Encountering Bali's spooky calonarang ceremonies

Encountering Bali's spooky calonarang ceremonies

We know the time and place of the kecak monkey dance at Uluwatu temple, the legong dance or wayang kulit (leather shadow puppets) in Ubud. However, for temple ceremonies such as calonarang (also known as penyalonarangan) - one of the spookiest and most elusive of Bali's sacred ceremonies - few people know the when and where, and that is where its mysterious allure begins.

Colloquially dubbed 'Balinese Christmas', the twice-annual Galungan and Kuningan holy days are similarly family oriented events that affect a similar kind of festive atmosphere. Instead of conifers though, Balinese put up penjor (decorated bamboo poles) that dangle in the streets.

For two weeks, deceased ancestors are invited down to the temples; joining the community, ceremonial spectacles are enjoyed, shoulder-to-shoulder. While entertainment runs the gamut, from cockfighting to wayang kulit, calonarang is the candlelit equivalent of an elaborate, Christian, midnight mass - similarly meant to strike the fear of God into you.

In 2011, I caught my first calonarang at Sakenan Temple on the island of Serangan. My Jakartan friend and I showed up in full baju adat (traditional clothes), carrying an offering.

Akin to a church service - without the pews - we sat on our sandals in a large courtyard, borrowing some matches to light our solitary stick of incense, ritualistically.

The Balinese pray with flowers, clasping them between their hands as they pray and placing them behind their ears following the ringing of a bell. After this, the Pemangku (Balinese priest) stepped nimbly between the many bottoms-on-sandals, using a brush to flick holy water on us. He splashes water into your cupped hands four times; you should drink three times, rubbing the fourth into your hair.

After this, the Pemangku will splash your whole self from above before offering you grains of rice. Put them in the centre of your forehead - like a starchy postage stamp.

Led into what seemed to be the main courtyard beneath the tickling branches of a great tree, and the full moon, a gamelan orchestra occupied one corner of the courtyard, while hundreds of devotees in starched white formed an immense ring around them. I was the only bule (Caucasian foreigner) present.

The ceremony began with the performance of two Balinese mythical characters, Sandar and Omang, and the formula is introduced: two entities, or groups, approach each other slowly with very nuanced and eerie body language. Finally, after the suspense has been well built, Sandar and Omang collide.

Throwing grace aside, they leap, they scream and they lunge at one another. Spectators step in to separate them - while other spectators, affected by this sudden contingency, join them in lunging and screaming. These members of the crowd also have to be restrained, then carried off and out of the inner temple.

The calonarang cycle had commenced, and no one was moving. To leave the temple halfway through the ceremony could result in a haunting, as if a demon would follow you home. I have met many Balinese who avoid the calonarang, because it is that delightfully, authentically spooky.

Next up, the stars of the ceremony, the boisterous Barong dragon - a more ornate and majestic version of the Chinese barongsai (lion dance) - dances his way into the ring. This endearing mythical dragon is wild and dog-like; not purely good, appetite rules the Barong, and he is also frightfully clumsy.

While it is said that Barong can even be downright wicked and destructive, nevertheless he takes a stand for our sake when Rangda (Balinese demon queen creature) enters the ring. In pants like striped pyjamas, Rangda's tongue reaches down to her waist, hanging from a typically toothy mug amid gnarly, dreaded hair.

As per the formula, the two parties approach each other like bull and matador - then gnash, claw and lose all composure. Sometimes kicking and screaming, Rangda is then shown the door. The Barong, as the comedic defender, has renewed the balance of good and evil - by proving himself when it really mattered.

The meaning of these back-to-back standoffs is shrouded.

We are almost free to choose our own interpretations. Whether it is a battle between the sexes, a depiction of a historic dispute between a king and a furious widow, it is nevertheless the restoration of a balance of good and evil - which is not to say that evil is eliminated, or even lesser than good.

As the cheekiness of Barong remains, it seems to say that we should not expect even our saviors to be entirely saintly, or more than human. This final depiction of how dharma (balance) wins over adharma (imbalance) is integral to the Galungan and Kuningan holy days.

In Bali, each village may put a spin on traditions, eventually reinventing them. For a while my friends called me 'Calonarang Hunter', as I went from place to place, trying - a few times failing - to catch this spectacle.

What was supposedly the scariest of them all, the calonarang in rural Tabanan, was full of laughter, culminating in a woman brought back from the dead to a chant of, "Ketchup bottle, bottle ketchup, ketchup bottle".

Other times, the whole affair spilled out onto the streets of Uluwatu, into the intersections of Ubud; there is nothing like the ambiance of seeing this conflict inside a temple, such as Sakenan or Pura Besakih, however.

For a greater understanding, and for the approximate dates and locations of this ceremony, see the classic collection of essays, Bali: Sekala & Niskala (Bali: Seen and Unseen), by Fred B. Eiseman, Jr., available in most Periplus bookstores.

Otherwise, as the tourist information booth might not know the specifics, when Galungan and Kuningan come around, you might just ask the owners of your homestay, or the jolly old bearded man known as Bli (Balinese form of address to a man) Pemangku who can be found in most villages as lay priests.


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