Cultural Paradise

 Our amazingly diverse, beautiful and awe inspiring world is the result of the combined works of nature and human creativity

The above pictures are from Galungan and Kuningan religious ceremonies (March 2009)

The above pictures are from three different Melasti (purification) religious ceremonies (March 2009)

Kutal Karnival - A celebration of life

September 2009

This annual festival is held in and around Kuta Beach, the famous tourist and surfer spot in the paradise island of Bali. Although the event is called ‘A Celebration of Life’, its origin was the tragic Bali bombing on 12 October 2002. How a tragedy can give birth to a fun carnival that celebrates life can only be understood by reference to the unique Balinese way of life and their Hindu belief systems. Kuta Karnival 2009 was the seventh year of the festival that began in 2003 and the theme this time was ‘Creative Ecology’. Under the overall theme of ‘A Celebration of Life’, a new sub theme is chosen each year.

Bali is an island province of Indonesia and one of the safest places in the world to visit. Its people are extraordinarily friendly and they welcome everyone with an open heart. The island is known as a paradise because of its astounding beauty and the wonderful experiences that one gets from visiting the place. Bali’s legendary beauty is the result of an evolutionary interplay of the people’s highly artistic way of life and the gift of nature. Balinese people are very proud of their island and what they have achieved in the field of arts and culture. They have also managed to develop a balanced way of life based on the principles of Tri Hita Karana. The community live and organise their life on three complementing principles of harmony between men and men, men and nature and men and God.

Whenever one visits Bali, in addition to what the island has to offer the tourists, one is most likely to experience some of the many incredible cultural / religious events that take place throughout the year. Galungan and Kunningan are the two biggest religious festivals that take place every 210 days. It is a ten days Hindu festival that starts with Galungan and ends with Kunningan. It represents a ten days of struggle between good and evil where the end result is the triumph of the good. Melasti is a purification religious festival which involves communities going to the seaside or rivers to undertake elaborate purification rituals and it takes many forms. When I visited Bali in March 2009 I experienced three different sea-side Melasti ceremonies and also the incredible Ogoh Ogoh festival.

Ogoh Ogoh involves all different communities across urban and rural Bali building large images of demons of a variety of shapes and sizes and during the ceremony night carrying out demon confusing activities before burning them late at night. The Ogoh Ogoh night is followed by Neypi day when everyone must remain silent and no one can go outside their houses. They must remain indoors, keep the lights off, not do any cooking or make any noise. Balinese Hindus believe that by remaining silent on Neypi day the demons think that no one is in the island and they go away. Tourist seems to love the 'crazy' Ogoh Ogoh night and the following silent day Neypi where they are also locked inside the hotels for about 24 hours.

For a long time visitors have been flocking to Bali to experience its culture, enjoy the hospitality of the people, taste the local cuisine and enjoy relaxing in a safe environment. The ever increasing numbers of holiday makers arriving each year to the island has resulted in the industrious and agriculturally self sufficient Balinese people becoming more and more intertwined with and dependent on the tourism economy. However, on 12 October 2002, just after 11pm local time, a series of bombings by terrorists belonging to the Muslim faith shattered the peace and tranquillity of Bali. The bombers struck in the very heart of the most popular tourist area in the island called Kuta. The focus of the blast was Paddy’s Pub in Legian Road, which caused incredible havoc and unprecedented challenges for Bali. In total nearly 200 people lost their lives, made up of people from all over the world, including 88 individuals from Australia, 38 from Indonesia and 23 from the UK. Now a monument stands near the spot. Night and day visitors arrive there to read the names of those killed, take pictures and reflect quietly.

Nobody expected such a disaster to befall Bali and when it happened people could not understand why anyone would want to harm the peaceful island in this way. As tourists left the island in great numbers and others cancelled their trips to Bali, the devastating consequences of the bombing started to affect everyone. Gilda Segrado, the sponsorship co-ordinator of the Kuta Karnival (2009), explained that many people lost their jobs and those that did manage to stay in employment had to take a very big pay cut and, in her own case, it was a reduction of eighty five percent.

The Kuta Karnival idea emerged out of a series of meetings held by a small group of people at the Aromas Cafe shortly after the bombing. According to Gilda, people were thinking about what to do and how to deal with the impact of the bombing. One thing she proudly stated was that rather than the tragedy creating a gulf between the Balinese Hindu majority and the small Muslim community who live in the Island the two communities actually came closer. There was a danger that the bombing would have been seen as Muslims from Java attacking Hindu Bali, and as a result increase tension and suspicions between the communities. However, the efforts made by community leaders to promote unity and peace helped avert such an outcome. Furthermore, the subsequent bombings in Jakarta by the same terrorist group showed that the whole of Indonesia was under threat, which proved that the tragic 2002 bombing was not an attack on Hindu Bali by Java Muslims. The execution of the Bali bombers in 2008 by the Indonesian government was seen by many as the closing chapter of the tragic story.

September 2009 was my third visit to the Karnival. I first stumbled on a street parade by chance in 2004 when I was in Bali for a short holiday. Although I took many pictures at that time unfortunately I lost most of them when my external hard disk disappeared in London. In October 2008 I visited the Karnival for the second time and I took extensive photographs covering many aspects of the festival. The 2008 Karnival also coincided with the Asian Beach Games, which meant that there were additional activities on Kuta Beach and more people than the usual. Although it was a nice experience I did not make any attempts to meet any of the organisers to find out more about the festival. However, as I have subsequently ventured into developing an exhibition on festivals I planned my 2009 visit more carefully.

In 2009 I made efforts to meet a number of organisers of the event and also attended one of the technical briefing meetings of the Kuta Karnival Parade. I met and interviewed two Karnival committee members: Gilda Sagrado (sponsorship co-ordinator) and Made Morgan Suarde (parade co-ordinator). I also had meetings with Mr Handoko and Jhon, who run the X-Treme Arts project; Putu Witsen (founder of Mapangitan Balinese Martial Arts Dance) and visited Bali Timbang, a restaurant in a traditional Bali setting that provides opportunities for groups to learn about local medicine, dye making, etc.

Visiting the Green School (picture in the right), with its bamboo constructed buildings and high tech wifi facilities, was an inspiration for adopting a greater level of environmentally friendly lifestyle and finding low or zero carbon solutions for energy generation, recycling and living sustainably with nature. The culmination of my visit to the Green School was the amazing full moon night Mapantigan Dance Performance on a muddy and wet rice field. Kuta Karnival 2009 consisted of nine days of activities, which culminated in the 27th September street parade. It started on 19th September with the opening ceremony, turtle release and paddle for peace by surfers. Other elements during the Karnival days included a kite festival, puja shanti, morning of the Earth yoga, Mepantigan Balinese martial art, bartender competition, graffiti cartoon expose, t-shirt cartoon competition, sunset dances, mini cartoon exhibition, youth race, beach movie screening, barong reptile show, street art & sand sculpture competition, Kuta young architects, youth info centre, Bali blogger community, environment day, Surfer Girl Big Splash ‘09, Cardinal music awards, Bali food festival and fishing fun.

The Kuta Karnival is an initiative of the Kuta Small Business Association (KSBA). It was originally developed to help reverse the negative impacts of the 2002 bombing in Bali and now the annual event has become an important part of the local events calendar. Gilda informed that while they were discussing how to respond to the situation created by the tragedy, many of their western friends who live in Bali suggested that a commemoration be organised in October 2003 to mark the one year anniversary of the bombing. She pointed out that Westerners like commemorations and people in Bali were concerned that the world media would descend into Bali to look for weeping and sad people remembering what happened in October 2002. However, she stated that crying was not a part of the Balinese way of remembering the dead. Life must go on and death is part of reincarnation and rebirth. Balinese Hindus celebrate death because the people concerned become reborn into another life and that is why the Kuta Karnival is called ‘A Celebration of Life’. I found the story behind the Karnival to be fascinating.

Unlike the nine days of the Kuta Karnival, the first one in 2003 was a month long event held from 11th September to 12th October. Links were made with the New York 9//11 tragedy and between the families of the victims. Gilda said that families in USA put up posters of the Kuta Karnival in New York and the Australian Prime Minister John Howard was present on the opening of the first Kuta Karnival. Since 2004 it has been a nine day festival and both tourists and locals flock to the Karnival activities in great numbers. There is something for everyone and the timetable of events mean that one can spend the whole afternoon and evening enjoying a dance after sunset, admiring artists engaged in a variety of competitions, touching dangerous animals, visiting the food festival, attending a concert, watching a movie on the beach and getting amazed by the thrilling fashion shows. On the last day of the festival many more people gather in various locations on the Karnival parade route and watch and cheer the floats and performers as they pass by.

Just like in previous years 2009 street parade was a spectacular end to the nine day festival. More than 45 groups participated and showcased their colourful floats, dances, performances under the theme of Creative Ecology. Bystanders and spectators cheered and photographers and videographers pushed one another to get the best footage.

The street parade did not bring a complete end to the Kuta Karnival as the three day food festival continued until the evening of 27th September. At the last night of the Food Festival people came again in large numbers creating a bustling, noisy atmosphere with the aroma of grilling and frying filling the air, creating a great buzz. The food on offer was very cheap compared to local restaurants and covered local delicacies, western items, Indian cuisines, Japanese food and many others. Next to the location of the food festival there was a big stage running concerts and fashion shows.

Overall the Kuta Karnival had a good mixture of local Balinese culture at its best and modern western style concerts and fashions shows. This combination made the whole Karnival experience very appealing to all sorts of people.

After a few days of arriving in Bali I made contact with Morgan Made Suarde, the Karnival Parade Co-ordinator, to get more information about the street parade. As Morgan Made was very busy organising the parade he could not give me a proper interview before the parade on 27th September. However, he invited me for a short introductory meeting at the Aromas Cafe where I explained about my interest in festivals around the world. We arranged to meet again after the completion of the Karnival.

Morgan Made invited me to visit his house and before sitting down to discuss the Kuta Karnival he took me to the second floor of one of the buildings within his housing complex and showed me a huge whalebone which he found on the beach about seven years ago. He made the room into a temple and provided me with more information on the circumstances of the finding and the significance of the bone. His time in New York in the early 1990s promoting Balinese culture and the efforts that he has been making to restore the true caste of his family within the social order of the Balinese Hindu community were among a variety issues discussed while drinking Balinese coffee.

Although I thought the Kuta Karnival 2009, including the closing street parade, was a superbly organised and very enjoyable festival, the organisers, including Morgan Made, were not entirely happy with the event. It emerged that at one point the parade nearly did not happen because of the lack of a sufficient number of confirmed participants. The main reason was the Muslim Eidul Fitri period just before the Kuta Karnival. Many Muslims from Java work in Bali but during religious holidays a large number of them return to their towns and villages to be with their families. This means that many businesses and organisations that employ Muslims from Java had a shortage of staff and therefore could not practically make a commitment to participate in the Karnival parade. Many provinces within Indonesia also could not send their performers for the same reason. This resulted in a reduced number of groups participating this year.

The organisers plan to prevent such an outcome again by carefully choosing future dates of the festival to ensure there is no clash with Hindu, Muslim or Christian religious festivals. They will set up a foundation to generate funding well in advance to create more financial security, and allow early preparation for each year’s festival. Morgan Made expressed the hope that over time the Kuta Karnival will become more international and attract participants from Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

We also discussed the possibility of making links between carnivals and festivals in London and the Kuta Karnival in Bali, by creating opportunities for e exchange show-cases in each other’s festivals.

Made Morgan thought that it would be wonderful if they could bring their culture to London’s Notting Hill Carnival. He believes that as Balinese people are good at producing spectacular and colourful shows their participation in London would be very popular indeed. I showed my interest in this and hope to build links to help facilitate this wonderful and ambitious venture.

Other things that one may see when in Bali include mass funeral ceremonies. I was lucky to witness a mass funeral in March 2009, which continued from morning until late afternoon, involving thousands of people performing funeral rites and cremation ceremonies for about 50 people. In Bali authorities often organise mass funerals so grand ceremonies are affordable for most families. People often bury their dead for a while due to financial reasons and then dig them up for mass funerals.