March of the Barong


For an island people, the Balinese have relatively little connection with the ocean that surrounds them. Most people can’t swim and are generally fearful of the water. Seafood is not a major part of the diet. In Balinese Hinduism, the island’s towering volcanoes are a much more significant feature of the spiritual landscape. There are, however, a handful of religious occasions that bring people down to the water. One of the most dramatic is a cleansing ceremony that takes place every Sasih Kenam, which is the sixth month of the lunar calendar. For this occasion, each temple parades its Barong through the streets and down to the sea. This mythical beast is typically some combination of lion, bear, tiger, and boar, although there are many variations. The Barong often appears as a benevolent character in dance dramas and is believed to protect the village from malevolent forces.

The first stage of the Barong’s journey took it from its special enclosure to the main village temple, where it was joined by the Barong of other neighborhoods. Each of these oversized furry puppets was born on the heads of two men who clacked the beast’s jaws as they sauntered along. Once all the Barong were assembled, a short ceremony was performed before the entire caravan went to the beach.

At the village temple, we were joined by a small gamelan orchestra that served as a kind of marching band. Here is the music that accompanied our parade:

Like so much Balinese ceremonial music, the tune is simple and repetitive. You will never encounter this style of music outside of a ceremony in Bali; it wouldn’t make any sense in a concert hall or on a world music compilation album. It isn’t performed for tourists or taught in universities. This style of music exists solely for its ritual context. In this role, as part of a mile-long parade of banners, offerings, and mythical beasts, its effect is quite powerful. And before you think the music is a breeze to play, consider this: to make the ensemble portable the main melody is broken down so that each player contributes just one tone. Each man marches along with a single tuned going in his hand and must strike his note so that it connects with the others in a seamless melody. This is musical collectivism at the extreme.

We walked for over an hour while men with batons held up traffic and the gamelan played on tirelessly. Occasionally the men under the Barong were swapped out for fresh legs and offerings were passed onto new heads. Bells rang, songs were sung, but mostly people just strolled along talking to their neighbors and greeting those we passed by. When we reached the beach it was already bustling with pilgrims from other villages, as well as the swarm of food vendors that always assembles around ceremonies.

At this point most people grabbed a light meal and relaxed in the sand. Kids flew kites and threw stones in the water; it was basically a day at the beach (except no one went swimming). This is one feature of Balinese Hinduism that I just love: religious ceremonies are designed to be enjoyable. They are always highly social affairs involving good food and lively entertainment. Music, dance, comedy, card games, and even gambling are to be expected when the Balinese gather to worship. It is really no wonder that their religion, and the arts which are so integrated with it, continues to flourish in modern times.

Around sunset, priests passed through the crowd sprinkling holy water. We held our clasped hands above our heads in the typical Balinese gesture of prayer. We tucked small flowers behind our ears and pressed wet rice to our foreheads. For most of us the prayer ritual lasts only a few minutes (priests were busily presenting offerings and performing blessings the entire time). It is the culmination of the ceremony but my no means the most important part. As far as I could tell, the main purpose of the occasion was to spend time with the village community and get some exercise. After prayer had concluded, a final offering was carried offshore in a boat and left in the water. We then walked back in the dark while the Barong returned to their homes after their day in the sun.

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