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The Grandeur and Intrigue of the Traditional Balinese Theater State

The Grandeur and Intrigue of the Traditional Balinese Theater State

Miguel Covarrubias, the famous Mexican amateur anthropologist and intrepid traveller, wrote in 1937 in his classic work Island of Bali that “it seems difficult to reconcile the soft-mannered, peace-loving Balinese we know with the intrigue and violence of their turbulent past.” And indeed the historians of Bali’s past thousand years tell tales that would put any modern soap opera to shame: stories of the rise and fall of kingdoms, of bloody battles waged and beautiful maidens won, of princes gifted with magical powers warding off evil demons disguised as fierce, fanged monkeys and vicious, razor-beaked birds.

Bali’s written history begins in the 8th century, when Java’s Indianized kingdoms turned an eye toward the island’s bounty. The Javanese, who had already been introduced to the Buddhist and Hindu religions by South Asian traders, spread these teachings to Bali, along with the knowledge of writing in the Old Javanese language – known in Bali as Kawi – which soon became the medium of communication for Bali’s elites. By the 10th century, Balinese art, religion and culture had taken on a decidedly Indian appearance. One important relic of this era can be found today in the midst of modern Sanur: the Prasasti Belanjong, an inscribed monument dated 913 A.D. – making it Bali’s earliest dated artifact – that tells the tale of a Javanese king and his journey to Bali.

The 11th century saw the birth of one of Bali’s most influential historical figures: Airlangga, son of the Balinese Prince Udayana and the Javanese Princess Mahendratta. Airlangga journeyed to Java, where he ascended the throne of a dynasty that would rule on that island for the next 300 years. During Airlangga’s lifetime, contacts between Java and Bali grew increasingly close. Out of this cross-fertilization of cultures came a number of social features that would mark the face of Bali for centuries to come: rituals presided over by Hindu priests chanting holy mantras, temples devoted to the worship of gods and divine ancestors, and the means to effect magic, both good and evil, to harm one’s enemies or heal one’s friends.

This period of Bali’s history also gave rise to the mythic tale of good and evil that continues to enthrall visitors with its fearsome power: the story of Rangda and Barong. Legend has it that Airlangga’s mother, Mahendratta, possessed among her many queenly accomplishments a command of the dark forces of transformation that enabled her to change from a beautiful woman into a horrific witch able to rain disease and death upon her enemies. When her husband found her dabbling in these dangerous arts, he banished her to the forest, where she remained, nurturing her evil powers, until her daughter reached the age of marriage. Fearing Mahendratta’s black magic, no one dared to marry the young princess, despite her esteemed status and her lovely looks. Wild with anger and driven to revenge, Mahendratta shifted her shape into that of a hideous witch, armed with spiked teeth, a tongue of fire and heavy, hanging breasts, to spread plague and pestilence across the land. Today the story is reenacted in the drama of Calonarang, where a mythological beast, the lion-like Barong, protects the suffering villagers from the demonic powers of the witch, known as Rangda. In the performance, traditionally held in the dead of night in the village graveyard, the followers of the Barong attack Rangda, who uses her magic to send them into trance and make them turn their daggers against themselves. The Barong’s power protects them from the blades and helps them push the witch back into the cemetery, restoring the balance between good and evil until the next encounter.

The most critical turning point in Bali’s history came in the 14th century, when the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit sent an army led by the revered general Gajah Mada to colonize Bali. Different versions of the tale of Majapahit’s conquest exist, but the basic story goes something like this: At that time, Bali was ruled by a cruel and greedy king named Bedaulu. Although he possessed great magical powers, he angered the gods by forbidding his subjects to worship them, requiring instead that they make their offerings to him. Bedaulu was so arrogant that he once removed his head and sent it up to heaven to show the gods what awesome spiritual skills he commanded. Annoyed by this boastful display, the god Siwa replaced Bedaulu’s head with that of a pig. Embarrassed by his new animal appearance, the king ordered that none of his courtiers was to look at him, and he had them build a high tower where he would sit, presiding over his subjects free from their curious stares. But Bedaulu still had not learned his lesson. His evil grew to the point where he demanded that all his food be spiced with human blood. Finally, his desperate people sent word to Java, asking for aid from Majapahit. Gajah Mada promised to help if the king did indeed have a pig’s head, and he sent one of his soldiers to investigate. In order to catch a glimpse of Bedaulu, the cunning Javanese tricked the king by requesting the food known as paku, a long, stringy green that is eaten by lowering it from above into one’s mouth. Facing upwards toward the tasty morsel, he was able to verify Bedaulu’s beastly countenance, and called for Gajah Mada and his troops, who conquered Bali and set in place a new king who ruled from Samprangan, near Klungkung.

With the arrival of the Majapahit empire came vast changes in the cultural, religious and political landscape of Bali. Only the people known as the Bali Aga, who kept themselves distant by retreating to their isolated mountain villages, escaped encompassment by the new social order. As the Javanese installed their own nobles to preside over Bali, the island’s population became drawn into a hierarchical system controlled by warrior kings and learned priests and divided into castes. Today, Balinese speak of history in terms of the pre-Majapahit and post-Majapahit eras, and those who can trace their genealogies back to the mighty rules and sages of that time still claim high social status in the present. When the Hindu Majapahit empire finally fell in the 16th century, brought down by the rise of Islam across the Indonesian archipelago, a new wave of priests, scholars, nobles and artists sought refuge on Bali, which would remain the last Hindu island in the land.

Over the next four hundred years Balinese culture flourished around the royal courts. Elaborate rituals were staged, and Bali’s famous cremation ceremonies came into existence as a means of showing honor and loyalty to the ruling lords. Art, dance and music prospered, not as purely aesthetic activities but as service on behalf of gods and kings. This era saw the rise of what later anthropologists would describe as the Balinese “theater state”: a complex combination of extravagant art and ceremony designed to celebrate the power and majesty of the royal families and to express the humble deference of their followers. But this period was hardly a peaceful one. The seat of the kingdom of Bali moved to Gelgel, and the king who presided over it was given the title of Dewa Agung, or “Great Lord,” a reference to both his worldly and spiritual powers. One of these kings even managed to bring parts of neighboring East Java and Lombok under Balinese control. But the kingdom soon became fragmented by family feuds, and Gelgel splintered off into a number of smaller principalities, which remained in a state of constant war and intrigue until the turn of the 20th century.