These thoughts were written down in spring 2003 after talks with my friend the poet and philosopher Toeti Heraty Roosseno about the evolving shape of her private social and cultural enclave under construction in Bali and also after reading some recent publications about houses and gardens of Bali that she left with me on that memorable occasion.
With tourism a new culture of the garden has entered the island of Bali. For tourists hotels are designed and the pleasure gardens that go with them. Some of these hotel-designs take into account the nature and the culture of the landscape of Bali. Others ignore local traditions. But every new cultural form brings with it its own provenance and its own meaning and so may change the situation fundamentally. And from this arises the problem of the relationship between the old and the new gardens of Bali.
The ancient garden culture of Bali was not oriented towards pleasure. It did not cultivate a dreamworld of distraction and relaxation for tourism or even for Balinese leisure. Within the walls of the compound or the temple the garden of Bali was spare and holy. Spare because the garden was no more than the chequerboard on which the functions of life were moving about. Spare too because the space nearly completely excluded nature. Symbolically, nature was present in offerings of flowers and an occasional sacred plant or tree. But the continuously clean-swept courtyard in which the rites of daily life were performed, was not a piece of nature. It was dedicated to man and his gods. And in the village as a whole nature did not dominate, but was made sacred with the holy waringin, who rises above reality, as a centrepiece, on a par with the temple. And on the island as a whole the volcanoes dominated nature, as its temples culture. Not here in Bali the idyllic process of growth and blossoming. But the culminating presence of sleeping and sometimes erupting violence. The people of Bali lived in awe of the forces of nature and well knew the forces of the gods that sleep in the soul, the unconscious. These forces and gods constitute the realm of the sacred, which transcends daily experiences and demands sacrifices and offerings.
In this holy transcendent world the West enters. Not for the first time. Let us by all means admit that the West already begins somewhere west of the River Indus. The Indus forms the boundary where the tiger surrenders his kingdom to the lion. In Asia the lion is a western tradition spread by Persian and other Western conquest. From this west a steady stream of cultural tensions seems to have migrated towards Asia. The west carries with it thousands of years of internal conflicts. Islam is part of this western tradition.
Whatever one may write about it, the garden culture of the west is not oriented towards the sacred. The occidental garden is not dedicated to holiness. Its garden does not worship the powers that surpass mankind in importance or violence. The occidental garden is there for pleasure and for man. If one goes through and analyses the garden cultures of the west and reduces them to their essence, one will always arrive at a kernel of human happiness. The gardens of the Egyptians show the enjoyment of the rich bounty of nature; the Hellenic gardens are a backdrop for sport and conversation, are theatres for the cultivation of body and mind; the paradise gardens of the Persians and the Arabs were all oriented towards the enhancement of human delight, paradise on earth.
The coming of the Turkish conqueror Babur to India in 1525 forms a revealing moment in garden history. He was a great lover of gardens. His garden culture was Persian and therefore Western. It reveals the tension between the garden cultures of the West and the East. In India he encountered a vision of nature and a garden concept that were not pleasure oriented. For him India was an immensely rich country, but without charm or order. He started to improve India by giving it the pleasure of gardens. He ordered his followers to create gardens at Agra. He introduced symmetry, also in gardens. Everywhere the west enters, the human point of view becomes central, and with it symmetry, order. With the Moghul gardens nature becomes something not to worship but to enjoy. And in this enjoyment not holy nature but man becomes the centre, with his fixed places for contemplative enjoyment. The gardens of the Moghul changed India with artful water systems, with enclosures that expelled the chaos of nature. They created an illusion of a beneficial nature, which removes the harshness from life.
To me Balinese culture does not appear to be hedonistic. Whatever misunderstanding in this sense the hedonistic tourist may want to suggest. The culture of Bali is, or was, to a high degree a culture of the sublimation of desire, and of overcoming the great powers of destruction. There can be no doubt that Balinese culture is rich and colourful. But one only has to look at the depiction of sexuality to realize that this is not a culture of sensuality. Perhaps there exists in the world today no culture as creative and as close to the vital forces of life as Balinese culture. But it is not a culture of delight. At night, under the floating dream song of the gamelan, sounds the heartbeat of the existence of demons. Behind the charming play of the dancing girls appears the awesome face of an all devouring witch.
When he comes to Bali both the western and the non-western modern tourist is in search of pleasure. If he is looking for gardens, they have to be gardens of paradise. The tourist is not an explorer. The tourist comes to enjoy, not to change himself. He comes to enjoy, not to fear Balinese culture.
Of course there have been visitors to Bali that can be called explorers. The gaze of Walter Spies (1895 – 1942) was that of a traveller and explorer, not that of a tourist. The surrealist eye of Walter Spies was that of a cosmopolitan traveller, who searches for the essence of new experiences and continually learns from them. He is culture in movement. He did not live without taking risks, like a tourist looking for comfort. He absconded from his ship, lived without guaranteed income, was imprisoned and finally torpedoed and drowned, not unlike his nephew who had earlier been killed by a shark. This was not the world of guaranteed and risk-free pleasure, but that of the spiritual quest. Spies was looking for both the surreal and the naive. Naive is the man who lives intuitively with the self-evident naturalness of the animal. The surreal in Spies is the sacred dimension of this naturalness. Nature, plant, animal, man, god, this is all linked and interchangeable in the context of natural life. Walter Spies in Bali places naive man in the mystical panorama of nature. As a visitor and observer and explorer Spies sees the people of Bali, Balinese man, as part of nature. This reflection on Balinese culture may not be what the Balinese themselves would think. Spies is the traveller who looks through the surface of reality, as through the surface of water, and sees a higher nature, a symbolic nature, a surreality.
Walter Spies, and the Balinese painters that were inspired by him, created a new panoramic view of Bali, where plant, animal, man, demons and the abstract forces of nature join in a whole, one that is no longer purely narrative, telling stories, but mystic and contemplative.
Of course, as a Westerner, Spies was looking for pleasure too. But he seemed naturally to combine this hedonism with worship. He embraced the East and the West. Not only his paintings, but also the house and the garden that he created in Campuan near Ubud were new to the culture of Bali. It was an early cultural fusion between East and West. They point to a new spiritual synthesis between pleasure and holiness, between enjoyment and worship. His dwelling does not exhibit the sparse and sacred courtyard. Neither is nature only a demonic or volcanic presence. House and garden insert themselves in nature in a manner that is open towards it. Moreover they are specifically oriented towards the presence of water. It is neither the dwelling of sublimated fears nor a paradisal dream. It seems to be open to the landscape and at the same time to internalize it. In this landscape human bodies seem natural, culture is natural. The landscape becomes a mystical body, in which animals and plants take their places like human beings themselves. Monkeys formed part of his household as matter of course.
Was this synthesis of pleasure and holiness just a purely personal one, only possible through the personal genius of one man? Or is it possible to link it to a broader tradition in garden history? It is not wholly linked to the Western tradition of house and garden, with its penchant for placing man at the centre of the landscape. Man claims only a humble foothold in nature at Campuan. Neither does Spies’ un-egocentric view of nature lead to the Hindu cult of holy places, such as the waringin or a mountain peak. His views seem to me to be nearer another great tradition of oriental culture: the Chinese tradition. China is a hidden, little observed presence in Bali.
To avoid any misunderstanding: this Chinese tradition has all but disappeared in Mainland China Taoist garden culture has been destroyed by the Chinese themselves. Undoubtedly also helped by Western influences. But the cultural or moral responsibility lies squarely with modernising China itself. Yet in the past, as long as this tradition of shaping house and garden was a vital force, it seemed to deliver a wholly original and harmonious synthesis between sacrality and pleasure, between landscape and man. Like the paintings of the Sung period the garden culture of Tao sees the garden as a symbolic reflection of the landscape and the essence of nature. In these gardens and paintings the potential conflict between the sacred and pleasure, between transcendence and everyday life, between nature and culture is resolved in some form of harmony. This harmonious existence of plants and animals and human beings in the compass of a landscape, within the grandeur and intimacy of mountains and valleys, does not exclude de demonic forces of nature. It rather seems to be an answer to this demonism. By the energy of waterfall and river the dragon of chaos winds its way through the panorama. This vision of nature can no longer be categorised in terms of pure holiness or pure joy. It establishes a garden culture sui generis.
Translated to Bali this orientation towards the stream as a link between mountain and sea seems essential for the creation of truly new gardens, which insert themselves naturally into the landscape.
The architect that builds a house or a hotel in Bali will hardly be conscious of the cultural-historical implications of his work when he creates a garden. And the garden architect, even if he is a professional, will usually see the traditional forms of gardens in Bali as a purely contemporary given. He will not see them as messengers from the past about ancient answers to questions about the relationship between man and nature.
Moreover, the cultural history of the garden is in many respects still in its infancy. It is true that advances have been made in the knowledge of cultural forms during the last century. But the interpretation of these forms has been bedevilled by casuistic or nationalistic attitudes. Many times the starting point seems to be to declare the local given unique, which robs it of wider significance In fact in most cases only the local mixture of elements seems to be unique, the elements of meaningful form having be taken from elsewhere. It is only to be expected that also at Bali we will encounter elements far from their origins in Asia and Polynesia. Yet they are part of a wider tradition. Consider, for example, the construction of the house as a pavilion, with its three levels of podium, pillars and roof. These elements lead to specific types of walkways, non-supporting walls and eaves, that distinguish themselves immediately from western forms. The western dwelling is not a pavilion, but a labyrinth, enclosed by walls and ceilings, a kind of fortress turned in upon itself. Nowhere is the contrast between this occidental type of house more visible than in the opposition between the Arabic articulation of the western form and the Polynesian articulation of the Asiatic tradition. Will the garden be in the hotel or the hotel be in a garden? In the Balinese hotel one discerns a silent battle between the pavilion and the fortress. And as to gardens themselves: will the hotel garden insert itself as a part of the agricultural and natural landscape or will it impose its own interior world on the surroundings? Every house and every garden is ultimately an expression of cultural values.
It will be interesting to follow and judge the future gardens of Bali with these fundamental questions in mind. Will the architects content themselves with a superficial mixture of cultural forms and botanical material from all over the world? Or will they look for a more meaningful and profound synthesis? Will they follow the experiments of Walter Spies and others with new solutions? Will the planned gardens of Begawan Giri near the spring of Toya Mampeh bring a happy synthesis of European, Balinese and Chinese traditions? Every garden contains within itself the possibility of becoming a kind of philosophy about nature and man and can evolve into a meditation about the concept of harmony. The garden may yet make us believe that the demons and gods are satisfied with our offerings, and that the witch Rangda has lost her sharpest teeth.
Adriaan van der Staay
Casa Giano, Bettona, Italia