Prince Agung Oka / Bali

“We do everything for the gods” - Visiting Prince Agung Oka of Bali

I make my way to the Puri Anyar palace in Kerambitan, Tabanan district. My nose is moulded flat against the window of the taxi. I am entranced by the unique natural beauty, the bright, lush, green rice terraces that - along with spectacular waterfalls, imposing volcanoes, sacred mountains and a remarkable culture with more than 20,000 temples – make Bali unforgettable. The green rice terraces are said to be the stairways of the Balinese gods. In 2012 they were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Puri Anyar palace in Kerambitan, founded in 1675 by Prinz Siraya Ngurah Made, is located approximately 7 km south-west of the town of Tabanan. At that time, Bali was divided into eight kingdoms. One of these was the kingdom of Tabanon in the west. Since 1675 the family of Prince Oka has lived in the Puri Anyar palace, now ten generations down the line. The palace covers an area of around 2000m² and is divided into eleven different areas. Ministers, ambassadors and prominent artists and actors such as David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Devi Sokarno, lwai Hanshiro, Rendra, Setiawan Jody and many others, have all been guests at the palace over time. Puri Anyar possesses many sacred objects such as golden chalices, swords, lances etc. which are kept in a special, holy place. Every seven months (according to the Balinese calendar) these objects are reverently cleaned as part of a grand purification ceremony. Prince Agung Oka greets me. He does not look his 85 years. In his opinion, this is due to the copious amounts of vegetables he eats on a daily basis. I would also add his joy of life. At any rate, we laugh a lot.

Prince Agung Oka was born in 1930, 15 minutes before his identical twin brother, Prince Rai. Just as so much of Bali is shrouded in a touch of mystery, so too were the circumstances surrounding his birth and that of his brother.

Prince Agung Oka: Nobody realised that my mother was expecting twins. During our birth we had to fight for our lives. A 'traditional' midwife and a 'Dukun' – a kind of medicine man and master of traditional Balinese healing arts as well as mysticism – supported my mother. As the Dukun began to meditate in preparation for our birth, a bamboo cane suddenly exploded on the roof of the palace. Everyone was shocked by the loud noise but the Dukun spoke with a loud, clear voice: "This is a very good omen for the birth, yet at the same time announces my imminent death”. And so it happened. We twins arrived safe and well in this world and the Dukun died a few weeks later.

How did you and your twin brother grow up?

Very normally, just like other Balinese. My brother and I learned Balinese Dancing which is a key aspect of many temple ceremonies. We both did a lot of sport, were very good footballers, tennis players and athletes and also won a number of large competitions.  We did a lot together - our high-school graduation, political science studies – and both belonged to the Balinese government until we officially retired from all public duties in 1993.

As part of the Balinese government you were responsible (amongst other things) for organising international state visits and official events. What did you actually do?

My main task was to ensure the security of international guests of the state such as Helmut Kohl, Ronald Reagan, King Hussein and Emperor Haile Selassie. When Reagan visited Bali, it was a big challenge for me to ensure his safety. I wanted to enable all guests of the state to receive a glimpse into the spiritual rituals that determine the lives of every Balinese, from birth, marriage and tooth-filing ceremonies to the ceremony of burning after death.

What do these ceremonies look like? What exactly is a tooth-filing ceremony?

The life of a Balinese is filled with numerous ceremonies and celebrations. Official ceremonies are carried out at the same time for all Balinese. Personal rituals depend on the individual in question. A Gamelan Orchestra is a core aspect of all ceremonies. The ensembles originally consist of metallophones with sound boards, gongs and drums. Personal ceremonies usually attract between 30 and 70 guests, depending on the size of the family.

The ceremonies are very expensive, which means that the Balinese must save for years to make them possible. In relation to what they earn, they have to invest a small fortune. So why are these ceremonies so important to the Balinese?

We do this gladly for the gods. Material values are not that important to us, as they are perhaps to other people in different countries. The gods and the family always have priority. Our daily lives are shaped by spirituality. Each house has its own temple. 

Which private and personal ceremonies occur within the life of a Balinese?

When a child is born, the first rituals begin shortly after the birth. At birth, the child is given a temporary name and only later during a grand ceremony does the child receive their ultimate name. There are then three 'Wuku' months (each 35 days in length) where the child remains in the arms of the mother without ever touching the ground. Most ceremonies, festivals and holidays are calculated according to the Pawukon (or Wuku) Calendar – a purely numerical calendar that comprises a cycle of 210 days. It still determines our passage of time today. In any case, only after these three 'Wuku' months (105 days) is a child allowed to touch the ground, which was previously strictly avoided. In a special and very important ceremony, the child is carefully placed on the ground and equipped with all the good wishes for a life on their own two feet. Only now does the child enter the earthly world, moving from the divine into the human sphere, becoming a full citizen with a real name.

And how do the rituals continue?

According to the Balinese calendar, a child's first birthday occurs on the 210th day after their birth. Then the hair is cut and the mother brings sacrificial gifts to the temple. More rituals follow the coming of the first milk tooth, the first permanent tooth, and so on. The tooth-filing is the next most meaningful ceremony after the ritual at three months, which awaits teenagers after the onset of puberty. It implies the completion of childhood and at the same time the bridge into adulthood and thus the ability to marry. With the act of filing, the person takes on full responsibility for their actions and thoughts before the gods, for the orientation of their lives and their service to the gods. A priest files the four upper incisors and the canine teeth, evenly. The intention is to banish the six vices of anger, lust, greed, lack of self-control, ignorance and envy. The tooth-filing ritual is painful. That is why these days the filing of the teeth is usually only hinted at and thus possesses a more symbolic quality. Marriage is the last ritual that the parents prepare for their children. The ceremonies and festivities last for three days. On the first day, the actual marriage takes place in front of the priest and is performed within the circle of the families near the house temple. The last important ceremony is the burning after death, in order to free the soul of the deceased. Such a ceremony is a very colourful, loud and happy affair. Since death ultimately frees the soul from the material shell, we do not need to grieve much. We experience grief, but for us, death is basically an event that belongs to the wheel of life.

Unlike in Europe, it used to be common for Balinese men to take on many wives. Prince Agung Oka, why are you only married to one woman?

My father had four wives, my grandfather twelve, my great-grandfather even forty. In this particular case I have not followed family tradition, which is otherwise sacred to me.  I want and always wanted to only have my wife because I love her so much. Already as a footballer my motto was: just concentrate on the ball, that is to say be clearly aligned and focussed. I don't believe it is good to dance at too many weddings. This also applies to love. I met my wife on Java. When I told my parents that I would marry a Javanese princess, they were anything but happy, because they wanted me to marry a Balinese princess. Java is Muslim and we Balinese are Hindu. No matter what my parents attempted (and that was a great deal) they could not change my mind. I was totally in love with this wonderful Javanese princess and wanted her and no other. My father would not agree to a wedding and refused any discussion on the matter. So I waited a few months before raising the subject with him again. He wanted to know which day my princess was born on. In Bali, horoscopes are consulted for weddings. The wedding ceremonies only take place on special, auspicious days for a wedding. Anyway, my father finally said yes. Then I flew with my whole family to Surabaya for a meeting with the Sultan of Java in order to bring my wife, his daughter, back to Bali with me. It was 1956 - I still remember it precisely - and we arrived at the airport at 6pm. At 7pm we were received in the village with a huge firework display. It was dark. At this time there was no electricity on Bali. When we got out of the car my wife was carried into the palace hidden behind her veil. Just as we wanted to kiss in our room, someone knocked urgently on my door: “Prince Oka, the whole village has gathered in the palace. They refuse to leave. They insist on a party and want to see the princess unveiled.” We married on the 15th of June 1956. In 1956 no inhabitants of Bali had seen other islanders because they had never left their island. So of course they were all curious to know what a Javanese princess looked like. So I threw a huge party, as it is in our tradition. In the mean time, my wife and I have three children (two sons and a daughter), seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren and we are still happy together.

You have said that you were raised like any other Balinese. And yet not every Balinese lived in a palace nor commanded so much respect as you.

Of course I have a special position with a particular responsibility. I am still responsible for the affairs of my territory and represent the interests of the people in government. This tradition - that the people come to me with all important questions and issues, just as they did with my ancestors - has existed for centuries. It makes no difference whether it is about spiritual things like temple rituals and affairs of the unseen world or global issues. I take time for the people. It is important for me to help them as much as possible and to take care of the religious rituals and ceremonies, Balinese culture and its' preservation. It is crucial for me that the wonderful, highly spiritual tradition - the spirit of Bali – does not die out. The spirit of the island primarily exists because all the people of the island perform rituals and ceremonies. My task is to pray and to carry out specific ceremonies to protect the village. Last year, a huge storm was predicted for Bali. There are many large trees in my area. We feared that a big storm would topple them and cause considerable damage. So I went to the temple and prayed, to God, to the ancestors and the forces of nature and presented sacrifices with the plea to protect my village from harm. After a few hours, the storm arrived. A huge, old lychee tree close to a house crashed down and nearly took the house with it. In Bali, the houses are more like huts and not nearly so robust as those in Europe. You can imagine what it would mean for such a tree to land on a house. In the last moment (thank God) the tree fell in a different direction. My task is to protect the village with the help of the priest. Unlike aristocrats elsewhere, the nobility of Bali do not only mingle amongst themselves. My best friend is a temple priest and teacher. In the past, a prince was always considered to be above the population. It is still a bit like that today. But for me, all people are equal, different but the same. 

Belief clearly has a very big role to play in the daily lives of the Balinese. I have never seen a country that is so heavily influenced by religious rites. I was surprised to see sacrificial gifts such as petals, rice and incense sticks lying all over the place, even on the street and in hotel complexes. The fact is that somewhere on Bali there is always some kind of ceremony taking place. I am aware that the Balinese embrace the Hindu faith, but what is it exactly that you believe?

We believe in Karma, in the fact that we will reap what we sow. I believe it is important to do good, to give your best, to be sincere and to be there for other people, to help them. It is important for me to encounter all people with respect and an open heart and to freely give without expecting anything. My life here at the palace continues to be aligned to traditional spiritual and religious customs, that is to say the religious rituals determine my life just like any other Balinese. These include daily sacrificial gifts, prayers and other rituals. Not only the visible but also the invisible world plays a very big role for us. Despite my openness towards the modern world, I take great pains to uphold the traditions of my family. Even the temple rituals are performed according to ancient traditions in our family temple, a holy place, the most important area of the palace. There are 23 shrines/pagodas in our family temple. We meet here to pray and perform ceremonies such as, for example, at full moon or new moon. I am responsible for maintaining these ancient ceremonies within the temples of my area and in the main temple at the foot of the volcano BatuKaru, as well as in many other temples. It is becoming increasingly important to preserve our roots, our spiritual and cultural wealth, as western culture becomes more and more widespread across Bali, due to the many tourists. I also uphold the tradition of having our own high priest for the palace. I ask him for advice in difficult matters and talk things over with him.

Do you hope to appease the gods and be protected by them by way of these many ceremonies?

I had three dramatic experiences where I was exceptionally lucky and received special protection. I became aware of how much our lives are directed by a force much greater than ourselves. I had the first experience in 1965, when my father died. As is our custom, he was preserved – mummified – at home for six months. During the preparations for his cremation, I had to travel to Jakarta with the Jakarta-Surabaya express train on urgent family business with my wife. At this time, the train stopped many times. As it got increasingly hotter in the compartment, I stepped out to take a look at the drinks on offer. A dramatic accident occurred. I had overlooked the fact that the train had stopped on a bridge. I fell more than 20 metres and landed on a large, rocky outcrop. I survived the fall. Only my arm was broken. A miracle that I was still alive. Another man had lost his life from the same fall a few weeks earlier. I had the same luck when I survived a serious car accident. Then once again in August 1975 when I took a boat from the island of Nusa Penida to Sanur. Our boat had a defective motor. We drifted there, which was not a problem in itself. But then we were caught by a huge wave and feared that we would be driven all the way to Australia. This stretch of water is very dangerous at night. From 5pm until 10 am the next morning (15 hours!) we were propelled by this unbelievable swell onto the open sea. I prayed the whole night long. And still, my time had not yet come. We arrived safely at Sanur. I was infinitely grateful. If that is not godly protection! I am certain that divine energy has saved my life many times. It influences all our lives and also accompanied me at the time when I met my wife.

In what way?

Not only my father had something against our wedding, but also a fervent worshipper of my wife. The suitor, like my wife, came from Java, and he told me that he loved her and that I should disappear. I replied to this big, strong man: “Continue to court her. Fate will show whom she will marry.” This angered him so much that he challenged me to a dual. That was in eastern Java. He was accompanied by four men, whereas I was alone. He continuously tried to draw me into a fight. He had a knife in his left hand. Instead of allowing him to provoke me to fight with him, I stretched out my hand to him. Suddenly he began to cry. I had moved his heart. Peace has always been more important to me than anything else. This is mirrored to this day in everything, in my entire life. My wife then chose me.

Although you have had to overcome many challenges in your life, you appear incredibly carefree. What is your secret?

My philosophy of life has always been: yesterday has passed, today is a new day. I have never allowed myself to be burdened by difficult experiences, always looking forward and continuing to make the best of everything. When we really internalise this, each day becomes a blank, unwritten page. Then we are able to begin it anew, unburdened and positive. Besides, I draw a lot of strength from my faith, from all the ceremonies and rituals and am a very grateful person.