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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.


Barong Ket – the lion


Monkey business


Teasing the Barong


A dancer represents a servant of Rangda


Two servants of Dewi Kunti, a princess in the Mahabharata


One of my favourite characters in the performance


The Patih, or Prime Minister, and a servant


Dewi Kunti appears


She has promised to sacrifice her son Sadewa, shown here, to Rangda


Sadewa is tied to a tree in the forest


While they are asleep, Siwa (Shiva) appears and grants Sadewa immortality


The arrival of Rangda


After killing Rangda, Sadewa fights her servant Kalika, who is now a bird


The battle continues – Kalika transforms into a Rangda and Sadewa becomes a Barong


Barong’s followers try in vain to kill Rangda


Barong returns and revives his dead followers


A dancer is overcome after the Keris Dance

24 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nice post, now the dance of the friendly tourist at Bali Kuta: Bounty Hotel to drink FGD all day at the pool with the resident DJ

    May 23, 2014
    • Ha, very funny – ‘dance of the drunken tourist’ may sum it up better!

      May 23, 2014
  2. I love this…and the telling of the show with the pictures is fabulous!

    May 23, 2014
    • Thank you, Janaline. I would go back to Bali in a heartbeat!

      May 23, 2014
  3. So interesting to read and appreciate the great photos helping to tell the story.

    May 23, 2014
    • You would love it, Sue! That and there is some great biking to be had around Bali…

      May 24, 2014
      • I think you should be hired by a Bali Cycling tour company as a marketer James. You are doing a good job selling the idea. 🙂

        May 24, 2014
      • Nice one, Sue. 🙂 At times I would like nothing better than to leave the big city and move to Bali – maybe someday!

        May 24, 2014
  4. So beautiful….thanks for sharing!

    May 23, 2014
    • And thanks in turn for reading!

      May 24, 2014
  5. What an interesting legend and a beautiful show! I’m just in sensory overload with all the beautiful colors of the performers’ costumes and makeup. Your pictures capture it all amazingly well.

    May 23, 2014
    • Bali has to be one of the most photogenic places I’ve ever been! I just couldn’t get enough of the culture and folk dances.

      May 24, 2014
  6. Lovely post James. It sure brought back memories. I loved the folk dances of Bali. We went to a few of them. I too would go back to Bali in a heartbeat!

    May 23, 2014
    • Thank you, Alison. I wished we had the chance to spend a month there like you and Don did – a week was all we could afford at the time! Thankfully I’ll be going back next month on the way to/from Flores.

      May 24, 2014
  7. We watched three traditional dance performances in Bali at different times: Barong at noon, Kecak during sunset, and Legong at night. Each had its own appeal. Did you know that Sadewa is a famous figure from Mahabharata here in Indonesia? Because he has a twin brother called Nakula. The stories of Bali and Java’s intertwined history, interpreted in beautiful dance movements, and performed by dancers in intricate and colorful costumes. What’s not to like about that? 🙂

    May 23, 2014
    • I think the story was harder to follow for those of us who were not familiar with the great Sanskrit epics – I had no idea Sadewa was a twin! Good thing the venue at Batubulan gave us some notes about the performance.

      May 24, 2014
  8. Very interesting, man! Some exceptional photographs too. Keep up the quality posts.

    May 23, 2014
    • Thanks! I’m secretly jealous that you’re based out of Mexico… that’s one part of the world I’ve yet to visit.

      May 24, 2014
  9. Reblogged this on We're meant to be..

    May 24, 2014
  10. Love this James! Especially the costumes. The mythic characters seem to have got mixed up in the cross cultural transference, but the story has retained all its magic! I am so glad Bama & you went to Batubalan and brought us this fascinating account.

    May 31, 2014
    • I was wondering what you would say, Madhu! The Balinese must have developed their own interpretation of the great Hindu epics… I’d be intrigued to see how it compares with the version you know. 🙂

      May 31, 2014
      • Kunti is the the mother of the five Pandava Kings, the ‘heroes’ of the Mahabarata, for one. She did give up her first born Karna (illegitamate son of Surya the Sun God, but of immaculate conception!!) , who goes on to help the bad guys, but never compromises his integrity and is considered the greatest hero of them all. I am not aware of any of the events that take place in the Balinese version or of Kunti ever acknowledging him publicly. His and their grand uncle Bhishma’s stories are the most poignant of all those in the great epic. Two just and honorable men that are dealt the wrong cards by fate for no fault of theirs.
        Sahadeva is the youngest of the five Pandavas, but born to Madri, Pandu’s second wife, so not technically Kunti’s son, although born of a boon granted to Kunti that she shares with Madri. I know very convoluted!!
        I admire you for attempting to understand it at all James…Brava 🙂

        May 31, 2014
      • Wow, I was not expecting that summary Madhu! But you explain it in terms that are so easy to understand. 🙂 It’s fascinating to see how both the Mahabharata and Ramayana continue to exert such a strong influence on Balinese and Javanese culture – Bama tells me one of his close friends is called Pandu, while mythical figures such as Garuda and Hanuman are emblematic in Indonesia.

        May 31, 2014

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