A princess clad in bright silks and an elaborate gold headdress or a young Sydney professional, poised and tailored, sipping a cocktail in an up-market city bar? Maya Kerthyasa is both Balinese princess and Australian professional. Now 22 years old and a staff writer employed by the glossy Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine, she skims from restaurant opening to video shoot to interview to publicity event. She puts in long hours at her desk in Sydney’s CBD, or on the road, before heading over the bridge and home to her apartment in Sydney’s north, where she lives alone.
In her other life, she is Tjokorda Sri Maya Kerthyasa, a daughter of the royal house in Ubud, Bali; a young woman who dons ceremonial finery for large ceremonies, and who has been borne aloft in an elaborately decorated chair in cremation processions.
Her father, Tjokorda Raka Kerthyasa, descended from a long line of Balinese princes, married a young Australian woman in 1978 and took her to live in the palace in the Balinese town of Ubud. The young Australian, then named Jane Gillespie, was a pre-school teacher in those days and Bali was a remote and mystical island, rarely visited by Australians. Back then, only a handful of restaurants served western food in Bali and there were no direct flights to the island from Gillespie’s home in Sydney.
Maya has grown up in both worlds, educated both in Bali and in Sydney (where she went to boarding school and university). These days she makes her home in Sydney, where she leads the life of an independent professional woman with a demanding job and a busy social life.
“I’m based here permanently,” she says with a smile, looking around her at the classy Sydney city bar where she is enjoying a Negroni cocktail, a sophisticated mixture of gin, vermouth and bitters. “I go back to Bali twice a year, but it never quite feels like a holiday going back. I’ve got to go to all the temples that I haven’t been to all year and do all that side of things.”
Bali’s royal families uphold the Hindu traditions and rituals; they take part in the important ceremonies and they are aligned to Bali’s deep-seated spiritualism. For many Balinese, religious worship is a daily round: they leave tiny woven baskets on the sidewalks every morning to placate the bad spirits; they join long processions to the temples and worship stone gods swathed in fabric.
“It’s just a part of daily life. It’s as normal as having breakfast or having a shower,” Maya says, with a soft Australian accent. “It comes first in a lot of people’s days in Bali. It’s hard to understand, from a western perspective, but there’s always something going on. The Ubud royal family in particular has an obligation to the village and the area to be there for their ceremonies, their weddings and funerals.” She pauses and thinks back to earlier days, when she was just past childhood and life was beckoning.
“When I came back from boarding school, I was still quite young, and I found it all really hard to grasp. I didn’t want to spend all this time at the temple, and I was really against sitting around for hours, waiting for a priest to pray. But with time I understood that it’s part of life.”
Maya has been steeped in Bali’s religion and ritual since she was born, but if she marries outside the royal families or Bali’s highest castes, she will lose her title and lose her place in the royal network. Royal men, like her father and her two older brothers, aged 33 and 35, bring their wives into the family, even if the women are foreign-born, like Maya’s Australian-born mother. Yet if a royal woman marries outside, she loses it all.
Yet Maya doesn’t think she will be deterred from eventually marrying the man she loves. “It’s a tricky one,” she says, smiling. “For me, love is love. If you find someone that you love, who’s not from the same caste or a higher caste than you, that’s fine. For me it’s a more a loss of family. I wouldn’t be Tjokorda Sri Maya Kerthyasa any more. I would just be Maya. That doesn’t bother me, but it upsets me to think that I would upset other people through a decision like that.”
A Sydney single, after she and her boyfriend split up, she says that at 22 she’s certainly not ready for marriage anyway. Chuckling, she says has already been presented with a number of apparently eligible young men in Bali. “Many of whom are way too closely related to me,” she adds. “That’s how they did it back in the day. I think now the gene pool’s getting a little too small.”
Maya’s mother, once Jane Gillespie, was accorded the honorary title of Jero when she married Maya’s father. Now known as Jero Asri Kerthyasa, she owns and runs (with one of her two sons) the popular Biku restaurant in Bali.
Asri’s life has an obvious synchronicity with her daughter’s. She was a young professional woman in Sydney, who became a Bali royal. Her daughter is a Bali royal who is now a young Sydney professional. “Yes, it’s completed the circle,” Asri says, as she looks around at her bustling café-restaurant. In Bali’s upmarket district of Seminyak, Biku offers a range of Indonesian, Balinese and western food, including staples like scones and jam and finger sandwiches, or alternatively, Indonesian beef rendang.
Bali’s intense spiritualism means Asri has to deal with problems that Maya is unlikely to encounter in her professional life. That day Biku’s front-of-house manager had fallen into a trance on three or four occasions; speaking in a strange tongue and dancing. “I bet that doesn’t happen at Australian Gourmet Traveller,” Asri says drily.
After living in Bali on and off for 36 years, she believes Bali’s religion and rituals are stronger than they have ever been. “Possibly it’s a backlash against foreigners coming in, whether they’re from Jakarta, or China, or Russia or Australia, wherever they’re coming from. There’s almost a Balinese nationalism and Hinduism strength.”
When Asri’s royal brother-in-law died in 2008, the cremation ceremonies and procession were enormous. An estimated 400,000 people came to see his farewell, with an elaborately dressed Maya borne aloft in the chair again and shaded by royal umbrellas. “The family is still strong,” Asri says. “But it wasn’t all family; that was the whole island. It’s strong.”
Maya remembers feeling apprehensive about that cremation procession as she was borne aloft in a chair. “That surge of people,” she says. “It was one of the most terrifying things. They might just surge forward and people wouldn’t be able to stop; it was all a bit scary. It just goes to show, that’s the level of respect people still have for the family, and it’s incredible and we really owe it to them.”
Before she strides off into the night, a confident young professional with her life ahead of her, Maya considers her future, and she’s not entirely sure what it holds. “In Bali there’s a whole separate life I have to live,” she muses. “Here I can be myself. I’m happy here for the moment, and I feel I have an obligation to fulfil here. And Bali is so close; I feel I’m still a part of everything that’s going on there.
Her two older brothers have made their lives in Bali, but Maya’s eventual destination remains uncertain. “I love Sydney,” she says. “I’m not sure if it’s because when I’m there in Bali I know there’s pressure for me to stick to the family and marry in and do all that kind of stuff, but I’ve always wanted to live a life of my own and do something here.”