes.

Because they are all ‘born-again’ (see story below), there is an aura that accompanies them wherever they go. Appearing at airports in Java they are a blast from the past as, for most Javanese, pedandas only appear in classical Ramayana ballet productions, or on temple carings, and in all the old myths.

19 October, 2013: Pura Dalem Tuban

The Fourth Full Moon is the second mightiest in Bali (after the Tenth Full Moon). The Tuban Pura Dalem temple which sits, defiantly, at the end of the airport runway pulled out all stops tonight: 10-year-old priests, 12-year-old gamelan musicians (there were five different groups of musicians!), 16-year-old sandar (Barong nymphs) dancers, 19-year-old fire dancers, and a host of seniors, dressed to the temple nines, hosting an immaculate series of ceremonies.

There is even a porkfest smorgasbord and dining tables in the garden in the temple’s outer court (watch this video of the unique furry freak brothers sandaran dance and kampong cowboy siatapi firefighters (http://youtu. be/CfNhIdCX64g). I find my good friend, veteran airport porter (since 1973) Nyoman Murda inside the temple. He now has an Australian daughter-in-law and two half- Aussie grandkids. He tells me that over half of the village works at the airport and that the Balinese Airport authorities do come and pray at the temple festival regularly. Sadly none of the arriving passengers made it here tonight: it would have blown their socks off !

20 October 20, 2013: A special ceremony

Calm before the storm, Puri Tanjung Sari, Pemecutan, Denpasar 6:00 a m. In the private family courtyard of high priest to be (after 8:00 am his name will change to Ida Begawan Pemecutan Manuaba, the first Pemecutan family high priest and priestess since Ida Begawan Puri Grenceng in the 17th century – era of Cokorda Pemecutan III), I am watching the palace warm up, quietly but efficiently, for the big event.

IMG_8456High Priestess Ida Agung Bhagawan Hyang Arulup. The morning before her ordination

Ida Pedanda Bang is in the merajan family house shrine dispensing wisdoms and offering me real estate. Anapaoe, my buddy, the high priests’ brother, is asleep somewhere. Le tout Denpasar is about to arrive. For full coverage see video:

1 November, 2013: Not the Ubud Cremation

The cremation of Ida Bagus Gede Kesuma of Geria Gede Tegal, one of Denpasar’s grandest Brahman houses, is a rip-roaring aff air. There are 20-odd pedanda at the cremation today: the deceased’s mother, Ida Pedanda Istri Raka, was a star of the original ‘Stranger in Paradise’ columns on many occasions during the period 1979-81, and was much admired in the Brahman community. Family elder ‘Gus De’ was the Beau Brummel of his generation. Along with Pemecutan family heads, Gus De championed full classical Majapahit-style dress on all occasions.

I was chuff ed today, arriving at the Brahman palace, to see that he had chosen a photo I had taken of him in action at a cremation at Puri Kesiman some years ago, to adorn his badé processional bier (see photo on title page).

4 November, 2013: Pemapagan, Pura Dalem Kepala

In my 40 years of following this event there has never been a night quite like tonight. Certainly the temple forecourt is unusually crowded and the Mengwi Barong uncharacteristically late to greet the return of the Kepaon gods, and their pedati coach, on their return from Pura Sakenan but there was nothing on the cards or in the air, really, to explain why the Mogan God’s teenaged girl pepatih should fl y into wild fl ailing and screaming-blue-murder trances at first sight of the approaching Medwi monster. They jump the gun. The head has not been ripped off even the first black chicklet and the night is still young. Anyway, they are whisked off to the inner sanctum where I get a few snaps of the demure young beauties (see Fashion Spread). There are normally seven but one is in Dubai doing her masters in mani-pedi. (I did capture the girls’ magic spooky moment in this video: )

IMG_8842The Ningklong dancers and the priest of Tambang Badung temple on Galungan Eve

There was another minor sensation at the Pura Pasimpangan earlier as well. Just as the priests were closing down the prayin, in preparation for the mass migration north at 8:00 p m, a trio of whippet-thin young Grenceng palace princes in matching yellow Harley-Davidson shirts wafted past the gamelan pavilion where I was sitting with Kepaon palace he-men. They were very light in their loafers. I followed their progress with fascination, until they finally stopped wiggling and knelt for prayer. In that moment I realized that the normally unflappable inner circle of King’s men were following the development with barely concealed mirth. “They’re cute, the yellowshirts,” I offered limply as barely concealed mirth turned to good-natured snickers. In forty years of demanding that they all rip open their shirts and expose the whip tattoos on their chests, none has ever cast
nasturtiums, and now this. Ha!