Barong Dance in Bali
24 November 2013

Gilded and groomed, worshipped and revered, the sacred Balinese barong may appear well-kept. But truth be told, this wild and wily icon may never be properly house-trained.

The barong that bushy-tailed, bulging-eyed beast is one of Bali’s greatest cultural hits. As a jet-set visitor to the “island of the God”, you know to creature as the winsome hero of the barong dance or as the confounded cause of some interminable traffic snarl. Indeed, you’d be most carefully cloistered in nightclubs, surf breaks, spas or resort were you not at least once overrun by a boisterous barong procession. Lay aside, for a moment, all plans of beach or bar, and simply succumb to his splendor.

Gong! Gong! Gong! You hear it long before you see it the throng of barong devotees is headed up by a traveling gamelan orchestra, a crew who thinks nothing of toting half a ton of bronze from one banjar to the next. The scintillating, hypnotic tones build on the approach, captivating all onlookers with a lively solo progression drums clap, cymbals crash, massive gongs mark the downbeats. Bobbing along with the band are brightly colored umbul-umbul, long bamboo-pole flags sported by boys who can just barely manage them. And behind those, a canopy of satiny umbrellas shades the focus of the mayhem the mythical, mystical barong.

The barong mask perhaps a fanciful take on the lion form features giant, all-seeing eyes, fearsome teeth, wagging tongue, and clapping jaw. The beast is crowned in gold filigree and cloaked in a flowing mane of real hair and tinkling bells. More gold and mirrors adorn his shoulders and rump, each supported by a pair of bare shins and the latest in faux-teva fashion. Every so often, a heated human bearer is relieved of his task as another disappears into the shag. And so goes noble barong, loping along with all the aplomb of the classic clown horse.

As the last of the followers trail off-men young and old, kebaya-clad women bearing offerings and babes, kids awestruck, exhausted and up to no good a tide of trucks and motorbikes pulls in close behind. Back to Bali, business as usual. All of which leaves you wondering: “What on earth was that?”

The barong: A Crash Course
A thumb through lonely planet informs you that the barong is the ever-watchful guardian of good over evil. To learn more, you shell out Rp50.000 for the local barong dance and watch the drama play out in abridged form. Night falls, guests settle in, gamelan chimes away. And there through hallowed temple gate pounces barong. Like an over-sized puppy, he frolics about to the delight of his human followers. All is well and good until aduh! Enter rangda, fangs flaring, claws clawing, entrails trailing. After a kidnapping, a grave robbing and lots of good vs. evil dance dueling just as the Rangda witch surely has the better of our beloved, beleaguered Barong-men dash in with kris daggers. A priest anoints the warriors with water sanctified in Barong’s beard. Some glaring lights, some words of thank and you’re off with the bright hope that barong lives happily ever after. But nothing, of course, is so simple. Most especially not in Bali.

The Many Faces of Barong
Most villages host Barong-sometimes a dozen or more-hidden away in their temple’ inner sanctums. Unlike the secular Barongs that work for hire (the Balinese consider these nothing more than fancy theater costumes) temples barong are sacred, sentient beings. By all reports, sacred barongs live and die, love and lose, and generally protect their village, though it may be in odd and unpredictable ways. Every barong is unique. Sure, there are lots of lions, but no two lions are the same. And then there are tigers, pigs, elephants, eagles, monkeys, dragons and various demons. In point of fact, the rangda witch you saw at the dance is a sort of barong, too.

Each barong has its own family tree, its own endearing foibles. There are young, playful barongs that bound about with abandon, and old, weary barongs that trundle along in their own sweet time. All Barongs are wise and magical, but none of them are perfect. Barongs can be rash and rambunctious and a few are known for the old tantrum. It may be these very imperfections-these nearly human frailties-that make barong so beloved.

Indeed, barongs are bona fide crowd-pleasers. Kids love them as much as Teletubbies or Power Rangers and will promptly throw a fit if parents don’t pact up in pursuit of every passing procession. For grown-ups, barongs are not only holy beings-they may be the most tangible embodiment of niskala, the unseen essence that in today’s world is even better obscured by motorbikes and mobile phones. Surely people put as much love and devotion into their barongs as their barongs put into them.

On special occasions, for temple ceremonies or holidays (especially the ten days on the Balinese calendar between Galungan and Kuningan) sacred barongs are let out for a romp. The Barong’s temple den is opened and aromatic woods are burned before the beast. The smoke, it is said, guides spirits back into the body of barong. As the barong wakes up, he or she presented with water for bathing, and coffee, before being anointed with incense and frangipani blossoms. If there is a long journey ahead, the barong will be fed his or her favorite food-fried chicken is popular fare. Villagers then file before the barong, make offerings and kneel in prayer.

Before long the barong is moved by the attention and by the stirring tones of gamelan. Suddenly he’s ambling out the door, supported by two villagers who have ducked beneath his mane. The villagers march blindly-or are blindly marched?-out temple gate , down the temple stairs, into the open street and off to who-know-where.

Good and Evil: A Delicate Balance
So what else, really, is the purpose of the neighborhood barong? Does the barong actually protect his or her village? Perhaps. But beyond the simple perception that barongs wield forces of good over forces of evil is the fuller Balinese understanding that barong are complex entanglements of the two. Like people, barong are bottled-up brews of opposing passions: right and wrong, black and white, yin and yang. It just so happens that barongs, who romp freely between seen and unseen worlds, are more potent potions. The key, as with everything Balinese, is to maintain balance. The barong embodies just that, and with a certain flair for drama.

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