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September 2007

With the death of leading historian Onghokham on 30th August, one of the important voices of Indonesian history has been silenced. Many of us knew Ong as much for his eccentricity as his work, and within the Indonesian history profession his contribution was often overlooked for those of the other greats of his generation, Sartono and Taufik Abdullah. Sartono's contribution to peasant history and his leadership of the Gadjah Mada school of historians made him important, but his health and age have meant that he has been less of a presence in the last decade. Taufik Abdullah remains the leader of the history profession in Indonesia, and the best commentator on national history.

However Ong's role, and this may be why he was not fully appreciated in his own country, was as the maverick voice, always standing slightly askew of the mainstream. He was the first—Indonesian or Western—to write real cultural history, with his incorporation of Javanese spiritualism, food history and the understanding of power in operation into his analysis of the lived nature of history in Indonesia. We await with great excitement David Reeve's biography of Ong.


Indonesia lost one of its national treasures at midnight on 4th September, with the death of Dr Anak Agung Made Djelantik. From the royal family of Karangasem, Dr Djelantik had an amazing life, to match his vast range of talents. Amongst other things, he had been head of Bali's main teaching hospital at Sanglah, and a leading figure in the promotion and study of Balinese culture.

When a group of academics led by the late Fritz de Boer, Hildred Geertz and Hedi Hinzler, started the Society for Balinese Studies in the early 1980s, it was Dr Djelantik who became the natural head of our Society. His publications on Balinese art include his 1986 short book on Balinese painting, still the only general account of Balinese art history, and important writing on Balinese aesthetics, only some of which have been published.

Dr Djelantik's autobiography, The Birthmark (sadly out of print), captures only some of the highlights of his life. Besides his immense contribution to Balinese culture, and to the practice of medicine in Indonesia, he deserves to be remembered as a man of extraordinary moral integrity. While others from privileged backgrounds have chosen to enrich themselves as members of the Jakarta elite, Dr Djelentik always lived very modestly in his cosy little house at Renon. As a student in the Netherlands during World War Two he had to dodge the Gestapo as he worked with other students in the Resistance. After the 1965 Coup in Indonesia, when the death squads came around to his hospital to remove patients, Dr Djelantik did what few others at the time had the courage to do, and refused the mass murderers entry, persuading them in his calm, humanitarian manner to leave. If anybody deserves to be declared a 'national hero', then surely Dr Djelantik fits the bill.


My trip to Indonesia wasn't just to escape the state-of-war-and-siege that had been declared in the centre of Sydney for APEC, but also to work on a couple of my other research projects. Nevertheless, I had time to do a bit of disaster tourism, visiting the poisonous mud volcano that was created in Sidoarjo, just south of Surabaya airport.


I was running late for the Panji festival because my plane from Jakarta to Surabaya had been cancelled, as had all the planes to Surabaya that morning. I feared another airport disaster, but it turned out that they just decided to close down Surabaya airport, the busiest hub to Eastern Indonesia, because the President was visiting! And they wonder why Indonesia has problems with national productivity (while I was in Jakarta Kompas had a great expose on this kind of self-important overkill that preoccupies Indonesian public officials. One of their journalists got hold of the—illegal—price-lists that local police stations produce for those who want to hold motorcades. You too can stuff up the traffic, for a price).

Anyway, despite being 4 hours late, I couldn't resist stopping off on the road to Malang to see the Lapindo disaster. For those not familiar with this, just over a year ago employees of the company Lapindo were doing exploratory drilling when they set off a huge eruption of poisonous mud. There are various accounts of how this occurred. Mr Bakrie, one of the owners of Lapindo, but also a government minister, claims it is entirely natural, and he continues in his post. Others more expert claim that it is because the drillers did not follow procedures—basically they cut corners to save time and money by not using proper casings on the drills. Whatever the cause, the mud continues to flood out. It has destroyed a major highway, ruined factories and other forms of livelihood, and most importantly wiped out the houses of between 12,000 and 13,000 people. The mud is still hot, and the sulphurous smell is horrendous. A number of people have already died in attempts to stop the flow (including the dropping of large concrete balls down the main source).


The victims of the disaster show sightseers around. For Rp20,000 you can get a bike ride up to the central lake, and other enterprising people have made DVDs of the event, including the related explosion of a Pertamina gasline in November 2006. The people in the area claim to have received small amounts of payment from Lapindo for six months, but so far have not received any real compensation, and are reliant on government handouts. Predictions are that the eruption is creating a huge vacuum under the mud lake, and that the whole area could collapse.


Last week the Panji festival was held successfully in East Java. Major activities took place at the PPLH environmental centre at Seloliman, and the tourism campus at Universitas Merdeka Malang. The latter was the site for the first conference on Panji narratives and Panji culture, and many thanks are owed both to Lydia Kieven for initiating the whole event, and to our hosts at UnMer, especially Gunawan Wibisono and all the other committee members, for their marvellous organisation.


My own paper was on the spread of Panji stories, from their origins in East Java in the pre-Majapahit period, to the various versions found as far away as Thailand and Burma. I included some great comparative illustrations from the C19th frescoes at Wat Samanat Wihan, in Bangkok, which has scenes from the Inao story that are very close to Balinese depictions of the Malat. There is a lot more to be done in this area, following on the lead set by Stuart Robson in his work on Javanese, Balinese, Malay and Thai Panji stories.

Lydia's paper was on her work on the depictions of 'cap figures', some of whom are clearly Panji, in East Javanese temple reliefs of the C12-C15th era. Lydia's new insights into the roles of these stories and the light they shed on the nature of ancient Javanese temples is exciting a lot of interest. Also speaking on East Javanese temples was Dr Josef Proyotomo, who is dramatically re-interpreting East Javanese temples as examples of elaborated indigenous menhirs, rather than imported Indian religious buildings.