Visit to the Brahmins

Culture | Written By, NOW! BALI |

Somprong and his friend, Dabdab, were chatting together on the single plank of Mrs. Somprong’s tea stall.  There, they used to talk everyday of the yellowing of the rice or of their daily duties to the gods. They chatted casually amidst the heaps of fruits and cookies and with the smoke of incense in the air. “Ketut, I absolutely need your help to go to the Brahmin mansion (gria), and, as you know, you are the only one who can help me out. You know them well and are close to them”.  Somprong and his friend, Dabdab, were chatting together on the single plank of Mrs. Somprong’s tea stall.  There, they used to talk everyday of the yellowing of the rice or of their daily duties to the gods. They chatted casually amidst the heaps of fruits and cookies and with the smoke of incense in the air.

Historian and art critic Jean Couteau brings us stories depicting the life on Bali, sometimes real, sometimes myth, always meaningful.

“Ketut, I absolutely need your help to go to the Brahmin mansion (gria), and, as you know, you are the only one who can help me out. You know them well and are close to them”.  Somprong and his friend, Dabdab, were chatting together on the single plank of Mrs. Somprong’s tea stall.  There, they used to talk everyday of the yellowing of the rice or of their daily duties to the gods. They chatted casually amidst the heaps of fruits and cookies and with the smoke of incense in the air.

This time Dabdab was making a serious request: “I cannot even speak their language – meaning proper High-Balinese.  But to you, Somprong, it will be easy.  You are one of their “disciples” (sisia), aren’t you? Come on.” The demand was getting pressing. There was no way Somprong could avoid it, going to the Brahmins.  So without another word, he passed to the back of the warung (tea-stall), picked up a hanging batik and a shawl, wrapped them around his waist and came out, smiling.  He was now properly dressed, as one ought to be when visiting the peguruan (teacher’s place).

They soon reached the entrance of the gria. Nothing, from the outside differentiated it from the other village houses, except the two statues of guardians in front of the entrance, and the relief of a swan above the lintel of the gate.

They entered. They just got inside, between the entrance proper and the small aling-aling (separating wall), as Somprong, looking around, suddenly felt he was walking in short steps and with a bowing gait, and he remembered. He was back in the old house.

“Ratu Pedanda (Your Eminence),” these were the words his father had used, addressing the high priest, “life has given me my wife and more sons than we can afford. My father and his father before him, as you know, have been the faithful dependants (braya) of your holy mansion. This is why I come to you with this young child of mine and entrust him to you, so that he learns from your house all the holy teachings and the good things of life.”

In those times, the gria was still rich, and the request had been welcome.  Somprong had been accepted to live with the Brahmins. The high priest had entrusted him to one of his brothers, Ida Bagus Alit, who lived in an adjacent house, although still in the Brahmins’ area of the village. He was to be a sisia, (student). Being of low caste, he became also, ipso-facto, one of the dependants of the gria, meaning that he had to fulfill his share of the daily chores of the house, such as washing the clothing of the Brahmins, fetching the water or looking after the pigs. He was fed for his work, although always in separate quarters, with the other dependants and sometimes from the food and offerings left over from the Brahmins. Such was his fate, but he was happy with it: the Brahmins were good to him and fulfilled their duties. Ida Bagus Alit had even registered Somprong at the primary school and he let him attend, at night, the teaching sessions of the gria, when all the sisias of the village, all ages included, would come and sit with the Brahmins for the reading of the texts. This is how Somprong, with the passing of time, had picked up all the secrets of Old-Javanese, the language of the holy knowledge and literature.  He also gained some initiation to the rituals of the gria, as Ida Bagus Alit, an ulaka (not  yet  ordained) Brahmin would often take him along to assist him in tooth-filing or cremation ceremonies. Last but not least Somprong was also the high-priest’s (pedanda) favourite sisia, and he would sometimes accompany the “old man” in his wanderings to take holy water (tirta) to the waiting faithful.

One day, after Somprong had grown into a handsome and strong adult, the old priest had taken him aside and said: “Hey, Somprong, you have learned a lot with us. Isn’t it time now that you went back to your father and looked for a wife. When you have found one, come back here, and I shall help you. You know that piece of land that the gria owns to the east of the village temple, I shall give it to you. As long as you have children and your sons have children, you can freely occupy that land of ours. But don’t forget your old bonds to us, neither you nor your sons, and whenever there is work to do at the gria, come to us to help.”

The high priest had kept his word. Somprong, having married, had got his piece of land. It is there he now lives with his two children. But he too kept his word and he would never miss any ritual or work at the Brahmins’ mansion. Because of them, he had now become a man of letters.  At every temple festival, he was one of the learned men called for the reading of the stories of old, which lasted well into the depth of the night.

Since entering the Brahmins’ compound, thus, Somprong had been recalling his youth as a Brahmin’s man. And now, he was back with Dabdab in the same house. As he was looking around, his eyes caught those of an old lady who was sitting alone, weaving some offering, in the Western pavilion, among flowers and colorful offerings. He knew her: she had been a beauty in her days, but she had never married, and she lived now, her beauty waned, from the selling of offerings to families holding cremations or similar large-scale ceremonies. She alone knew all the secrets of their form and colors. It is said she had loved a man of Princely blood. But the Brahmins of those days did not marry the Princely satrias, and the men of her clan had spurned her beauty.

She was busy when Somprong addressed her: “Ratu (Your Excellency)” he said, “could Ratu Pedanda (His Eminence the high-priest) receive us for a short visit?” The High-Balinese words, which would have been awkward in the mouth of an ordinary villager, flowed out naturally from Somprong’s. Somprong’s companion knew it, and he gaped in admiration at the choice of words, which one uses when addressing Brahmins only.

“What do you want from him?” replied Dayu Raka while immediately adding, “I almost did not recognise you, Somprong. Don’t you now come only when you need us? But if you want to see Ratu Pedanda, he should be in the bale dangin (eastern pavilion)”.

All wrinkled and balding, the old man was indeed in the eastern pavilion, sitting cross-legged and straight-backed among the objects of his trade: a few palm-leaf manuscripts and betel set. Somprong and Dabdab approached, then sat silently at his feet. Then, locking his left hand on his right one in the typical gesture of the Balinese to show respect, Somprong uttered in a hush: “Ratu Pedanda, I come in audience to you with one of your people from the Banjar Dangin who has a request to make. Having spoken these words, he waited.

The old man raised his eyes and said: “It is you, my good Somprong.  But you, who are you?” he carried on, addressing the embarrassed Dabdab. I do not know you yet, it seems?” “I am Kaki Ada’s son,” answered Dabdab, blushing, and I come here to you to beg you to choose a date for the mukur (post-cremation) ceremony the people of our clan are holding, and to bless it as well.”

“Kaki Ada,” recalled the old priest,” thus, you too are one of my “sisias” (disciples). But I have not heard of you for years.  And there have been years you have not come here to ask for our holy water (tirta). Have your forgotten the gria of your father, your peguruan – the house of the only knowledge?” Dabdab was ready for the reproach, and he did not reply. His whole clan, more than ten years ago, had shifted allegiance from the Brahmin’s gria to an empu priest of his lineage. There had been “signs,” however, such as illnesses and accidents. A medium had been consulted and the ancestors had “talked”. The majority of the members of his group had then relented and decided to re-establish the ties of old with the gria.

The old priest turned around, picked up a manuscript and consulted it in silence. Ten minutes later, he had found a propitious date. The ceremony would be on a Wednesday, on the Paing day of the five-day week, during the Uye week of the 210 day pawukon calendar.

Somprong and Dabdab, their job done, withdrew in silence from the bale dangin. They presented a canang (flower offering) at the gria temple, then took their leave from the wrinkled Dayu, bowing  in respect.

They went back to the warung, to sip another cup. 

 

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NOW! BALI

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