Pemecutan: Palace of the Whip
The sacred and bloody history of Pemecutan Palace.
This seldom-visited Pemecutan Palace lies in the very thick of the old city on the corner of Jalan Thamrin and Jalan Hasanuddin. This is the granddaddy of hundreds of other smaller pemecutan palaces across the island. There are over 35 vassal princes (moncol) in the Denpasar area alone, all royal custodians of numerous important temples.
I had always wanted to meet the celebrated raja, so on a recent trip into the city I noticed that the palace gates were open, so I impulsively drove into the spacious parking lot. The palace complex is divided into two main compounds: the pemerajan (place of worship) to the north and the family's living quarters to the south. An aging fleet of jeeps and land rovers crouched like napping tigers in the noontime heat under the shade of two long carports.
A majestic four-tiered kulkul bell tower with its hollow wooden drum and eight small raksasa statues stood on the south side of the parking area. Chinese porcelain plates decorated the topmost tier. Leaning against the tower were two giant campaign posters picturing the raja's aristocratic wife Anak Agung Ayu Suryaningsih who is running for a seat in the regional legislature (Bali DPRD).
Symbolizing the holy Mount Meru of Hindu mythology, the imposing Kori Agung split-gates, brightened with several banten flower offerings, towered just meters from the fumes and cacophony of the capital's midday traffic. But when we climbed the steps and walked into the palace we left the profane environs of the city and emerged into the sacred space of the puri.
In this inner courtyard of open pavilions, caged roosters and cool sleeping quarters, groups of families, children and men in black t-shirts lounged and milled about. I asked one of the men if I may introduce myself to the king. While waiting, I took photographs from a low wooden fence, which surrounded a grand pavilion (bale) directly to the front.
Every now and then I glanced over to where the king was holding audience to see if one of the seats had opened up. Crowned in 1986, the present Ida Cokorda Pemecutan XI is known for his generosity, his gregarious offbeat nature, his healthy appreciation of the opposite sex and for tooling a formidable black military-style Land Cruiser around town. Still highly revered, his influence stemming from his position and wealth as a top-ranking liege lord, the Cokorda was receiving subjects, politicians, businessmen, well-wishers and people owed or collecting favors, all waiting their turn to supplicate or give thanks to this powerful man.
A Turbulent History
The history of this royal house is inseparable from the history of Badung, the old name for Denpasar. Pemecutan was one of Bali's most influential royal houses during the feudal era. The palace traces its ancestral origins to Arya Damar, a young warrior priest of the Majapahit kingdom of East Java who joined the military expedition to conquer Bali in the 14th century.
The rebuilding of the present-day Pemecutan palace was commenced in 1907 (completed in 1934) from what remained of a much larger original palace destroyed by Dutch artillery 1906, a pivotal event in modern Balinese history when all of the city's royal houses lost their political and military power, setting the stage for the conquest of all of southern Bali.
On September 15th, 1906, the Dutch anchored a large war fleet off Sanur and landed an expeditionary force of 2,000 men. At dawn the next day, the small army started their advance on Denpasar. Hopelessly outgunned but unwilling to face the humiliation of surrender, the raja of Denpasar and all his relatives formed a fantastic procession in the face of Dutch rifles. Startled by a stray shot, the soldiers fired volley after volley into the crowd, resulting in the annihilation of the entire royal family.
On September 20th, the army faced another puputan led by the raja of Pemecutan, Cokorda Ngurah Agung Pemecutan IIX. Despite his frail physique, the elderly king asked his nobles, ministers, courtiers, retainers dressed in their most splendid ceremonial white attire to carry him on a gilded open sedan chair out of the palace and straight into the Dutch line of fire for a 'fight to the end.' Holding a kris in his right hand and whip in his left, legend has it that the old man took eight bullets before he succumbed.
A statue honoring the heroic whip-cracking raja, the grandfather of the present raja Cokorda Pemecutan XI, sits high on a brick pedestal in the middle of the busy intersection just to the south side of the palace. Though the puri was destroyed and nearly all of the raja's immediate relatives-men, women, and children-perished in the battle, two surviving sons, AA Gde Lanang and Cokorda Ngurah Gede Pemecutan X, were to continue the royal lineage.
Despite military defeat and the end of feudal rule, I Gusti Ngurah Gde Pemecutan was very active in nationalist circles in the 1930s. From 1939 to 1955, he served as a penglingsir, traditional head of the royal family. Though ostensibly collaborating with the Dutch occupiers, I Gusti Ngurah Rai-the foremost Balinese republican leader-urged the puri's patriarch to help the resistance 'from within.' In 1955, after independence was achieved, the raja founded Sanglah Hospital and in 1965 he became Badung's first bupati (regent).
The current leader of the Pemecutan royal residence, Ida Cokorda Pemecutan XI, a former speaker of the Bali Legislative Council and head of the local chapter of the Golkar Party, still wields considerable clout within Bali's elite political establishment and owns uber-valuable property near the palace.
The royal house's coat of arms features a sacred whip, one of the martyred king's favorite accouterments of power. Pemecutan comes from the root verb memecut (to whip, lash, urge on, instigate). Its origins date back to when a sacred whip was given by the Pura Batur community to one of the ancestors of the Pemecutan dynasty centuries ago. Even to the present day, all males in this very big family have the right to have a whip tattooed on their chests.
A Pioneer of Palace Tourism
Pemecutan was the first of Denpasar's royal houses to open its doors to visitors. In 1969, in order to cash in on the lucrative tourist trade, the puri began staging cultural and musical shows, giving foreigners the opportunity to appreciate the architectural beauty of the buildings, as well as the daily life of the royal family. Old guidebooks recommended the Pemecutan Palace Hotel within the royal precincts as a place to stay "for backpackers and travelers."
The hotel is now closed but the genteel atmosphere remains. The most striking features of the lavish open pavilion directly to the front, now used only for important meetings, exhibitions and receptions, are the gold-lacquered ceiling, gilded wooden pillars and displays of old weapons, moth-eaten stuffed tigers, antique vases, large black & white photographs of dignified royal personages past and present.
But the piece de resistance is an exceptional xylophonic orchestra, which survived the colonial army's attack on the original puri in 1906 because it was submerged underwater in the palace's reflecting pool. Known affectionately as gamelan mas (Golden Gong), this extravagant gamelan was made in the instrument maker's village of Tihingan over 100 years ago and is revered for its age, its beautifully carved cases and its sound characteristics.
CPXI considers the orchestra a symbol of his royal status, a living component of a modern 21st century Balinese royal palace. It is played only on occasion of the once yearly Purnama Kesepuluh festival, which took place this year on April 14th. For more than 30 years, this historic ensemble was on display in the Bali Museum. As the story goes, after Bali gained its sovereignty in 1948, members of the royal family 'borrowed' the gamelan from the museum on the occasion of a special odalan ceremony. According to the royals, the gamelan was not borrowed but only 'came home' (mudol) to its proper place within the palace.
This puri is credited with starting the fashion of wearing black clothing at funerary rites. Inspired by a televised grand cremation put on by the palace in 1985, Balinese viewers were struck by the powerful visual effect of hundreds of attendees dressed in black kebaya and black shirts. By the mid-1990s, the chic fashion had been adopted all over the island and had even become de rigueur everyday dress of male retainers.
One of the black shirts asked that I take an empty chair. After three nattily dressed men departed, I presented myself. The Cokorda and I talked of history, traditions and mutual friends. May I take photos of some of the heirlooms? Sorry, he replied, all are sacred and kept safely in storage. Do you actually use all those vehicles in the outer courtyard? He regaled me with a story of an overland expedition to Sumatra in his younger days.
The Cokorda invited me to have a meal with him. We carried on the conversation, but the constant stream of visitors pressed him for time. Exchanging business cards and taking my leave, I thanked a black-shirted man named Wayan for making a place for me in line. As we shook hands, he advised me that if I ever got into trouble I must show the raja's black business card. "Just say you know the Cokorda," he said.
Puri Pemecutan, Jl. Thamrin 2, Denpasar, tel. 0361-423-491. If coming from the south on Jalan Imam Bonjol, go past the Tegal Terminal on the right, then be prepared to make an immediate right hand turn just after the next big intersection. The palace, diagonally opposite Hotel Intan Sari, is behind tall gilded iron gates right at the start of Jalan Thamrin.