A decade ago I was privileged to come across a village on the coast of eastern Bali that was preparing to enter into a period of ceremony and celebration. I decided to stay. What unfolded was a ceremony, attended overwhelmingly by locals, that would stick with me forever. The images of those days I can recall with clarity and remain vivid in my mind.
This was not a ceremony dictated by the whim of tourists but rather by the lunar calendar to which many Balinese ceremonies and festivals adhere. The fight scenes depicted in the dances of good and evil were tense and produced blood. All the local women removed themselves from the final scenes so as to prevent any adverse affects by the upcoming release of evil. Men became consumed by trance while others forced them to the ground. Ceremonial chickens were slaughtered and holy water was used to douse the bad energy. The ceremony was interesting, unique, and shocking.
I have never seen another one quite as intense.
As the evening a decade ago, began, I was still unaware of the events about to unfold. Usually this sleepy village has little to no activity in the evening bar the occasional cluster of children taking advantage of the sea’s cooling waters at the village doorstep.
Tonight was different.
All around locals were dressed in their finest batik sarongs, cotton kebaya’s or shirts, and matching headdress. There was an excitement in the air.
My hotel manager took me by the hand to her little house out back of the hotel. She wrapped me in the appropriate formal outfit and ushered me in the direction of the temple.
The street leading to the temple gate was lined on both sides. Men dressed in unison of white and women adorned in beautiful, colorful, and intricate attire from ankle to head. Towering head pieces of flowers, fruit, money, and chickens, resident component of these offerings.
The tar-sealed road had been modified by a hand turned drill. Holes every fifteen feet down the center line became the pots to which Penjors (tall decorated bamboo stakes) were added.
The loud boom of a gong sounded the beginning of the ceremony.
Small players in the good versus evil battle emerged and began to dance. The dance re-enacted the ever-present struggle in our daily lives. With every dance the participants became gradually more wild-eyed, dance interpretations turned to actual attacks and with the passing of time blood from wounds began to appear.
The intensity was growing and the onlookers were fully aware that their assistance would soon be required.
Except, of course, for this onlooker who was mesmerized, dumbfounded, and slack-jawed.
The final battle is between Barong and Rangda and is the major battle; heaven versus hell kind of thing. It is used to invoke a restoration of balance between the world of people and that of deities, spirits, and demons from the other world.
Like the other dances before it, this started out slow. As it went on you feel the build of the crescendo. At this point all the women who had gathered, rose to their feet and walked briskly in the opposite direction; backs turned to the ever evolving battle.
The gamelan music being played at the temple rises and falls with the blows of the fight. Adding another fully engaged sense to the mix and promoting the violence now a very real component of the dance. The participants are now hallucinating; their trance building.
Through my eyes it appears that something unearthly is happening. Chaos devours the crowd. Evil spirits enter. Screams, moans, and wild energy descend on the crowd. Men begin to be possessed and others drive them to the ground showing no mercy.
It appears several are having seizures and talking in garbled noises, spitting and cursing.
Holy men come into the fray and begin dosing water onto the heads of those afflicted. Chicks arrive in cages and are brought to the struggling men now covered in bodily fluids, vomit, and blood. Inserted into their mouths they bite the heads off in a single twist of their necks.
Decapitated baby chickens lay strewn across the battle field like lost souls.
Rangda screams a curse out to the men and those holding daggers turn these on themselves. Another surge of onlookers spring into action and prevent the deadly thrust from piercing the skin. For some this is not a complete success.
More blood, more vomit, more screams.
Gradually the subdued men begin to ease up. Holy water continues to rain down on them until, exhausted they collapse. They are disarmed, cleaned, and carried to the temple. In here any remnants of the trance are broken and with it, balance is restored even though there was no clear winner.
But just as in life…when is there really!
I returned to this town again, a day ago, and was fortunate to arrive in time for the same celebration.
Galungan and Kuningan ceremonies are the biggest festivals on Bali. The front of every house is decorated with Penjor. Galungan ceremonies are held over several days. During the Galungan festival, the gods descend to the earth and stay with the people. After 10 days it is Hari Raya Kuningan, a kind of all souls’ day. In the morning people bring offerings to their ancestors and gods. The next day Sunday is Manis Kuningan and is when the Barong dance is performed.
To once again witness a ceremony that is steeped in tradition and undiluted by the tourist industry I could not help but feel privileged…once again.
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