The Tall Barongs

All of a sudden there was a flurry of activity. The Barongs had arrived - and they were in trance. We were warned to keep back, as they might charge without warning. Uncannily, our video equipment shut down inexplicably as the Barongs entered the temple. I wasn't able to get it to start again until after they had passed by. Julia took the next few photos on her still camera.

First came the boar Barong. The guy at left is gathering up the sheets of white cloth that symbolically connect the members of the marching retinue with the Barong himself.

Next came the adulteress, now a giant. She entered the temple quickly, as if possessed.

The scene was one of confusion, as the crowd pushed forward to be near to the sacred power of the Barongs

This is the back side of the boar Barong, and at left, the male Barong Landung, with a shaggy head of hair, and oversized checkered sarong. Their attendants see that they are kept in control.

A better picture of the boar Barong - you can just make out in the darkness the male Barong Landung at left, and the female at right. They stood there swaying back and forth in trance.

After a few moments - the Barongs were being told how to behave themselves in the inner sanctum - they were ushered into the inner temple, and the main part of the evening could begin. The priests continued their chanting as the Barongs were installed into their positions in the inner temple, while outside Pak Dibia appeared, now dressed in his spectacular Topeng costume, and the gamelan struck up.

Dibia is an amazing dancer - he stood transfixed as the gamelan music rose to a crescendo, his long, outstretched fingers quivering as if to restrain the psychic powers behind them. It's the economy of movement that makes the dances so great - they can portray huge ranges of emotion, while barely moving the whole time. It's too bad these pictures don't do it justice - it was too dark, and the flash didn't reach.

Some of the dances were dramatic - almost frightening in their intensity. Others were comical - he even did the Topeng Tua (Old Man) dance that we play ourselves in our own gamelan - hamming it up for the crowd, as the senile old king picks lice out of his hair and flicks them on the ground. At one point a child with a balloon casually walked across the courtyard, right past Dibia, who picked up on it, and drew a laugh from the crowd as he watched the child walk past him.

The Topeng, or Masked Dance, as well as the gamelan, as Linda explained to us, is really here to entertain the lower spirits (you and me) outside the temple, while the important stuff goes on in the inner temple. We could see huge clouds of incense billowing out of the inner temple, and people coming and going with offerings, while the gamelan played and Dibia danced.

Many of the rituals we were watching seemed to revolve around rice, and ensuring a good harvest. It dawned on us that beneath the Hindu veneer, which by now was looking very thin, what we were witnessing was a rice cult ceremony - the ancient traditions of making offerings to the gods for fertile fields and a good harvest. The rice goddess Dewi Sri, was really much older than the Hindu-Buddhist tradition, and was the ancient goddess of the harvest on which the Balinese' lives depended. This was not a simple religious festival, this was a matter of survival, for without rice, the people would starve.

The final dance was one that is never seen performed in secular performances. Wearing a special mask, and representing the Balinese "everyman", Dibia takes an offering basket and strides into the inner temple. After a few minutes, he re-emerges, scattering offerings in his wake.

This seemed to be a signal to the crowd that the ceremonies were over, and they rushed forward into the courtyard to receive their holy water. By now we felt so much a part of the amazing evening's events that we sat with them and got splashed too.

It was very late by the time we headed back to Ubud, driving through the pitch darkness - there is very little street lighting in Bali. Each of us sat in silence in the darkened minivan, thinking about what we had just witnessed, as we drove through the night, past other villages where the Tumpuk Landep ceremonies still continued. We felt we had just experienced something quite remarkable, quite outside our normal realm of reality...

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Photos: Astrid, Martin and Julia Randall
All content copyright (c) 2002, Astrid, Martin and Julia Randall