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Balinese Gardens





The palm silhouettes at dawn and dusk, the scent of coconut oil in the hair of the people (and the smell of coconut milk in the cooking); the cloud-shrouded volcanos (invisible but active, at least in the imagination¡­); and everywhere the greenery, profuse, not quite hiding the carved stone of the entrance portals, temples and family shrines¡­


In the Balinese courtyard garden the sacred level is immediately manifest, and constitutive, not only apprehendable, understood, nor simply felt, as our emotions respond to a particular configuration of space - but manifested in artifacts. And not present in the arrangement of Nature (China) or the imposition of form (Italy/Renaissance). Indeed these latter two cultural forms of expression, as well as thought and feeling, are of and for the ¡®cultured¡¯ elites of these societies - as they were constituted in the past¡­ By contrast the Balinese courtyard garden is a part of a surviving traditional mass culture (we would today say ¡®popular culture¡¯) that is also directly spiritual, that is directly linked to traditional religion her including ancestor worship, and abetted, to be sure, by the means of nature worship - of a hot, wet climate culture where things grow at the slightest bidding¡­ (or indeed without it¡­).


(Nature. Indeed, the signs of traditional religion in gardens of Christian or Islamic cultures and of Chinese gardens, if present at all, are present in different ways¡­ The access to the sacred is indirect. Inferred (culturally). Indeed this ability to ¡®infer¡¯, is the mark of ¡®culture¡¯ in the normative sense (of an ¡®art¡¯ culture). Inferred almost entirely by way of Nature in one, Daoism (the Chinese Garden) the copy of nature, that is better than the original; and by way of statuary in the other (plus overall order in Nature, both culturally inflected, imposed, inserted, the sense of the ¡®classical¡¯). At least till the Romantics (but note Bomarzzo) when a Daoist like Nature-first philosophy takes over¡­ and we are (back) to imitating the ¡®chaos¡¯ in Nature, tamed versions of the Sublime. In fact there is very little of the Christian sacred as such in western gardens¡­ the sacred effects are presented by form or Nature re-formed).


The Balinese courtyard garden. Each household a garden and a memorial site, a site of ancestral stones¡­ the amalgam of religion and ancestor worship, in the uniting of gods from the Hindu pantheon - so plural... ¡®Plural¡¯ as in classical societies, with a choice of deities, inflected by local influence. ¡®Pluralism¡¯ as natural; not backward as some thought, with respect to (Western and Middle-eastern) mono-theism¡­ Indian and Chinese feudalism, whilst certainly coding these religions to suit stability and even stagnation, did not require a limitation on the number of forms of the deities¡­ (despite attempts to make Buddhism a state religion in China¡­). So each pillar or standing temple altar, is for an ancestor ¨C ¡®kept in¡¯ or symbolically occupying a median space. And for the gods¡¯ prime position (placed above as in the western architectural tradition; note the double arch, double pediment¡­ even in Palladio) a prominent, clearly visible space for the reception of gifts, sacrificial offerings¡­


The ancestral shrine is usually found, or supposed to be, on the most sacred side or corner at the North-east (kaja-kangin). So the grandparent¡¯s pavilion, second on the sacred hierarchy, is found in the North (the direction of the key Mountain, Mt Agung) ¨C following the clockwise circle of increasing value: anti-clockwise of decreasing value ¨C leaving least important structures and functions in the South.


The directionality of Kaja-kangin is also used in construction of individual pavillions. The first standing post of pavilion is always the one at the kaja-kangin (North-eastern) corner. An ¡®offering platform¡¯ is attached near the top end of this ¡®kaja-kangin shaft¡¯. Then the rest of the posts are erected following a clockwise direction. This clockwise pattern is repeated throughout Indonesia (so in tune with ¡®object right¡¯ ¨C we go around the sacred object clockwise, as in Western and Eastern cultures, but not in Middle eastern or ancient ones ¨C regardless of narrative directionality (the global-ised norm is left to right; the East once practiced, right to left; Balinese traditional art follows the Indo-European left to right model ¨C in the past a minority tendency in the global image and script direction order of things)).


These are the classic or ideal positions regarding structures; but site and roads determine actual practice¡­


According to the Asta Kosala Kosali (a combination of local ¡®fengshui¡¯ and building manual), the universe is divided into three strata: the buhr (the underworld, realm of demons), the buwah (the realm of mortals), and the swah (heaven, realm of the gods). This religious division reflects and in turn used as a classification in the geography of Bali (as in the layers of architecture): the central mountainous area (again, especially Mt. Agung) is read as the abode of the gods, while the sea is associated with malevolent spirits; the in between coastal plains and foothills represent the human realm. The building of settlements on ridges with rubbish cast into gullies may also reflect this symbolic geography.


Form of courtyard: often from ¡®front¡¯ on roadway or path, and behind, the fields, or a river; often as a ravine, in Bali¡¯s lava-based geology, where water wears away gullies and micro-valleys, so producing steep ridges and plateaus. At the point of entry we are met with presiding and protecting deities, also accommodation for guests and storage, all at either end of the courtyard site, which may lead to a river or farmland or ¡®farmed¡¯ forest. Usually the centre (or sometimes a prominent position seen or accessible from the side roads ¨C a product of shared shrines across communities of extended families) is reserved as a site for the altars of the ancestors, which site is generally partially walled. Near this ¡®centre¡¯ there is also a place for ceremonies and rituals (weddings, etc.). Near these in turn is found a pool and fountains, with plants in the earth and in pots dotted all around, with trees for shelter and shadow and fruit. Also found are open ¡®dwellings¡¯ with the top room again reserved for the gods (usually opposite the enclosure with the mini-tower, altars or shrines); the middle for humans, sitting, chatting, preparing food, doing what has to be done - and reserving the bottom for the devils, demons and other underworld entities. Dwellings are arranged according to generation, divided into the older generation, the grandparents, the main married couple, and their smaller children, then accommodation for older children, boys and girls (division by gender, ¡®rooms¡¯ are effectively ¡®houses¡¯). Patrilocal: the girls leaving to marry outside the family home, and the boys bringing their brides to live in and raise the children (the ¡®three generations¡¯). Logically, according to the logic of sacred seniority, the grandparents¡¯ home is nearest the central, ancestral altars, pool, celebration hall complex with the others, including space for the preparation of foodstuffs and other domestic necessities further away (a hierarchy from immortals, ancestors, older mortals and younger generations, as well as a hierarchy of domestic practices, incarnate ¨Cas in other cultures- in stone and the arrangement of space).


Mini altars and offering-sites apart from those in the entrances and central shrine, pepper the compound, as do the plants and birds in cages that, together with the insect life and frogs and toads, provide a soundscape (most especially as night) to go with the scent of the ever-flowering plants (we are tropical) and the single (occasionally two) story buildings all with a traditional, peaked-roof appearance (regardless of material, now tiled, once made from the straw of the palm leaf, or bamboo) and a plenitude of growing things of all sizes¡­ To all intents and purposes a geo-cultural fusion of nature worship and ancestor worship - with the gods of the dominant religion (Hinduism) presiding¡­


Ceremonial arches and gateways provide, or guard, the entry to the compound (and a narrower entry admits those paying their respects to the ancestral area; narrow¡­ psychology, to wait is to settle the mind¡­). Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god or other deities may have a spot for offerings near main entry functioning as protection for the place and inhabitants (note the role, here, as in other cultures, of the subjunctive as ¡®voicing¡¯ the expected function of the protective shrine; what it should¡­, what we would like it to do - are all shrines ¡®functionally subjunctive¡¯¡­ wishes in stone?). Often an inner wall just after the entrance gate (as in Chinese courtyard structures), provides more privacy; an internal barrier (extra wall or bend) is also found before the central or interior of the courtyard is arrived at. The rest of the inner space is in the form of an extended garden shaded by trees, with a pool or pools dotted amongst the various habitations, housing human and inhuman, moral and immortal; the living and the dead¡­ the generations and the genders.


This space, the Balinese garden space, as in certain Chinese gardens, at least historically, is also domestic space¡­ ¡®garden¡¯ and ¡®dwellings¡¯ are intermixed; we live within, alongside, amid, a contiguous and continuous garden of Eden. Different to the European model when, after the Renaissance, with the heritage of intimate medieval herb and rose gardens, the pleasure garden proper begins to develop, no longer domestic; similar to parks and gardens as a part of open park space, and hunting parks in China - similar aristocratic and horse-based cultures producing similar space. Otherwise in the European model the proximity of garden space and dwellings are all about views, the layout about what we can see from our windows¡­ our balconies and the entrances as we leave or enter. Windows, perhaps, are less important in the Balinese space, as large openings anyway predominate, openings onto verandas and porches and balconies, maximizing shade and the passage of air¡­ the search for a cooling breeze as well as shelter from the warm, but often persistent rain¡­


Another similarity of the Balinese courtyard garden to Pre-romantic European space (and in contrast to the winding paths of Chinese space) is the grid pattern which obtains due to the shape of the architecture, all huts or rooms are square; leaving the logical shape for the spaces between, the pools, shrines also as square and so the paths, again obeying the logic of the more important spaces, are also straight¡­ (But in contrast the Chinese garden where square or oblong habitations are not framed by a square lattice of paths, instead, the challenge is to combine circles and squares, straight walls and winding pathways¡­ culture and ¡®nature¡¯).


The sense of heightened sacrality which is a feature of garden space in most cultures (in Chinese gardens, a natural sublime, of heaven on earth, plus identity, as cultural level) is present directly in the Bali Hindu garden habitation with statues of deities, replacing the statues of western (Italian gardens (mixed religious and classical/pagan, a sign of cultural level in the west). Replacing, or is it paralleling(¡­), the stones, the ¡®lithomorphs¡¯, that so haunt the Chinese, or Eastern garden imagination, and seem to ¡®stand in¡¯ for natural deities; a kind of statue, perhaps¡­ manifestations, or personifications of the sacred, of Nature, so a species of genius loci, graven spirit of the sense of space/place, of a ¡®found object¡¯ genius loci. Here in Bali, the domestic is the sacred, based upon the family¡­ religion and the family also co-accommodate as in other cultures (reinforcing hierarchies, sacralising roles and rights). Yet such are also a mark of individual culture in eastern society, in the Chinese garden; and so of possession - as also in the case of historic Italian gardens? As in the propagation of the aristocratic family name in Europe (Italy)¡­ or status as culture (even against the court¡­ so an elite, ¡®subculture¡¯) in Chinese literati mode¡­ and, of course, all different types of showing-off; possession as distinction. In Bali, the family and its extensions, including village or community democracy, are part of a parallel social governing structure, that extends up to the surviving royal family, existing in parallel to the official, elected government and its institutions¡­


Chinese and Italian Gardens¡­ more abstract; different uses, modalities on representing the sacred¡­ The Western model as more mixed, regarding religion and classical (cultural, educated, elite) references as plural or divided? An Italian garden is not, after all, a church, nor a temple: all Balinese gardens are temples to their ancestors¡­ So Hindu gardens may be understood as aesthetically and ¡®ideologically¡¯ (¡®theologically¡¯?) more united; containing more actual personifications of the gods - but not the ancestors (present in spirit only¡­). Chinese gardens are more indirect, carrying a symbolic sublime¡­ the ¡®faceless¡¯, even if anthropomorphic, stones instead of the  statues of mythical or allegorical personages. Nature worship, through tamed nature as form; form as from culture, culture as a form of ancestor worship (this later point equally true of Western forms).



(Bali) And so the link to the dead, the past is the unifying factor, the meta-frame, the meta narratives are all there, always there, to remind, ever-present in one¡¯s own garden, in one¡¯s own dwelling¡­ ever before one¡­ but not ¡®one¡¯, before ¡®us¡¯, unifying the collective (implied) participants; but once was it not ever thus¡­ modernity forgets (its why we had to have post modernity¡­?)


One¡¯s other, that makes one the same; the Same (as elsewhere) ¡­ defines the community of the same¡­



As well as the three levels posed by the Asta Kosala Kosali might one not also pose three levels to Balinese culture as experienced by the visitor: the traditional, as in courtyard garden and temple (and, of course, the food). The new, the marks of modernity, as in commercial, commodified relations and practices - part of the shift from agricultural/artisanal to a tourism-based economy¡­ And then there is Nature (¡®Nature¡¯ for the most part ¡®tamed¡¯), abundant throughout, unstoppable, fruit of a climate with no cold season¡­ no cold season, a climate of fruit¡­). Part of which are the ever-present dogs (who often seem the main beneficiaries of Balinese culture!). Offering sleep deprivation on a colossal scale ¨C but along with the heat (and insects and roaring frogs and toads), seemingly ignored by the local population, apparently long accustomed to these petty but persistent Macbeths of the Balinese nocturnal world.



This space, Balinese garden space, whilst private, is still the space of many, the living space of the Many: whereas in China, Korea or Japan, only that of the cultured Few (even if we take the many public gardens into account). In the West, garden space is separate from dwelling (they interface in patio, veranda and greenhouse ¨C often part of the constructed ¡®view¡¯), now become part of the world of design¡­ as (for home owners with the space) of popular culture¡­





(Quizzical Methodological Afterword. When dealing with the grounds of gardens, it becomes hard not to note the repeated trope; ¡®on this ground, of comparison¡­ on that ground¡­ .¡® A grounding that it turns out has little to do with the grounds themselves. For the comparison of ground is not the ground of comparison; this comparison is not in the ground, but in the culture (the pun leads to a clarification by means of metonymy); in the sacred and other elements, all reconfigured according to regional religio-cultural history and its felt forms of the chosen, approved, forms of the sacred¡­ So comparisons of nature, turn into comparisons of culture; but this trope in turn, is a comparison of cultures, as the location of sentiment, as the location of one kind of sentiment, call it sacrality, call it sublimity, one not located anywhere, only in our heads¡­ (one moreover surveyed as if from the outside, but still from a culture, indeed one the cultures in question, under comparison; synecdoche, as part pretends to whole, the view from outside, which exists not, not at this level of thought, so we are not above our subject matter, but below, in a hole¡­ (so to speak)). And whether we are dealing with the similarity in deference, or the difference in similarity (of sublimity) who can tell¡­  Indeed a further comparison may be made to the problems of comparative aesthetics (ie., Romantic, Modern and Post-modern) as a matter of different qualities of meditation, or effervescence¡­ (and now we have arrived at the point where we are dealing with the problems of comparison of comparisons¡­ (the comparison of comparisons of comparisons¡­). So no longer of slippages or metasets, but of self-reflexivity.


A bit like, whilst comparing the use of the image ¡®rose¡¯ in differing cultures, one forgot that that Modern and Medieval are not the same (so forgetting a remove) also forgetting that we are a part of one of the cultures in question (here European, Christian) and furthermore forgetting that we are the inheritors of that culture (not quite the same remove as the first step, nor entailing its negation). A bit like reading ¡®rose¡¯ in Pound; or Pound reading ¡®rose¡¯ (but what of Pound on ¡®stone¡¯ ¨C given its role in Eastern cultures, and these cultures, in turn, in Pound¡­ (¡®The Cantos¡¯)). Or the gardens equivalent¡­ the prior hermaneutic-deconstruction of the influence of B&Q, Ikea, the RHS and other Garden exhibitions or ¡®flower shows¡¯, a visit to Kew and (ah!) the Sunday supplements¡­ (oh! the problems of ¡®radical temporal embodiment¡¯).







Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2018