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MODERNIZATION OF BALI: DIVINE OR DEMONIC?

By Mikhail Tsyganov, RIA Novosti correspondent in Jakarta

Dedicated to the memory of Wolf Hilbertz - a German architect and an inspiring pioneer of new technologies in architecture and marine habitat restoration who died of cancer on August 11 2007.
He had become sick in Dubai, but recovered and went back to Bali in order to photograph the Biorock projects, when he was stricken again.
He was airlifted to Germany, where he was diagnosed with terminal cancer that had spread from his lungs to his kidneys and liver. He passed away peacefully and without pain.

god

Demon

 

   Religion is the defining feature of Balinese life. Bali is an islet of Hinduism in the world’s largest Muslim community (200 million believers). Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, aptly called Bali "the Dawn of Hinduism."

The island, with a population of 3 million, is of exceptional piety. It has 25,000 temples, several hundred thousand family temples, and millions of seaside and roadside altars and makeshift shrines.


Hinduism penetrated Bali from Java centuries ago. Aloof to outsiders, local people have preserved it intact, and many Hindu theologians find the Balinese doctrine purer even than that currently practiced in India. It is part and parcel of the local life and psyche. Nowhere else in the world is more emphasis placed on the harmony between Man and Nature. That is one of the greatest attractions to visitors.

But now this happy union between Man and Nature on the Island of Gods is badly endangered by the very vehicle of the island’s economy: tourism. Indonesia intends to accommodate 5.5 million foreign visitors this year, and an overwhelming majority of these will be heading for Bali.

tourists


"Tourists swarm to Bali thanks to its inimitable serenity, but I know some homeowners who modernize their houses as soon as they have enough money for new fixtures, and lose lodgers with the innovations," says Agung Prana, expert adviser on culture and eco-tourism to the governor of Bali.
A descendent of the rajas of the Kingdom of Mengwi, Prana was born in 1948 in Umabian, a tiny village at the heart of the island. The name derives from uma and bian, the Balinese for "field" and "palm tree."
"It really had nothing but fields and palms, so I spent my childhood in the Bali that no longer is. I do miss it," he recollects with a wistful smile.
 

 Prana

Prana is not opposed to modern conveniences, and his villas are the paragon of comfort. He merely objects to all-round and unplanned modernization.
"A good hotel should not merely be environmentally-friendly, but also fit in with local culture and the social situation. There are folk traditions to reckon with," he says.

Meanwhile, headlong modernization has gone far enough to endanger the most precious treasure of the Balinese heartland - terraced rice paddies built on volcanic slopes by the toil of hundreds of generations of peasants. Farmers find the tourist industry far more lucrative than agriculture and leave en masse to seek employment in the prosperous resorts.
Modernity and kitsch imitations are equally dangerous threats to the unique Balinese culture. I shall dwell on those dangers and on environmental efforts later on. Now, I want to say a few words about tourists, for whose sake this "battle of gods and demons" is being waged.

The difficult art of equatorial life

It really is a difficult art, and one has to learn it from scratch. Previous experience doesn’t help you on Bali.
As they depart for Indonesia, Russian vacationers usually plan to spend a week in the Laguna Hotel in Nusa Dua, a five star ocean-side resort walled off from the rest of the island, and another week in the Ritz Carlton nearby.
 

bird view

Photo: bird’s-eye view of a Balinese resort & spa with hotels closely clustered around.

Yet all those deluxe places may leave you disillusioned - for all their posh decorations, the five-star hotels have nothing of Balinese exoticism, however hard their designers might try to retain the local color. The tourist industry has to be run by local communities, Prana insists. "The five-star hotels that are mushrooming in Nusa Dua are completely isolated from local people. Can one learn anything about the culture of Bali while staying there?" 

 Balinese architecture rests on the following principles: as many open spaces as possible to allow the air circulate all about, and flimsy tents to offer protection from the sun. Only bedrooms should have four walls each. That is the layout of the archetypal Balinese rajas’ palace. Luxury, calm and exotica, all-in-one. A private villa offers the best accommodation you can have on Bali.

You can rent a villa of any class. One of the best, owned by Agung Prana, are in Seminyak not far from Nusa Dua and the Ngurah Rai International Airport.
A villa has only one drawback - compared to a European-style hotel, you can’t have fifteen kinds of cheese on your breakfast table. Amply making up for that is delightful privacy, with no one admitted to the place but lodgers and servants.

A more modest and homely villa goes for $25 a day off-season. Here, there is no five-star service and you can’t have the house to yourself - several families usually rent one. However, the lodgers are far enough from the noisy crowd of other holidaymakers. If you want to visit several places, go from the seaside to Ubud, an art center in the mountains. It also offers luxury villa accommodation, and theOrient Express’ Ubud Hanging Gardens is one of the best hotels of its kind. 

IIt opened a few years ago near the quiet village of Melingih, away from the more frequented tourist routes. Each of the 38 villas (and you get to your place in a cable-car) has a private pool and there is another, huge multi-tier pool on the edge of a precipice, with a fine view of a nearby temple. Bali has a true masterpiece of design and architecture in the brand-new Royal Pita Maha Hotel, owned by the rajas of Ubud.

  "Music is the heart’s voice" 

  Prince Tjokorda
                                                                                                                                                 

Prince Tjokorda received me in the veranda of the central pavilion of his puri (palace). We relaxed in antique carved chairs, talking music. "Music is the heart’s voice," he was saying pensively. "You say rock is the urban folk music, which has taken in townspeople’s hearts the place of rural songs that no longer keep pace with the rhythm of city life. But then, the language of old Balinese music is even more sophisticated than rock. How can a contemporary child properly appreciate the gamelan?" the prince asked, referring to the traditional Balinese orchestra of several dozen instruments, mainly percussion. 

It was Agung Prana who introduced me to the prince with whom he has blood ties rooted in centuries long past. The two ancient dynasties were closely related, and Tjokorda’s mother and grandmother were of the Mengwi. "How are we to protect and preserve our treasures? We need to hear birds sing, but it is so hard nowadays, with sightseers all around. We must make them hear the voices of wildlife, too," the prince went on. "Young people frequently rebel against the old. In most places they want change, but here in Bali we want to preserve our heritage."
 

Paradoxically, Prana and like-minded people pin their hopes on tourism as an instrument for saving culture and wildlife - the tourism that threatens them.
"We owe the pyramidal social structure to the past. The puri is on the top of the pyramid. It was always up to the royalty to preserve traditions. The palace is a bridge that links us with the past. But contemporary Indonesia is a republic, and we must be of use if we are to survive. That’s where the puri comes in. The age-old link between the palace and culture is essential even now, in the 21st century. The palace is an oasis of refinement - not merely because artists have their clients at court but also because the royalty are true connoisseurs who pass on an art-lovers’ tradition. The puri is a source of inspiration," the prince said.

 Ubud was among the first Balinese places to accommodate tourists. That was in the 1930s. The initiative came from its rajas who invited, among others, Walter Spies, a famous German painter born in Moscow. Spies, who had settled at the sultan’s palace in Jakarta since arriving in the Dutch East Indies several years previously, came to Bali in 1926. An artist of versatile gifts, he made Bali his home and launched its artistic modernization drive.
Spies asked many of his celebrated friends to stay with him in Ubud, including Charlie Chaplin. That was how the Pita Maha movement was born to bring together Eastern and Western artists. The royal family has named its hotel chain after it.
 

"Ubud brought freedom to Balinese art. It was anonymous before -neither sculptures nor paintings nor books were signed. There is no word for 'artist' in Balinese. Art was a form of sacrifice to the gods. The puri of Ubud threw its doors open to the entire community and to foreign artists. Its artistic concept was based on the island’s heritage, so it was easier for the local community, with its reverence for tradition, to accept the new, says prince Tjokorda. - The royal courts rescued and preserved art treasures in the years of trouble. That was how our museums appeared. They became educational and relaxation centers in the 1950s."
"We have to keep abreast with the time. Villas for tourists are what Bali needs now. That was why my family built the Pita Maha. Everything the resort offers is the real thing, from the cooking to the paintings on the walls. 

The Royal Pita Maha followed that is a blend of the traditional and the minimalist. We Balinese have a special concept of beauty - the desire to inscribe a house into the landscape runs in our blood. It’s as natural to us as to choose the most advantageous lighting for statues. That’s how the inimitable Balinese harmony is born," Prince Tjokorda told me. The puri remains a pillar of patronage of the arts. In particular, it hosts traditional dancing classes. There are presently 500 local pupils from quite young children to adolescents.

"The earlier they start the better. They will preserve the strong basis of Balinese art," the prince remarked.

 

 Coral at death’s door 

  coral                                          


Coral is an endangered species. Its death rate has reached 90% in the Pacific and Indian oceans, says Thomas Goreau, American oceanographer and president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance. "What’s going on is an underwater holocaust."

"Want to see a coral reef? Do it now before it’s too late. They are dying," adds Professor James Crabbe of the University of Bedfordshire in Luton, Britain.
The coral rescue effort stems not only from the desire to save another species threatened by global warming. Coral reefs offer unsurpassed coastal protection from erosion, tornados and tsunamis.
Several irreplaceable antibiotics are obtained from coral. No one has synthesized them as yet. Australian scientists hope to base a new generation of painkillers on them, and certain experts think these antibiotics could help cure cancer.
More than half the pharmaceutical breakthroughs of the last 50 years have been based on newly discovered natural substances, so coral research is no exception.
 

There are even more important things. Though coral reefs occupy a mere 0.2% of the world’s oceans, they account for a third of the global fish population and several dozens of thousands of other marine wildlife species, many of which cannot survive elsewhere.
"Do you really think we Russians can take coral’s plight to heart? What’s Hecuba to us?" I asked Tom Goreau.
"You can just as well ask me what do tropical people care about permafrost thawing all over Siberia. See, more than a hundred countries depend on coral reefs for their versatile seafood diet, the tourist industry, fishing, and coast safety. This world is a small place, and it is getting ever closer interconnected, so you can hardly find a totally isolated place," he replied.

"What we need is global vision. National interests will sooner or later recede into the background as the human race will quite soon fight for sheer survival," said Professor Wolf Hilbertz, a German architect and Goreau’s associate in a unique coral rescue project.

Electricity is the remedy. Coral is getting a new lease of life in Pemuteran, a quiet fishing village in Bali’s northwest. Mysterious domes, sombreros, tunnels and mushroom-like structures stretch for hundreds of meters along the beach, making the place not unlike the set of a science fiction movie. All this is the world’s largest and most successful coral conservation endeavor - Project Karang Lestari, which means "eternal coral" in Indonesian.
"When we started the project, no coral or even fish lived here," says project manager Narayana. Once a hippie, he left the United States during the Vietnam War to spend many years traveling all about the Far East and South East Asia till he settled in Bali. Today, he hardly recalls his native name, Randall Dodge, which his parents gave him in Nebraska. Many brilliantly educated people have yet to grasp what coral means to the world - what can you expect of ignorant Indonesian fishermen, then?

 "They used to fish with dynamite and cyanide. It killed the coral," Narayana says. Coral grows half a centimeter a year in the most favorable natural conditions and never recovers on its own in polluted water. The Karang Lestari technology, invented by Goreau and Hilbertz, makes its growth several times faster and increases its hardiness. Like many contemporary discoveries, this one was interdisciplinary. A weak electric current supplied to underwater metal lattices, of shapes designed by architects, enhances the growth of calcareous compounds on its surface, which makes fine food for coral.

Volunteer divers look for broken corals in the environs of Pemuteran to be transplanted onto lattices, which they find an excellent new home. Invigorated by electricity, coral grows apace on and around the lattices even in polluted water until you switch off the current.
"We are ready to extend the project to any other place. Meanwhile, millions of dollars are being wasted worldwide on coral monitoring by huge inefficient environmental NGOs, which are hopelessly entangled in red tape. But it’s too late for monitoring. Corals need rescuing," Narayana complains.

The Karang Lestari project has been funded by private collections from the start, and never received a cent from the government despite the many awards Green organizations have conferred on it. Enthusiasts flock to Pemuteran from every part of the world to make lattices, plant them in the sea, and donate whatever modest sums of money they can afford. Tourist operators also make donations.

"By the time I joined the project, Pemuteran had become one of the poorest Balinese villages - fish had left the vicinity, and the soil here is  infertile. I knew from the start that we couldn’t do anything unless the local people saw what the project was all about. Otherwise, they would steal grown coral and stocked fish to sell it all off to tourists - they have to make a living," Agung Prana says.


 The aristocrat, who enjoys great respect among the locals, started with a donation to repair the village temple and suggested that fishermen open a store in one of his seaside resorts to sell handcrafted goods.
"As the project went on, it was essential to show that fish were coming back as the coral grew, and tourists flocked in with it to keep the local economy afloat. We mainly employ local people, and they see that a fish costs several times more when it is free in the sea for sightseers to admire it than after it is caught."
 

When a majority of Pemuteran fishermen saw his point, the whole village boycotted its few poachers. Now, they, too, are protecting the project from intruders from the neighboring villages.

"They see now that all these achievements belong to them and their children, and that their future depends on our project. Now, we are switching the village from fishing to fish farming, and we shall soon start teaching the villagers how to do so.
"We are invited to many places now. Diving center proprietors and local authorities in all parts of Indonesia have begun to see the benefits brought by this low-cost and well-tested technology. But we shall not start working elsewhere before we see that the local population is ready to accept it," Prana concluded.

Nusa Dua – Melingih – Pemuteran – Seminyak – Ubud – Umabian

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