Blontank Poer, The Jakarta Post, Karanganyar, Central Java
Two huge tiger masks are placed in the two corners of the front of the stage.
Right at the center, a man, sitting cross-legged, burns incense while saying prayers and incantations before finally standing up and cracking his whip.
That is the way the man, or pawang (a person endowed with magical powers), opens a barongan performance. Two men, each wearing a tiger mask, then go to the stage, dance freely and dynamically, as though attacking each other.
""This is an improved version of the original barongan performance,"" Slamet, a barongan researcher of the Indonesian Arts College (STSI) in Surakarta told The Jakarta Post while watching the performance of Bimo Kurdo Barongan Group of Blora, Central Java, during a traditional arts festival held here recently.
According to Slamet, the main difference between the original and improved versions lay in the plot. An original barongan performance, performed as part of a ritual in the Central Java town of Blora, does not tell a story, while the improved version does.
The only character in the original version is the tiger-headed one. The improved version, on the other hand, has more characters in it.
Among the additional characters are Singabarong, Singalodra (or Jaka Lodra), which takes the form of a tiger, Pujangga Anom (or Bujangganong), and other clown-like figures including Nayantaka and Untub, and the pet dog Bondhet. All wear masks during the performance.
""The story is adapted from the Panji story, which tells of a love story between Dewi Sekartaji and Panji Asmarabangun,"" Gembong Setyo Pujiyono of Blora's tourism and culture office explained.
The story begins when Prabu Klana Sewandana, King of the Bantarangin Kingdom, falls in love with Dewi Sekartaji, or Dewi Candra Kirana, of the Kediri Kingdom and sends Pujangga Anom to propose to the princess for him but fails. He then goes to propose for himself.
Arriving in Kediri, he meets Raden Panji, who has also gone to the kingdom for the same reason; both get involved in a deadly fight. King Klana dies and Raden Panji marries Dewi Sekartaji.
It is the legend of the love story between Raden Panji and Sewi Sekartaji, which is believed to be an example of perfect love, which later inspired the creation of barongan performances that are mainly performed at traditional wedding rituals in Blora.
According to Gembong, no fewer than 500 groups of barongan performers exist in Blora presently as a result of rapid growth during the last 15 years. They are spread across the villages of the regency that borders the East Java towns of Ngawi and Bojonegoro.
""The rapid growth is due to the local government's aim to make barongan the cultural icon of Blora, just like reog is for Ponorogo,"" said Gembong, referring the renowned traditional performance of the East Java town, Ponorogo.
Thanks to the move, the price of tiger masks used for performances that previously cost only about Rp 50,000 each in 1996 now cost up to Rp 1.5 million.
Barongan is believed to have come into existence in about 1830, during the war between Prince Diponegoro and the Dutch colonists. Barongan of this particular era is believed to be the original type.
At that time, barongan was regarded as an essential element of rituals like weddings and circumcisions. Barongan, too, was always performed during the ritual held before harvest time and when a prolonged drought or an epidemic attacked.
""Barongan became a medium of communication with God, especially in asking for help and safety,"" Slamet explained.
The reason why the figure of a tiger is used in the performance, according to Slamet, has something to do with the belief of traditional Javanese communities that regard the tiger as a guardian.
""The title, Kyai, that Javanese people use to refer to the tiger is a way of showing respect,"" Slamet said.
Regarding the magical power that a barongan mask is believed to possess, Blora people still hold the annual ritual, Lamporan. The word lamporan itself comes from the Javanese word lampor, the marching of spirits.
Lamporan in Blora tradition is the marching of people wearing barongan masks held annually at the beginning and end of the month of Sura, according to the Javanese calendar. The ritual is a form of prayer for protection from bad luck and disaster. The parade usually marches around the village where the ritual is held.
For a personal ruwatan (exorcism ritual), barongan is performed on the same date and in the same way as lamporan, but the venue is the house of the person organizing it. Beside barongan, the host also prepares ngaroh offerings comprising yellow rice and coins. The ritual is held by parading the barongan around the house in an anticlockwise fashion.
As a ritual to prevent bad luck, according to Slamet, barongan is also often used as a healing medium. It is usually done by burning the hair of a Barongan mask and mixing the ash with water to drink as a medicine.
Due to the magical powers that a barongan mask is believed to possess, some, especially those that are already more than 100 years old, are often treated as sacred objects.
""Some barongan performing groups even keep their Barongan mask in a pundhen (sacred grave) and only take it when they are going to perform. They are returned to the pundhen when the performance is over,"" Gembong added.