Negara: the theatre state in nineteenth-century Bali


(Clifford Geertz)


(Chapter 1)


Political Definition: The Sources of Order


The Myth of the Exemplary Center


In 1891 what was to be the last of the dozen or so kings of Mengwi, an inland Balinese palatinate some fifteen kilometers north of the present capital, Den Pasar (see map 1), found his capital besieged by his two most familiar enemies, Tabanan and Badung, allied at last against him. His army routed, his nobles all fled or fallen, and Badung troops headed by a small but, against defenders armed with only lances and daggers, terribly proficient company of mercenary Bugis riflemen waiting at the edge of town, he was an end-game chess-king left without pawns or pieces. Old, sick, unable to walk, he commanded his servants to carry him on the royal litter from the palace toward the invaders The Bugis gunners, who had been expecting such an appearance, shot his bearers and he rolled helplessly on the ground. The Badung troops (largely low-cast Sudras) moved to take him, but he refused capture and they were obliged, out of due respect, to kill him. The seven principal kingdoms of the south Bali heartland Tabanan. Badung, Gianyar, Klungkung, Karengasem, Bangli, and Mengwi were thus reduced to six.


But the victor's glory was only momentarily enjoyed. In 1906, the Dutch army appeared, for reasons of its own, at Sanur on the south coast and fought its way into Badung, where the king, his wives, his children, and his entourage marched into a splendid mass suicide into the direct fire of its guns. Within the week, the king and crown prince of Tabanan had been captured, but they managed to destroy themselves, the one by poison, the other by knife, at their first evening in Dutch custody. Two years later, in 1908, this strange ritual was repeated in the most illustrious state at all, Klungkung, the nominal "capital" of traditional Bali; the king and court again paraded, half entranced, half dazed with opium, out of the palace into the reluctant fire of the by now thoroughly bewildered Dutch troops. It was quite literally the death of the old order. It expired as it had lived: absorbed in a pageant.


(map 1 ) [of Bali]






The expressive nature of the Balinese state was apparent through the whole of its known history, for it was always pointed not towards tyranny, whose systematic concentration of power it was incompentent to effect, and not even very methodically toward government, which it pursued indifferently and hesitantly, but rather toward spectacle, toward ceremony, toward the public dramatization of the ruling obsessions of the Balinese culture: social inequality and social pride. It was a theatre state in which the kings and princes were the impresarios, the priests and the directors, and the peasants the supporting cast, stage crew, and audience. The stupendous cremations, tooth fillings, temple dedications, pilgrimages, and blood sacrifices, mobilizing hundreds and even thousands of people and great quantities of wealth, were not means to political ends: they were the ends themselves, they were what the state was for. Court ceremonialism was the driving force of court politics, and mass ritual was not a device to shore up the state; but rather the state, even in its final gasp, was a device for the enactment of mass ritual. Power served pomp, not pomp power.


Behind this, to us, strangely reversed relationship between the substance and the trappings of rule lies in a general conception of the nature and basis of sovereignity that, merely for simplicity, we may call the doctrine of the exemplary center. This is the theory that the court-and-capital is at once a microcosm of the supernatural order "an image of ... the universe at a smaller scale" and the material embodiment of the political order. It is not just the nucleus, the engine, or the pivot of state, it is the state. The equation of the seat of rule with the domination of rule, which the negara concept expresses, is more than a political metaphor; it is a statement of a controlling political idea namely, that by the mere act of providing a model, a paragon, a faultless image of civilized existence, the court shapes the world around it into at least into a rough approximation of its own excellence. The ritual life of the court, and in fact the life of the court generally, is thus paradigmatic, not merely reflective, of social order. What it is reflective of, the priests declare, is supernatural order, "the timeless Indian world of gods", upon which men should, in strict proportion to their status, seek to pattern their lives.


The crucial task of legitimation the reconciliation of this political metaphysic with the existing distribution at power in nineteenth-century Bali was effected by means of myth; characteristically enough, a colonizing myth. In 1143 the armies of the great east-Javanese kingdom of Majiapahit are supposed to have defeated, near Pjng, those of "the king of Bali," a supernatural monster with the head of a pig. In this surpassing event the Balinese see the source of virtually their entire civilization, even of themselves, as, with but a handful of exceptions, they regard themselves as descendants of the Javanese invaders, not the ur-Balinese defenders. Like the myth of The Founding Fathers in the United States, or of The Revolution in Russia, the myth of The Madjapahit Conquest became the origin tale by means of which actual relations of command and obedience were explained and justified: " 'In the beginning was Madjapahit', what lies before it is a chaos of demons and villians about which the Balinese know virtually nothing."


What comes after, however, he [Gaja Mada] knows only too precisely, if not always too systematically. Following the conquest, Gaja Mada, the famous prime minister of Madjapahit, asked for spiritual assistence from a Javanese Brahman priest in pacifiying his chaotic, because now rulerless, neighbour island Bali. This priest had four semi-divine children (his son had married an angel):

In 1352 this manufactured king, accompanied by an entourage of high Javanese nobles, set up his court and palace his negara at Samprangan, a few kilometers from where the Balinese rules with the pig's head had met his fate. With the aid of both his inborne charismatic force and of various sacred objects carried as heirlooms from Madjapahit, Kepakisan soon brought order out of anarchy. In 1380, the tale continues, dissension broke out within the ruling group when Kepakisan's heir proved to be insane (he married his sister to a horse) and had to be deposed in favor of a younger brother, who was only dissolute. The court was removed for spiritual reasons to Glgl immediately south of Klungkung, and what the Balinese consider to have been their greatest period inaugurated. Toward the turn of the seventeeeth century, a more serious rebellion is said to have dissolved the unity of the ruling class altogether, shattering the realm into fragments. The main court moved the mile or so to Klungkung, where history found it, and the other major courts of recent times Badung, Kerengasem, Tabanan, and so on spread out over the countryside, setting themselves up in substantial independence of it, but continuing nevertheless to formally acknowledge its spiritual superiority.


Whatever elements of historicity this legend may have (aside from a few rounded dates, schematic events, and stock personages, it probably has very few), it expresses, in the concrete images of a just-so story, the Balinese view of their political development. In Balinese eyes, the foundation of a Javanese court first at Samprangan and then at Glgl (where, as it is held, the palace was designed to mirror in exact detail the palace of that most exemplary of exemplary centers, the Madjapahit itself) created not just a center of power that had existed before but a standard of civilization. The Madjapahit conquest was (and is) considered the great watershed of Balinese history because it cut off the ancient Bali of animal barbarism from the renascent Bali of aesthetic elegance and liturgical splendor. The transfer of the capital was the transfer of a civilization: as, later, the dispersion of the capital was the dispersion of the civilization.


Despite the fact that they are both, in a sense, colonial myths, since they begin with settlement from more cultured foreign shores, the Balinese conception of their political development does not, like the American, present a picture of the forging of unity out of an original diversity, but the dissolution of an original unity into a growing diversity; not a relentless progress toward a good society, but a gradual fading from view of a classic model of perfection.





This fading is conceived to have taken place both over space and through time. During the Glgl period (ca. 14001700) the various rulers of the regions of Bali (Badung, Tlabanan, Blahbatuh, Karengasem, Bangli, Kapal, and so on), supposed descendants of one or another member of the entourage of nobles who accompanied the immigrant king, the direct descenant of Kepakisan himself. Bali was thus (in theory, but almost certainly not in fact) ruled from a single capital, whose internal organization was an expression not only in spatial, but also in ceremonial, stratificatory, and administrative terms, of the general structure of the realm. When the revolt, led by the Lord of Karengasem, occurred, the paramount king fled inland to what is now Bangli; the various lords (who, except for the lord of Karengasem, remained loyal) retreated to their several regions. After the revolt was crushed, the king (or rather his successor) returned, as noted, not to the spiritually discredited Glgl, but to a fresh start in Klungkung, the once adjacent lords remaining, however, in their bailiwicks. And, in time, the same process segmentation and spatial separation, coupled with continued formal deference to the parent line is considered to have taken place, not necessarily by violence, in each of these regions and subregions as well, yielding the scores of courts large, small, minuscule and infinitesimal which dot the historical landscape.


The final, that is nineteenth-century, result was an acrobat's pyramid of "kingdoms" of varying degrees of substantial autonomy and effective power. The main lords of Bali held the paramount lord upon their shoulders and stood in turn upon the shoulders of lords whose status derived from their own, as their's did from his, and so on down the line. The whole structure was based, however, primarily on ceremony and prestige, and it became, as we shall see, more fragile and tenuous in actual political dominance and subordination the higher up the pyramid one went; so the other simile that suggests itself is of an intricate house of cards, built up rank on rank to the most tremulous peak. The exemplary center among exemplary centers was still Klungkung, the direct heir of Samprangan and Glgl, and through them of Majapahit. But its orienting image of order was refracted through a series of lesser centers, modeled on it as it had been on Majapahit , an image dimming, naturally, as it diffused through this progressively coarser medium.


Not only did it dim as it spread "horizontally" over the landscape: but also, as a result of an intrinsic process of cultural corrosion we may call the sinking status pattern, as it spun "vertically" across the generations.


The sinking status pattern rests on the notion that mankind has descended from the gods, not only genealogically but also in having lower intrinsic worth. It has declined at differing rates in different lines, through various worldly events and social happenings, into mere humanity, producing thereby the present, extraordinarily complex system of prestige ranking. Because of its Indic trappings, this system is usually called a caste system, but in Bali it is more accurately referred to as a title or title-group system. It gives, at least in theory, an ascribed, unequivocal, and so far the individual is concerned, unchangeable status in an honorific hierarchy to everybody.



Political definition: the sources of order, in: Geertz, Clifford: Negara: the theatre state in nineteenth-century Bali, Princeton/N.J./USA 1980: Princeton University, pp. 11-16 (in part: The myth of the exemplary center).



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