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Sanur
Town with a colorfull past

The black and white checkered cloth standard of Bali's netherworld is nowhere more aptly hung than on the ancient coral statues and shrines of Bali's largest traditional village: Sanur. This was Bali's first beach resort a place of remarkable contrasts.

Sanur today is a golden mile of Baliesque hotels that has attracted millions of paradise seeking globetrotters. And yet, within the very grounds of the 11-story The Grand Bali Beach Hotel, a war-reparation gift from the Japanese, nestles the sacred and spiky temple of Ratu Ayu of Singgi, the much feared spirit consort of Sanur's fabled Black Barong.

Sanur is famous throughout Bali for its sorcery. Black and white magic pervades the coconut groves of the resort hotels like an invisible chess game. And yet the community is modern and prosperous.

Sanur is one of the few remaining Brahman kuasa villages in Bali controlled by members of the priestly caste - and boasts among its charms some of the handsomest processions on the island, Bali's only all female keris dance, the island's oldest stone inscription, and the hotel world's most beautiful tropical garden. Even the souvenirs sold on the beach - beautifully crafted kites and toy outriggers are a cut above those found on the rest of the island.

Traditional Sanur

Just a stone's throw from any of Sanur's beachside hotels lies one of a string of very ancient temples. Characterized by low coral walled enclosures sheltering platform altars, this style of temple is peculiar to the white sand stretch of Sanur coast, from Sanur harbor in the north to Mertasari Beach in the south. Inside, they are decorated with fanciful fans of coral and rough-hewn statuary, often ghoulishly painted but always wrapped in checkered sarong.

The rites performed at the anniversary celebrations of these temples are both weir and wonderful the celebrants often dancing with effigies strapped to their hips, while the priests are prone to wild outbursts launching themselves spread-eagled onto platform of offerings and racing entrance pell-mell into the sea.

The Sanur area, with traditional Intaran at its heart, has evidently been settled since ancient times. The Prasasti Belanjong, inscribed pillar here dated A.D. 913, is Bali' earliest dated artifact now kept in a temple. in Belanjong village in the south of Sanur. It tells of King Sri Kesari Warmadewa of the Sailendra Dynasty in Java, who came to Bali to teach Mahayana Buddhism and the founded a monastery here. One may presume that a fairly civilized community then existed the Sailendra kings having built Borobudur in Central Java at about this time.

It is interesting that the village square of Intaran is almost identical to that of Songan village on the crater lake of Mt. Batur - particularly the location and size of the bale, agung, the wantilan community hall and associated buildings. The priests of Sanur-Intaran are often mentioned in historical chronicles dating from Bali's "Golden Age" the 13th to the 16th centuries. It was not until the early 19th century, however, that the king of the Pemecutan court in Denpasar saw fit to place his satriya prince lings outside the village's medieval core.

Before that, Sanur consisted of Brahman griya (mansions) in Intaran and several attendant communities the Brahman banjar of Anggarkasih, the fishing village of Belong (which still holds a yearly baris gede warrior dance at the Pura Dalem Kedewatan temple near the Grand Bali Beach Hotel), and the village of Taman, whose Brahmans have traditionally served as the region's chief administrator or perbekel. Taman is also home to an electric barong troupe complete with an impish telek escort, a pas de deux by the freaky Jauk brothers and a spine-tingling last act featuring the evil witch Rangda all amidst fluttering poleng checkered banners.

Westerners in Sanur

It was in the mid-19th century that Sanur was first recorded by Europeans as more than just a dot on the map. Mads Lange, a Kuta based Danish trader, at this time mentions the special relationship that the perbekel of Sanur enjoyed with his great friend the king of Kesiman, Cokorda Sakti.

In a less flattering light, it was also a perbekel of Sanur who turned a blind eye to the landing of Dutch troops here in 1906 on their way to the massacre of the royal house of Pemecutan - one of the most ignoble days in Dutch colonial history. The full story has been immortalized by 1930s Sanur habitu6e Vicki Baum in her book, A Tale of Bali.

The BBC has a film of a Sanur trance medium "possessed" by the spirit of a beer swilling English sea captain (possibly from one of the merchant vessels which foundered on Sanur's coral reefs) - to whose semi-divine memory a trance baris, called Ratu Tuan, is performed by the Semawang Banjar. The costume: Chinese kung-fu pajamas of black and white checkered cloth.

The first half of the 20th century also saw Sanur's emergence as prime real estate for the Bali-besotted. Beach bungalows in what Miguel Covarrubias referred to as, "the malarial swamps of Sanur," were built by, among others, Dr. Jack Mershon and his choreographer wife Katharane (inventor, with Walter Spies, of the very checkered kecak dance), writer Vicki Baum, anthropologist Jane Belo (author of Trance in Bali); and art-collector Neuhaus, who was killed by a stray bullet during a skirmish between local guerillas and Japanese occupation forces in 1943, while playing bridge on the verandah of his home - site of the present-day Hotel Sindhu Beach.

These early "Baliphiles" hosted a steady stream of celebrity visitors to the island during the 1930s, including Charlie Chaplin, Barbara Hutton, Doris Duke and Harold Nicholson. It was probably more from the travel reports of these sophisticates than from the movie with a sarong-draped Dorothy Lamour that Bali traces its fame abroad.

Bali's most famous expatriate of this era, artist-writer-musician Walter Spies, was a frequent visitor to the shores of Sanur, but it is to one particular visit that we may trace his aversion for coastal Bali. It was the day of a lunar eclipse and the birthday of Spies young nephew who was visiting him in Bali. A Balinese soothsayer warned the boy not to go near the water that day, but he defied the warning and swam in Sanur, where he was taken by a shark. A weird coincidence: the Balinese symbol for an eclipse is the giant toothed mouth of the demon spirit Kala Rauh devouring the moon goddess.

Modern times

Not long after Indonesia proclaimed independence in 1945, Sanur witnessed the beginnings of an expatriate building boom led by Belgian painter Le Mayeur, whose former studio home on the beach north of the Grand Bali Beach Hotel is now a museum. Le Mayeur's heavenly courtyard was the inspiration for his breast, nymph-filled paintings.

Australian artists Ian Fair-weather and Donald Friend, whose marvelous books and paintings have inspired a generation of Australians, also chose picturesque Sanur for their Bali retreats. Donald Friend lived here in imperial splendor with an in-house gamelan and Bali's finest art collection within the grounds of the dream he founded Batu Jimbar Estates - now home to the world weary and the grand.

Sanur designs its future

At about the same time, two Sanur Brahmans were leaving their mark on the community The first, high priest Pedanda Gede Sidemen was entering the twilight of a prolific career which spanned 70 years as south Bali's most significant temple architect, healer and classical scholar. His life, and the pride he brought to his native Sanur, were to inspire a generation of Sanur Brahmans who may otherwise have contemplated abandoning their Vedic scriptures for a life on the juice blender.

The second, Ida Bagus Berata nephew of Pedanda Sidemen insisted his tenure as mayor of Sanur from 1968 to 1986 that the area should be economically as well as culturally autonomous. To that end, Ratu Perbekel, as he was affectionately know established a village-run cooperative that to this day operates a beach market, a restaurant, a car-wash and service station, and owns land in Kuta and Denpasar. This strident new economic approach provided a friendly environment for the establishment of many other Sanur-based tourist businesses.

By the 1980s the writing was on the wall Sanur's bread and butter (but not its lifeblood, its culture) was mass tourism. The Brahmans of Intaran are now hotel-owners their "serfs" are building contractors and room boys, and the farmers of the area have become taxi drivers and art shop owners Beachside there is no land left, and the ribbon of "Bali Baroque" palace development thickens along the highway. Sanur's Brahman priests are met at dawn by convoys of limousines their schedules of incantations and blessings as busy as those of any senior statesman or tycoon. The mega-tuans of yesterday are gone and forgotten; the new generation of rich and famous are obsessed more with diet and the rag trade than with skull drudgery and gamelan galas. But late at night when the cash-registers are asleep under their batik cozies and the beepers are turned off, Ratu Ayu steals from her throne into the night, to a temple near you ... Sanur's checkered ness is not a thing of the past.


Last revised on January 28, 2010
    
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