Ron Jenkins, WEEKENDER | Wed, 05/30/2012 12:56 PM |
The Balinese belief that we must embrace opposing forces to achieve balance in life is at the heart of a colorful annual ceremony.
“Every ceremony in Bali gives us the opportunity to create a heaven of the senses,” says Cokorde Raka Kerthyasa, the head of the royal family in the island’s spiritual capital of Ubud.
“We create this paradise of the senses so we can achieve a condition of balance from which we can understand both sides of all questions, not from the left or the right but from a state of zero in the middle, a void. Void is not emptiness. It is openness, awareness.”
One of the most spectacular manifestations of the Balinese search for spiritual balance is the ceremony held every year in the village of Apuan in the Hindu temple known as Pura Luhur Natar Sari, “The Place of our Ancestors’ Essence”. Surrounded by a lush landscape of palm trees and terraced rice fields, the temple is a walled complex of thatch-roofed pavilions and sacred pagodas large enough to hold thousands of worshippers.
All Balinese temples celebrate the anniversary of their founding with a ceremony known as an odalan, in which the compound’s simple mud-brick structures are draped in bright fabrics and adorned with offerings of fruit, flowers and sculpted rice cakes, creating the illusion of an earthly paradise.
Matching the opulence is heavenly music: choral chanting of sacred texts, shimmering rhythms of gamelan gong orchestras and ringing of a priest’s bell. The aim is to entice the gods to descend to Earth and grace the temple with their presence.
What distinguishes Apuan’s ceremony is the presence of more than a hundred masked icons brought to the temple from villages across Bali. These masked figures are close to two meters tall and animated by worshippers who are so dedicated to bringing the masks to life that they sometimes fall into a state of trance-possession. The masks represent the struggle for spiritual equilibrium that is at the core of all Balinese ceremonies, but the balance they represent is a hard-won culmination of opposing forces that are constantly at war. This theme emerges in a variety of ways throughout the ritual.
One figure is a female embodiment of divine negative energy called Rangda, sometimes seen as an incarnation of Durga. Her mask has huge bulging eyes, white fangs and a meter-long blood-red tongue of fire. The other is a male embodiment of constructive forces in the shape of a shaggy four-legged creature known as Barong; his face can resemble a lion, a tiger or a wild boar.
The ongoing battle between Rangda and Barong is a basic element of Balinese Hindu cosmology that extends far beyond a simple conflict between good and evil. Although they represent opposing principles that might be seen as positive and negative, they are depicted as inseparable and interdependent forces that could not exist in isolation from each other. Each contains elements of the other: Rangda has the potential to heal as well as to destroy, and Barong’s protective power can be misused. Their battles always end in a draw – a state of dynamic equilibrium that acknowledges the need for both these forces.
Good cannot exist without evil. Light cannot exist without darkness. Truth and falsehood, loyalty and betrayal, male and female: All these dialectically opposed but intimately related principles are embodied in the clash between Rangda and Barong, and their dynamic interdependence is a manifestation of the Balinese Hindu concept of ruabineda, the need to embrace opposites to achieve a dynamic state of equilibrium.
The important word here is “dynamic” – this is not passive harmony but rather an ongoing and sometimes even violent conflict that resolves itself in a heightened state of balance sustained by vigilant awareness of the way opposing forces rely on each other to survive.
The Sorceress and the Holy Man
The Balinese fable that best illustrates ruabineda in action is called “Calon Arang”, which is enacted yearly in almost every Balinese village, including Apuan, where the presence of dozens of Rangdas and Barongs enhances the temple’s mystic potency and gives it a spiritual charge that the Balinese call tenget.
In the “Calon Arang” story, a widow sorceress curses a kingdom with a deadly plague that can be stopped only by the supernatural powers of a holy man who obtains her book of mantras and reverses them. At the story’s climax, the widow assumes the form of Rangda and the holy man assumes the form of Barong. This is the point at which performers sometimes go into a state of trance-possession.
In many villages, Rangda is attacked by bare-chested men, each wielding a kris. Rangda repulses them and they fall into a trance, stabbing themselves – but the blades often bend without penetrating the skin. They lie writhing on the ground until they are revived, by holy water sprinkled by the priests who accompany the Barong, or by the soothing touch of the people around them.
Although it does not always appear in the performance, the final scene in the sacred palm leaf manuscript from which the story is adapted makes it clear that Barong’s victory is ambiguous and temporary. The widow is understood to have positive as well as negative traits, leading the holy man to bring her back to life so that she can make amends for her crimes before dying. Her disciples survive.
The audience at every “Calon Arang” performance understands that the battle must be repeated every year to exorcise the negative forces that are a necessary part of life and that have to be confronted honestly to give the positive elements of existence their full meaning.
In Apuan, “Calon Arang” is performed in the evening, but the complexity and importance of the relationship between Rangda and Barong is evident throughout the daytime ritual processions that mark the temple ceremony. Early in the morning, pick-up trucks begin arriving from other villages with scores of worshippers accompanying each Barong and Rangda.
It takes two men to animate the four-legged Barong. The one in front manipulates the mask so that its painted eyes appear to see and its wooden jaws tap out energetic rhythms of welcome to onlookers. The man in the back supports Barong’s huge gold-leaf tail. Wearing bells on their ankles, both men are covered and connected by a sagging torso made of faux tiger fur, shaggy beige palm-leaf fibers or some other material, depending on the animal represented by the mask’s face.
It is difficult for the men inside the figure to see, so each Barong is guided by a throng of handlers who treat the 3-meter-long mythical creature as if it were a beloved family pet. Children stroke the creature as it passes, hoping to grab a strand of its fur for good luck.
The affection and reverence given to each of the Rangda figures is even more remarkable; as with the Barong, despite the fear for the potent force, they are embraced like members of the village family.
Most are draped in sacred cloths whose elaborate calligraphy endows the masks with mystical power. Everyone knows the writing is charged with dark significance, but in Apuan the cloths are worn like shawls, and guides put their arms around them as they lead their Rangda-masked neighbors to the appropriate stations of the ritual, like a child supporting an elderly relative who is too fragile to walk alone.
During the procession, each Barong travels with two or three Rangdas. The first stop is an open area outside the temple gates, where the masked figures are blessed and receive offerings, as their handlers wait respectfully to lead them into the inner sanctuaries of the temple.
Later, a mass procession moves through the rice fields to a spring, where holy water is sprinkled on each mask. By the end of the afternoon, it has become normal to see wooden carved faces in the crowd alongside human faces as if they were all part of the same community – which of course they are.
Seeing Me, Seeing You
As a reflection of the philosophy of a dynamic sense of balance that is perpetually in motion, the masked figures are almost never still as they receive offerings and blessings, all the while preparing for the violent conflict to be re-enacted in the performance of “Calon Arang”. After all, the masks are not just pieces of wood, but sacred vessels that are constantly being cleansed to welcome the spirits that inhabit them during the ceremony and depart at the ritual’s end. Coming and going, filling and emptying, blessing and cursing, fear and relief – these and other opposing elements of ruabineda are always in play during the ceremony.
Similarly, the women carrying pyramid offerings of fruit and flowers on their heads throughout the day achieve a graceful kinetic tension between the gravity that pulls their baskets toward the ground and their determination to keep everything upright. They make it look easy, but theirs is a complex dance of innumerable tiny sways and swerves, reminiscent of the infinite number of small choices people make every day in response to the influences pulling them up toward the gods or down toward the demons.
The connection between the ceremony in Apuan and the daily life of its participants is suggested most intriguingly by an element that is built into the costumes of Rangda and Barong: mirrors. Rangda has mirrors sewn into her long red tongue. Barong has tiny mirrors attached to his tail. In this way, each reflects the other, and passers-by see themselves and the rest of the crowd reflected in Rangda and Barong – the evil and the good that resides in their unearthly forms are in each of the ceremony’s participants.
“We think we are afraid of something outside ourselves,” says Cokorde Raka Kerthyasa before a ceremony sanctifying newly made masks. “But what we are afraid of is really inside ourselves. That is why Barong is made of mirrors, and so is Rangda, because in the end the ceremony is about ourselves.”
Color of Magic
The link between the masks and the everyday life of the Balinese is evident also in the smaller rituals during the masks’ initial consecration. One of these rituals is Ngodakan, which involves painting the masks after they are carved.
Ngodakan is one of the ritual obligations that, as an heir to Ubud’s royal family, Cokorde Raka Kerthyasa has taken over from his grandfather, the king. Together with a high Brahmin priest, Cokorde Raka begins the painting process with symbolic brushstrokes of red, black and white paint.
In a temple known as the “Dwelling Place of Fire” (Pura Hyang Api) in the village of Kelusa, Cokorde Raka endows the masks with more than just paint. He and the priest Ida Pedanda Gede Oka Gunung draw out the ceremony by discussing the practical applications of ruabineda. This is not an official part of the ritual, but the officials invited to observe comment that spiritual conversations of this type are expected and appreciated as a way of creating an atmosphere conducive to the fruitful use of the mask.
“The two of them are probably talking about ruabineda and how to save the world,” says the royal heir’s cousin, Cokorde Keris, who matches his casual, at times irreverent, conversation to the temple environment.
“Brahma likes it when I light up a cigarette in his temple because it’s dedicated to fire,” he jokes. “But he tells me not to smoke more than one pack a day, because it’s bad for my health.”
Cokorde Raka and the high priest also exchange jokes, but, as the royal cousin predicted, their humor is directed toward the sorry state of the world and how to help heal it. They hold the discussion in the courtyard’s highest pavilion, Bale Pengharuman”, whose name is derived from the word for aroma, harum.
“It is the place for ceremonies that are essential for sweetening the spiritual fragrance of the temple,” Cokorde Raka says, adding that the temple guardian rings a bell on a lower pavilion to “break the air with sound” and thus make space for the mantras of the high priest.
Cokorde Raka and the priest agree that contemporary Bali is experiencing the hardships of Kali Yuga, an era of hardship predicted by ancient prophecies. They speculate on the reasons for the decline, touching on themes related to ruabineda – life versus death, equality versus inequality.
“We are born into different stations in life but we all end up in the same cemetery,” says Cokorde Raka. “And before birth, we all take off from the same airport. So ultimately, we are all one.”
He concludes with a quote from the ancient Hindu text of Sutasoma, which has been adopted as Indonesia’s national motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Eka. The phrase’s meaning, “unity in diversity”, is another variation on the theme of ruabineda.
Eventually, Cokorde Raka and the priest draw the sacred calligraphy on the cloth to be used as Rangda’s shroud. Embedded in their drawing are images of senjata nawa sangga, the mystical weapons that dwell in each of the nine directions, represented by the petals of a lotus blossom and its center.
The lotus blossom, an important symbol to all Balinese Hindus, is itself an emblem of ruabineda. Each of its delicate petals houses a potent weapon that can be used for protection or attack, good or evil, depending upon the intention of the user. According to the late Ida Pedanda Ketut Sideman, one of the island’s most prolific poet-priests, the Balinese word for lotus, pangkaja, is derived from the words pang (mud) and kaja (direction of the sunlight) – thus linking the opposing elements of light and air with darkness and mud.
The densely layered ambiguities of the contradictions embodied in the Rangda and Barong masks emerge clearly in the Balinese rituals that bring them to life. When they are not being used, Rangda and Barong reside side by side in temple sanctuaries. When they are activated by prayer and offerings, they can become not only the focus of trance-possessions but also the spark of violence – a collective channeling of violent energy as an essential ingredient of communal harmony.
The terrifying countenance of the Rangda mask is often at the heart of these violent trances. The warriors who attempt to stab her inevitably end up turning their daggers on themselves. Whether the trance is authentic or simulated, the message is the same: Exterior threats are often reflections of something inside of us, and the most dangerous enemy is the enemy within.