Barong: Bali’s dance of the friendly lion
From the dawn of recorded history, one of humankind’s most enduring narratives has been the eternal battle between good and evil. In Balinese tradition this is expressed in Barong dance, named after the mythical king of the spirits who leads his followers in the fight against demon queen Rangda.
I first heard the playful clap-clap-clap of Barong’s wooden jaws in Ubud, as a staff member at Museum Puri Lukisan entertained a curious toddler. Eventually Bama and I decided that we could not leave without paying a visit to the village of Batubulan – known for its rich traditional arts and the skill of its dancers.
Across Bali, Barong is a representation of a protective spirit whose roots lie in the animistic beliefs once dominant on the island in pre-Hindu times. The most popular Barong is a lion-like creature, while others take the form of a giant, boar, tiger or dragon.
Meanwhile, Rangda’s origins can be traced back to the 10th century: some believe that the character is based on Calon Arang, a legendary and powerful witch, but a far more colourful explanation is the life story of Javanese princess Mahendradatta, who became the queen consort of Balinese king Udayana.
Mahendradatta’s role in Balinese folklore stems from stories of an unhappy marriage, a court that feared and mistrusted their foreign queen, and her own husband’s condemnation of her practice of black magic. Rangda is literally ‘widow’ in old Javanese; after Udayana’s death, it is said that the miserable queen took revenge on the entire kingdom.
Legend has it that Rangda fought against her own son, the hero-king Airlangga, and cast a spell on his army so that they would stab themselves with their poisoned keris daggers. Airlangga enlisted the help of Barong, who countered this with a spell of his own, granting the soldiers invulnerability and eventual victory over Rangda. This tale is the inspiration behind the famous ‘Keris Dance’, the grand finale of what we saw at Batubulan. ◊