Maverick Life, World

Gunung Agung: When a great volcano spews molten anger

Gunung Agung: When a great volcano spews molten anger

As you read this, Bali’s most impressive volcanic mountain, Gunung Agung, continues to threaten a full-scale eruption that would produce vast pyroclastic flows, a huge stratospheric pillar of sky-borne ash, and many tonnes of basaltic rocks flung into the air – all potentially affecting millions. If Agung’s current rumbling becomes a full-scale eruption, vast landscapes across the island and well beyond will be affected. It could even wreak havoc on global weather patterns and agriculture, just as Mt Tambora did, back in 1815. If Gunung Agung’s current dyspepsia becomes a full eruption, international air travel might well be strangled throughout Asia and well beyond for weeks – or even months. J. BROOKS SPECTOR remembers a more peaceful time high up on that very mountain, and the surprising result of that trip.

The island of Bali has had a tremendous hold on outsiders for a long, long time. The island’s physical beauty, the extraordinary artistic output of its people, its unique music and dance traditions, the legendary attractiveness of its female residents (and their reputation for bathing in the island’s many streams), the sheer extravagance of its many temple festivals, and its lush, sui generis version of Hinduism have attracted tourists to this small part of Indonesia pretty much since the beginning of organised tourism.

I once read a tourist guidebook from very early in the 20th century, long before the onset of jumbo jet liners and massive cruise ships, that advised readers to visit Bali as soon as possible, before its unique beauty was irredeemably ruined as the island became overrun by foreigners. This was back in 1912 when the monthly tourist traffic probably could have been counted on the fingers and toes of a single person.

By the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, a growing roster of western artists and social scientists seeking eastern insights had descended on Bali. Anthropologists like Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson came there. From around the globe, artists like Walter Spies, Rudolf Bonnet, Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur, Arie Smit, Miguel Covarrubias, and Donald Friend came too. In turn, this infusion of new artistic ideas from visitors itself had a significant impact on Balinese painting, as local artists moved beyond lush illustrations of religious topics and embraced painting scenes of everyday life.

Even earlier, dancer/choreographers Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn had drawn inspiration for their work from Balinese dance (eventually influencing Martha Graham along the way as well). Canadian composer Colin McPhee notated Balinese traditional music for the West, and composed his own works greatly influenced by Balinese music. McPhee was just the first of many others drawn to the percussive tonalities of Balinese music as part of a global movement to incorporate a much broader soundscape in contemporary composing.

Even Charlie Chaplin came to visit.

For the local folks, Balinese religious culture permeated everyday life with a vast array of festivals, rites, and frequent processions to local temples – as well as elaborate funerary rituals.

Photo: Ruth Spector (middle), together with two Balinese young women, celebrating Eka Dasa Rudra

The legends said the Balinese priestly caste (and its various royal families) had largely been descendants of Javanese priests and royals and they had established themselves on Bali after they fled the defeat of their theocracy in Java by a wave of triumphant conquering Islam, back in the 1300s. In the process, they had established five miniature kingdoms on Bali. In 1906, as the Dutch solidified their rule on the island, there was the astonishing spectacle of the leaders of some of the royal houses, complete with their entire royal retinues, and dressed in full ceremonial regalia, confronting Dutch troops and artillery on a beach, where they were slaughtered en masse by modern artillery.

One of the great rituals of Balinese religion is the Eka Dasa Rudra festival, held once in a century, in a year ending with a double zero, according to the Balinese religious calendar. This particular celebration draws on elaborate ceremonies to placate the 11 entities, the Rudra, a type of demonic force that could wreak great unpleasantness if not propitiated appropriately.

The celebration calls for the Balinese in their hundreds of thousands to visit the island’s mother temple, Besakih, on the slopes of Gunung Agung (“Majestic Mountain”) on a spot just before the volcanic cone tilts sharply upwards towards the live, smoking caldera.

One key part of the ritual involves the sacrifice of a variety of animals, numerous water buffalo, an elephant, a tiger, and so forth, as well as much dancing and other rituals. Because it only comes once a century, there is unlikely to be anybody around to instruct the newest generation on the right way to carry out the rituals, based on first-hand experiences from the last time around, so the ancient texts must be consulted to get things just right.

Now this brief geology is important, so pay attention. Indonesia’s thousands of islands are located right along the southern run of the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, where various subduction zones for the tectonic plates collide and ride over one another, producing frequent earthquakes and dozens of active volcanoes. In fact, one of these was the super volcano whose eruption was so powerful it destroyed its entire mountain more than 70,000 years ago, leaving a vast crater that is now a large lake, Toba, in its place, in North Sumatra. Palaeontologists now believe this explosion was so powerful it drastically changed global weather patterns for years, thereby killing off almost the entire population of early humans, leaving just a few tens of thousands to populate the earth.

Photo: Hundreds of thousands of Balinese joining the celebrations of Eka Dasa Rudra on Gunung Agung

Back in 1963, then-President Sukarno, in a bit of megalomaniac presidential decision-making, had insisted the Balinese celebrate their festival as part of his team-building enterprise and a balancing of the forces of Islam, the military, the local communist party and various nationalist groups that were threatening to tear the nation apart. (And given that he was half-Balinese himself, he probably thought he knew what was best for everyone.) But, since this was the wrong date, it inevitably irritated the gods it was supposed to placate. The result was a violent lava eruption of that volcano, destroying villages all down its slopes, and killing at least 2,000 people. Not surprisingly, the Balinese priesthood has been very particular thereafter about its holidays, guarding their calendar to prevent any other secular political leader from fiddling with the divinely established order.

And so where did I fit in in this grand cosmological process? As it happened, in 1979, I was living and working for the American Embassy in the Indonesian city of Surabaya. Back in the 19th century, Surabaya had been the big city of the Dutch East Indies, and it was still an important place in the country’s politics and its economy, hence it hosted a US consulate. Fortunately for me, my district included the ancient royal capital of Yogjakarta in Central Java, as well as Bali. Lucky us.

That meant that we could lay claim to some real work in Bali every once in a while, what with the artistic and cultural world there, and even with some Americans living their permanently, engaged in research, painting or composing. And that, in turn, meant we just had to get there for the upcoming Eka Dasa Rudra festival on 28 March 1979. A festival that only rolls around every century should never be skipped – even if, while still a student, I had been forced to work right through Woodstock and had thereby missed that great gathering).

Photo: High priests at Besakih Temple

To do things properly for our procession up Gunung Agung to Besakih Temple, we had to wear traditional Balinese garb. That included the right headgear, a sarong, sandals and a white sash. No western-style trousers or shoes allowed on that day – or who knew what would happen. And so, together with several Indonesian friends and colleagues, we slowly began our ascent up the mountain, first to a crowded parking lot staging area, and then on foot with another half million or so people up the mountain to the temple.

Eventually we reached Besakih Temple, and as we finally passed by the high priests in the seemingly unending procession, they sprinkled suitably blessed water on us. At that point we were supposed to begin our descent back down the mountain. But somehow, by accident, we were shunted back into the line for the blessings again, and we received a second dose of the stuff on our heads. Not a problem – it was a hot day and any water helped.

Photo: Thousands of ceremonial, woven poles decorate the way to Besakih Temple

As we finally reached the original assembly point, I asked one of our Balinese friends what this blessing and water was supposed to do for one. The answer was that, if it had been received in the right spirit, it would make one successful and – if a woman was of the right age – pregnant. Hmm. Well okay. Who knows, right?

Two days later, we returned to our home and office in Surabaya and there was a telegraphic communication (this is well before email or even a fax) from Washington, congratulating me on having been promoted in the latest round of personnel evaluations. And with my wife? She was complaining of a persistent stomach ache and so she went off to our family doctor – and he promptly announced to her that she was going to have a baby in November – about eight months later. Now one such event could easily have been a coincidence, but two such events apparently directly connected to our participation in Eka Dasa Rudra and the accident with the doubled priestly blessings?

All of this left us with a healthy scepticism about any easy shucking off of the power of traditional beliefs. Oh, and while we were on Bali in that trip, one of our Balinese friends, a man with a PhD from a highly regarded US university; a man who had taught in universities around the world; and someone who was thoroughly at home with the tenets of western rationality; as he drove us through the dark roads, past villages and fields to meet some mutual friends for a late dinner, whenever he passed a grave site, he always took care to beep his vehicle’s horn, in order to pay his appropriate respects to the spirits of the dead, just in case. DM

Photo: A general view of Mount Gunung Agung volcano spewing hot volcanic ash seen from Karangasem, Bali, Indonesia, 01 December 2017. EPA-EFE/MADE NAGI


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