Ubud, Princely Practice

Ubud, Princely Practice

An estimated fifteen thousand people flocked to Ubud on July 15th to witness the cremation ceremony of three members of the Ubud royal family and 68 members of the community. This majestic ‘Palebon’ ceremony required almost three months of preparation. Among the royals to be cremated was Tjokorda Gde Agung Suyasa, former head of the Ubud royal family and Ubud’s ‘Bendesa’-chief advisor on matters of tradition, religion and Balinese culture—for more than three decades. The much loved and respected prince was the grandson of the last King of Ubud, Tjokorda Gede Sukawati, who reigned from 1880 until 1917. BY RACHEL GREAVES

Now that Tjokorda Gde Agung Suyasa’s soul has been liberated, does this mean there will be some changes in the royal household? Who better to answer this question than Tjokorda Raka Kerthyasa, who oversaw the cremation in his role as guardian of this ancient yet symbolic royal family.

Exotiq: What does the title ‘Tjokorda’ mean?

Tjok Raka: It comes from the warrior caste, the second caste; our ancestors were the rulers of the Kingdom of Bali in the 16th century.

Exotiq: Does that mean you’re a prince?

Tjok Raka: Yes, we are all princes now in the royal family.

Exotiq: And the cremation was that of your brother?

Tjok Raka: My half brother.

Exotiq: So why is there no longer a king?

Tjok Raka: Because at the Declaration of Independence, we agreed to be under one umbrella within the Republic of Indonesia. We no longer have legal power, but the palace is still there.

Exotiq: So what was your brother’s role?

Tjok Raka: He was respected for his wisdom, his knowledge, his profession and his compassion, and was therefore trusted to lead our family and many of the villages. Our family’s ancestors were rulers, so the community already had an emotional attachment to the palace and still chose to continue the tradition. Because of this, people would sometimes refer to my brother informally as ‘king’. But who’s going to be ‘king’ now?

Exotiq: Well, that was my next question.

Tjok Raka: (laughing), well, that’s also my question. You see it’s just symbolic; we don’t govern or have a system of power now that we’re part of the Republic.

Exotiq: Surely as a family you have a certain amount of power in Ubud, in the way that Ubud is managed and run?

Tjok Raka: Well, any power that we have is gained through the respect of the people, but we don’t have the right to tell people what to do.

Exotiq: Correct me if I am wrong, but I was told that it was your family that has stopped McDonalds and other fast food chains from coming to Ubud?

Tjok Raka: Yes, that’s because people trust us to come up with the right ideas, and then to take those ideas to the government with the support of the community. If we want to protect or preserve our cultural image, we have to minimise the issues that may destroy that image. So for certain concerns, the heads of the villages will still come to my family and to me for advice.

Exotiq: What is your job?

Tjok Raka: That’s a very hard question to answer. You know, I don’t have a profession but I am a member of parliament in Gianyar for the Golkar party. I am also president of the Bali Heritage Trust, so I have some knowledge and experience in that field. Additionally, we have the Ibah Hotel, and we also have a foundation—Suta Dharma School, which is very popular in Ubud. I am a consultant for the villages in terms of social conflicts and any problems among the community, together with issues such as building a temple or fixing a
barong, that kind of thing. This is what my father and my grandfather did and I have to continue the obligation.

Exotiq: How do you feel about property development in Bali?

Tjok Raka: We have to look at it from all perspectives because sometimes it creates a conflict of interest. Economically, it helps the Balinese, but it has a huge impact environmentally, socially, politically and in terms of infrastructure. The volume of people in cars and on the roads is affecting the daily activities of the people of Bali, and
there is also an impact on the farmers and the subak (water irrigation) system when so many of the rice fields are being transformed into a concrete jungle. The government is still struggling to find the right answer, and soon there has to be a decision about the areas where the development has to be stopped and where it can continue, and about what can be innovated and what has to be preserved, because we don’t have a land factory.

Exotiq: But there is less development here in Ubud than further south?

Tjok Raka: It’s slower here because of the contours of the land; it’s hard to find big flat land in Ubud, which is fortunate. We have great people with great ideas but action is also needed. It has to be a winwin solution and that can only happen with cooperation and mutual respect.

Exotiq: Were you the first in your family to marry a foreigner?

Tjok Raka: No, my uncle, Tjokorda Raka Sukawati, married a lady from Paris. He was the first president of East Indonesia, under the Dutch, for one year in 1949. Then another of my uncles married a Dutch lady, and now many of my nephews are married to Japanese and Australians. It’s not always easy to cross the cultures but at the same time I have learned so much universally by marrying outside of my culture.

Exotiq: How do you feel about so many foreigners coming to Bali and moving in on your island?

Tjok Raka: Our philosophy is to welcome our guests, and it has been this way for many centuries in Bali. This is our etiquette.

Exotiq: Tjok Raka, thank you for your time.

Tjok Raka: My pleasure.

Images by Neal Hornaffer

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