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Thursday, December 25, 2008

To Nirvana and back again...

Or how Hanuman bitch-slapped Walski into starting to blog again...

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It had to happen. The writer's itch was starting to get unbearable. And then Hanuman came along and settled the score. Walski writes once more.

But as usual Walski's getting ahead of himself. First, Hanuman has got to be put into perspective. And it happened a few weeks ago when Walski and the Mrs were on a short vacation to an idyllic smallish city called Yogyakarta.

The trip to Indonesia this time around was part-work and part-vacation. And with the Mrs along on the trip, as she's never been to Jakarta, nor has she been to Yogyakarta, the main focus of this post. And it's in Yogya (or Jogja) that Walski met with Hanuman. Who bitch-slapped Walski. But more about that later.

Image hosting by PhotobucketBOO! This mask adorns one of the walls of the Kraton Ngayogyakarta

Not much more can be said about Jakarta, however, except that it's a great city with a horrendous traffic problem. And the traffic is perhaps one factor that would deter Walski from choosing this metropolis as home, if push came to shove. In any case, Walski's written about the Indonesian capital before in a previous post.

In any case, we got into Jakarta on a Wednesday evening (December 3rd), and made our way into the city quite painlessly, as it turns out - it was around 8pm by the time we left Soekarno-Hatta International, and the workday macet (Indonesian for 'traffic jam') had sufficiently subsided.

Work, for Walski, was most of Thursday, the following day. Not much to comment about that, except that it was work. Fortunately, though, the meeting wasn't far from the hotel, so we were in and out within reasonable time.

The real adventure, and the main focus of this post, only happened the following day - Friday - the day the Mrs and Walski flew out of the hustle and bustle of Jakarta, for an appointment with the relative serenity that Yogya had to offer.

When it comes to traffic, compared to Jakarta, whatever Yogya could muster simply pales in comparison...
(Yogya, Borobudur, and of course, Hanuman, in the full post)

But this trip was not to pay hommage to Indonesian traffic woes. Rather, our journey to Yogya had two main purposes. 

The first, was to visit the famed Borobudur temple, the gigantic Buddhist shrine from the 9th century.

Image hosting by PhotobucketBorobudur - a breathtaking monument to ancient feats of engineering

The temple is said to have been constructed by the architect Gunadharma, serving the court of the Sailendra dynasty. It consists of 3 groups of levels - the bottom two square, and the upper group circular. The three highest levels consist of stupas arranged symmetrically in a circle, decreasing in number as one ascends. In each of these stupas, which are perforated, sits a statue of Buddha, each one with a different hand gesture.

The three groupings of levels culminate with a large stupa at the top, now empty, but believed to have housed a large statue of Buddha. Our tour guide mentioned something about the statue sitting in a museum someplace. Walski has read elsewhere, however, that when Sir Stamford Raffles discovered Borobudur in the 17th century, the main stupa was already empty, and is one of the mysteries surrounding the ancient monumentous temple.

Grouped together, the top 3 levels are known as Arupadhatu - or, the world of the Formless - otherwise known as the 3 levels of Nirvana (or so the guide told us).

Image hosting by PhotobucketStupa-fying... the 3 circular levels that make up Arupadhatu

Nirvana? Yes, folks, been there, done that... 

The one thing that kinda ruined the otherwise superb Borobudur experience was the peddlers of souvenirs, and other overpriced trinkets, that persistently swarmed Walski and the Mrs on our way out. Here's a bit of advice if you're ever thinking of visiting - on your way up to the temple, don't even indicate to any of the peddlars that you'll get something from them later. Not even body language to suggest any such thing. 'Cause they'll be there waiting once your on the way out. And literally swarm you.

Image hosting by Photobucket The second reason for chosing Yogya was art. Yogya is home to one of the most prestigious fine arts institutes in the region - the Indonesian Institute of the Arts (Institut Seni Indonesia, or ISI), which has produced a number of well known contemporary artists over the years. 

Actually, Yogya apparently has around 130 universities (of all sizes and varieties), and is also the home of the Universitas Gadjah Mada, one of Indonesia's better known universities. In short, Yogya is very much a college town, full of youth and aspiration, combined with a very deep sense of history.

As Walski may have blurted out at some point in the not so distant past, the Mrs and him are into art, and we have a reasonably not-so-modest collection of our own. And so the trip was also to try hunt down some good art pieces. 

Our haul? Ten pieces by various artists - four of them from WH Kabul, a rather well-known batik artist, and the rest were oil on canvas pieces from a few artists. On the right is one of the batik pieces from Kabul that Walski got while he was there, called "Surrealis". If you ever visit Yogya, do try to visit Mr. Kabul's gallery. Our guide told us that WH Kabul has been dubbed the "Picasso of Java". And truth be told, some of the pieces in his gallery are truly stunning.

One of the things that Walski noticed was that the works of the artists that we saw while in Yogya were very unrestrained, and quite uninhibited - no subject matter, it seems, is taboo.

Image hosting by Photobucket"Ruang Gerak" by I. Made Wirata
(an oil on canvas piece that's now in Walski's collection)

Walski has always believed that the less social restraint, the better art can flourish. In that respect, it's not surprising that the fine arts flourishes better in Indonesia than it does in Malaysia. Malaysian artists, Walski feels, tend to self-censor and restrict themselves to what is "safe". This limits the dimensions an artist can explore. It's also no surprise, therefore, that a number of budding artists have opted to leave the country for a less contrictive social environment.

Image hosting by Photobucket"Harmoni" by Plato
(oil on canvas, also part of Walski's collection)

Image hosting by Photobucket"Tentang Mimpi-mimpi Utopia di Kota Asap" by Indra Setiawan
(oil on canvas, another piece in Walski's collection)

And apart from a small minority of loony religionist (yes, every country has 'em), the majority of Indonesians accept multiculturalism as a reality of life, and are a very accommodating and tolerant lot. If it weren't for the endemic corruption, Indonesia would probably be way ahead of Malaysia economically.

There are many things that Indonesia shares with Malaysia, culturally and historically. Take the ancient monuments of Borobudur and Prambanan, for example. Both these ancient sites obviously underline the long historical ties the entire region has had with the Indian sub-continent. While in Malaysia, history seems wont to be re-written to irradicate that entire epoch, the same cannot be said about Indonesia. It's historical heritage is something most Indonesias are very proud of - particularly those from Java, the center of the Majapahit and Mataram empires of old.

Speaking of heritage, one other thing that Malaysia and Indonesia shares - elements of Hinduism in our cultures. Specifically, when it comes to performance art. Even more specifically, Walski is referring here to Ramayana - that ancient Hindu love epic, an important theme to the traditional dance performance art that both countries share.

And a performance of Ramayana is a definite on any tour itinerary to Yogya. Walski's trip was no exception.

Image hosting by PhotobucketRama, Sita and Lakshmana - three of the main characters in the epic classic Ramayana

The performance capped day two of Walski and the Mrs' visit to this city, after a day's worth of Borobudur and art hunting. And it is at this point that Walski should introduce you to one of the more interesting - and kick-butt - characters in the Ramayana story...

Enter Hanuman, the mystical monkey deity figure.

Image hosting by PhotobucketIf you are familiar with the Ramayana storyline, you'll know that Hanuman was one of Rama's helpers in the quest to regain Sita from the clutches of the demonic Ravana. What was performed was, of course, an abridged version of the original epic, which spans several books. And which, if performed faithfully, would have made an otherwise wonderful evening of Gamelan an arduous fidgety snooze-fest.

But that was definitely not the case with the performance that Walski saw. The almost two hour performance breezed by, almost. Thanks to the grace of the dance troupe, peppered with some light moments involving Hanuman's side-kicks, a group of young performers playing the role of the deity's monkey soldiers.

Hanuman, for some reason, stuck in Walski's mind. And is partly responsible for why you're reading this blog post.

Perhaps it was because this character was the most mischievious of the good guys. Or maybe it was simply because Hanuman simply kicked butt. Demon butt, no less.

Like in this one scene, where Hanuman faces the horde of demons that worked for Ravana, kidnapper of Sita. Part of this sequence was one of the more acrobatic movements in the ballet performance, and came towards the end, during the battle to regain Sita. 

Image hosting by PhotobucketHanuman overcoming Ravana's demon army - singlehandedly

Walski thinks that Rama and Lakshmana had it easy - they had bows and arrows. Hanuman, on the other hand, had to do the physical fighting bits. And that acrobatic part in the picture above was something quite spectacular (hint: count the number of feet touching the stage vs. the number of performers).

The ballet performance ends with Sita passing the test of holy fire, which is not the end of the original Ramayana epic. In the original epic, Sita later falls out of favor with Rama, and is exiled for a second time. But that makes for a non-happy ending, and so very rarely do you see the entire thing performed as per the original epic.

There is a reason why Walski keeps on mentioning Hanuman in this post. Well, Walski had this apparition, upon his return to Kuala Lumpur. It happened, in fact, a few nights ago, after a very long day at work.

Hanuman appeared in Walski's dream that night, as fierce and rambunctions as Walski remembered him in the ballet. But instead of Ravana's demons, Hanuman's target this time was yours truly.

Walski was thoroughly bitch-slapped by the monkey deity. No butt-kicking, just bitch-slapping. Throughout the ordeal, all Hanuman did was grunt unintelligibly. Something about writing, or other. Clearly, the guy was pissed off with Walski. It was only right at the end that Hanuman spoke. Loudly and clearly.

Image hosting by PhotobucketStart blogging again... or else!

And then Walski woke up...

Okay, but so what if Hanuman didn't actually appear in Walski's dreams? Fortunately, Hanuman never reappeared anywhere, and presumably is still in Yogya somewhere, lurking around before his next performance. 

But wake up Walski did.

Walski announced his decision to quit blogging during a time of duress and weakness. And again, he apologizes for how it was done. But there's a lot left to be said, and not having an avenue to channel the thoughts in Walski's head, in the long run, would probably not be a very healthy thing. 

In truth, he needed a holiday from real life, and the trip to Yogya did provide that respite. And having reached Nirvana, and living to tell the tale, is a big deal, Walski supposes. Plus, since being back from the trip, Walski's managed to sort a lot of other things out. Enlightenment kinda helps put things into perspective.

So, yes, boys and girls, Walski's back. Finally.

And this time around, Walski's got Hanuman on his side...