Mythology, Cosmology a​nd Tourism in Play: The Barong and Kris Dance in Bali

Bali, an island in the Indonesian Archipelago, is a tourist haven among adventure seekers, cultural enthusiasts, and nature-lovers.

The Jatiluwih Rice Terraces at the Subak Landscape of Catur Angga Baturkaru, one of listed areas of the Cultural Landscape of Bali Province: The Subak System as a Manifestation of the Tri Hita Karana Philosophy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Indonesia (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
The Tirta Empul Temple, another cultural landscape in Bali inscribed as a UNESCO WHS through the Cultural Landscape in Bali Province (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
Pura Tama Ayun, a grand temple also part of the UNESCO WHS Cultural Landscape of Bali Province (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

As a traveler, Bali is one of the many places in the world listed in my bucket list. My obsession and fascination with UNESCO World Heritage Sites made me want to visit Bali since the inclusion of the Subak System into the list in 2012.

As a theatre scholar, I have always been intrigued with Balinese theatrical and performance traditions because a lot has already been written about it in the academic circuit. As a matter of fact, performance culture in Bali (or Indonesia in general) is one of the heavily researched topics in Asian theatre scholarship.

December 2018, finally, I have finally checked Bali in my bucket list.

In June 2018, my partner and I decided to travel to Bali instead of the usual East Asian visit during the December break. Since July, I have been researching about the what to do and what not to do plus the how’s and why’s of this “mysterious” and “most intriguing” Indonesian island.

Anyhow, Bali is predominantly Hindu. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata have influenced Balinese Art. The Tri Hita Karana philosophy has influenced its culture. Combining both methinks is a rich performance tradition filled with colorful motifs of the Hindu texts and indigenous philosophy.

One of the listed activities in my itinerary was to see a performance of the Barong and the Kris (or most popular as keris) in the Batubulan village near Ubud.

The Barong (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Barong is a Balinese mythological creature that often is identified as a lion-like creature but on a personal level, I see it as a cross-breed of a lion and a bear. In this sense, the Barong seems to appear like a huge monster. However, it should not be thought of as a monster per se. The creature is the king of the spiritual world, attributed as the leader of the hosts of good, and the foil to Rangda, the demon queen of all evil spirits in the Balinese mythological world. The Balinese people associate natural disasters to the battle between Barong and Rangda. According to I Wayan Dibia and Rucina Ballinger in the 2004 coffee-table book Balinese Dance, Drama and Music, both the Barong and Rangda are village protectors, their power comes to the fore in dramas (dance) depicting their escapades.

This battle and narrative are featured in the barong dance, often to the enjoyment of foreign tourists.

In the 2017 essay “Role of Tourism in the Economy of Bali and Indonesia” in Journal of Tourism and Hospitality Management, Made Antara and Made Sri Sumarniasih imply tourism as Bali’s chief industry. In a way, tourism has provided the island with foreign spectators (whose idea of spectatorship is an oriental gaze) eager to pay for a “different” type of entertainment. This paved the way for a lot of the locals to create new performance opportunities for tourism.

For instance, the popular travel website Klook advertises several activities in Bali that promises outstanding (read here as peculiar) experience of Bali culture through its performance traditions such as the Kecak fire dance and the Barong and Kris dance. Even the local travel sites of Bali include these cultural performances in their itinerary as one of the “must see” activities in the island. My friends who have visited Bali also pushed me to go to the villages to look for these “traditional” performances.

The performance space in Tanah Lot (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Traditional cultural performances often are not contextualized outside their ritual contexts and origins. This perhaps is an issue at stake in the transformation of such performance traditions into tourist encounters. I was told that since the early 1930s, ritual performances have been performed in Bali both in their original contexts, as well as exclusively for paying tourists. To date, in Batubulan alone, several theatre houses for the Barong have been erected and developed according to the preferences of foreign audiences. I am not sure though if the Barong is an exclusive Batubulan performance tradition, but I have seen several similar theatre auditoriums in different areas outside the village. As a matter of fact, there is one in Tanah Lot, a popular tourist destination, famous for its beautiful sunset. The Barong and the Kecak are performed to enthusiastic audiences immediately after the sunset. Some villages are now selling Barong masks, which for a long time are only used for sacred performances. As a matter of fact, I was able to bargain to lower the price of two masks in the theatre house where I witnessed my first ever Barong performance.

Whether or not tourism plays a very important role in the maintenance and development of the performance cultures of Bali, one thing is clear: performing arts continued to be loved and revered by both the locals and the foreigners. In this regard, tourism is infused with local mythology and cosmology, making it somehow genuinely Balinese even if the original ritualistic context is out of the picture.

A lot of Barong performances are still performed within a temple compound. The operative word here is “a lot” because my partner and I passed by a Barong theater/auditorium along the national road, which is not within a temple vicinity.

Barong is popular in Batubulan, considered Bali’s art village. The villagers are considered highly creative and home to indigenous artists. Many wooden and stone sculptors come from Batubulan. A lot of Bali visual artists are also from the village. The village also developed several touristy performances of the Barong and the Keris.  

There is obscurity as to the origin of the performance. Dibia and Ballinger explain that some attribute a Chinese lion dance witnessed by the locals in the 13th century could have been the precursor of inventing the performance tradition. Besides, Dibia and Ballinger add that both the Chinese lion dance and the Bali barong dance serve the same function: to wish everyone good luck and to ward off the community from the devil. In the case of the barong dance, to ward off the community from Rangda.

Village children to perform the Barong Bungkung (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
The Barong Bungkung (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

The Barong Dance is technically performed during ceremonies in the temple. But on some occasions, a variety of Barong dance is also performed by children on the streets of Bali, especially during holidays (read as holy days). Our guide mentioned that in Bali, there are over 15 holy days annually. During these days, children come out and they dress themselves as Barong (this time Barong Bungkung, a huge boar-like figure) and do some house visits in the neighborhood. Like the Chinese lion, the kids in Bali manipulate the Barong Bungkung to the music of the drums and gong played by the other children. At the end of the performance, the household is expected to give any amount in return for the children’s warding off the evil spirit in the surrounding and by inviting good fortune into the house.

The stage at Batubulan Village (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
The Gamelan Orchestra Section of the performance space (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
The auditorium of the performance space (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

The theater where we saw the piece is called Pemaksan Barong Temaltamu. I have to ask how this is differentiated from other playhouses of barong but based on my understanding, it is a type of a Barong performing space beside the temple. The theater is composed of four areas: (1) the stage, (2) the backstage (a.k.a. alternative entrance to the temple); (3) space for the gamelan performers (indigenous orchestra); (4) the raked auditorium.

The elevated stage (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

At a glance, the stage appears to be a ruin – but it is not. Its edifice is as old as the temple (approximately 300 years old). The stage is a massive elevated concrete made of (possibly) adobe and volcanic stones. I heard from our guide, the stones used for the stage came from the mountains of Agung and Batur. The elevation is about 2 ft. high. Then upstage at the center is an opening leading to the backstage area. Nonetheless, our guide also mentioned that every now and then, the opening is used as an alternative entrance to the temple, especially if no barong is performed.

However, on the side of the stage – approximately 7 ft away, another opening or entry point is present. During the performance, a lot of locals passed by that opening because apparently, the temple compound is also the passageway to another village. More so, I learned from my Asian Theatre modules in graduate studies, local audience members in many performances in Asia come and go to a performance. I guess that’s also the intention of the “openness” of the performing space for the local audience to come and see the performance whenever they want to and simply go whenever they also want to.

My partner and I came in first. Our guide made a mistake of getting a piece of information that the performance would begin at 8:30 in the morning. As early as 8 AM, we were already in the area. The ticket center was still closed. Apologetically, the guide instead brought us to a batik center first and then moved to a silver-craft factory to kill some time. At 9 AM, we decided to go back to the temple compound. Visitors started to flock in the compound but no one lined up to the ticket center. These visitors explored the temple compound, which name I forget but it is in the Gianyar – Sukawati area.

The entrance of the Barong (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
The monkey teases the Barong (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

The performance was predominantly in dance form. I particularly enjoyed the codified movements assigned to important characters. The prologue was an overture played by the gamelan orchestra seated on the right most portion of the performance space. Then, the Barong came out dramatically, still with the gamelan orchestra playing. The introduction was long, about 10 to 15 minutes. The Barong was played by two performers. One performer was manipulating the Barong’s head, notably, the mouth. The other performer was manipulating the back portion of the Barong.

The legging performers (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Later, his monkey-friend enters and begin a “cute” duel-dance. After this episode, two performers entered and performed the legong (literally means elegant dance through the sounds of the gamelan and gong), an all-female performance whose codified movements are reminiscent of the Indian’s Bharatanatyam. The codes were presented by the movement of the head, the eyes, the mouth, the hand, the fingers, the hips, the legs, and the feet. For an outsider or for someone who is not familiar with the codes and symbols of the movements, it was quite a challenge to follow what these performers were communicating. Thanks to the printed program provided by the organizers, everyone knew that the dancers were the servants of Rangda. They warn the audience about the next event to happen: the eternal fight between good and evil because Rangda is about to territorialize the community.

Comi reliefs (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
Rangda terrorizing the village (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

After the dance, a small skit is performed. However, the language was also challenging. Based on what was happening in the auditorium, the characters are assumed to be servants of the village chief. This is because locals are laughing every now and then with the words these performers utter. I believe these are also stock characters whose roles in the performance are to provide comic reliefs in the seriousness of the performance. But notable in this skit was that these characters are also performing codified gestures: each phrase they uttered seemed to have an equivalent gesture.

Barong versus Rangda (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
The followers of Barong sacrificing themselves before Barong (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

This comic skit was followed by more movement/dance pieces and dramatic presentations. Overall, I guess the performance was depicting a story of a chief leader and his wife, how they were both possessed by the spirit of Rangda, which caused chaos (i.e. injustice) in the village. The Barong came to the rescue but was also defeated by Rangda. In the end, the followers (kris performers) of Barong came to help Barong in defeating Rangda. Soon, peace was restored in the entire village.

After the performance, my curiosity about the experience of the Barong was still very alive. Our guide told us that it is important to remember in Balinese tradition that both the Barong and the Rangda have a special role in the society: to always keep the balance necessity in everyday life. Accordingly, Rangda is the epitome of destruction, while Barong, the protection. In mythology, they keep on fighting but no one actually wins. Wittingly, the guide stated that there is no sense of protection when there is no destruction (or what is to protect if there is nothing destroyed).

Generally, the Barong performance is deeply rooted in Balinese spirituality (in mythology and cosmology) and artistic heritage. This combination has become a good opportunity for the economic gains of community members. Like the balance of good and evil in the relationship between Barong and Rangda in the Barong performance, the community members also perform a balance in maintaining heritage and in developing for personal gains.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. vinneve says:

    I like Bali too 🙂 Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. SAP Tiatco says:

      A few days in Bali is not enough! I will surely come back 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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