Barong – an archaic revival

Enter Barong

Enter Barong

One thing always leads to another, just in Bali the process is more intense. The Matrix excels at giving us what we ask for. In my case it was the Barong dance – the gamelan, flute, drums and the extraordinarily weird creature itself. It was a tourist performance – a display, but nonetheless an authentic immersion in Balinese magic. In four visits to Ubud now, I have seen all the different troupes perform. Playing djembe alone in the forest, I saw Barong peering from the foliage. I felt connected.

Barong is a shamanic animal, the King of the Forest. Its shaggy coat and protruding fangs signify membership of the Lower World, while its ornate headdress and adornments are the cosm-etic of the Upper World. Barong is both profane and divine. Like the Nagas (dragons) it is a self-existing form of power – an anima-l from the archaic, revived every week in Bali in the medieval tale of Calon Arang.

The widow Calon Arang was an embittered old crone swathed in rumours of black magic and devotion to that dark feminine archetype Durga. No man dared marry her beautiful daughter, Ratna. An outcast, Calon Arang’s anger brimmed over and she went about inflicting sorceric revenge on the Kingdom. In one of the early scenes of the dance, King Erlangga and his advisers survey the diseased state of the nation and decide that something must be done. The High Priest devises a plan. His son will marry Ratna and at the first opportunity steal her mother’s book of sorcery. This he does, and a showdown between High Priest and Calon Arang ensues.

Fully venting her rage, she transforms into Rangda, a demon with decidedly Lower World claws, fangs and lolling tongue. Rangda’s face is not so different to Barong’s, but she lacks the adornments of divinity. The High Priest sends his men to attack Rangda. One by one they launch themselves at the apparition, summoning ferocious rage as they plunge their kriss into Rangda’s breast. Each time Rangda returns undaunted, swatting them with her magic cloth. One by one the men crumble, turn their kriss on themselves, trying to pierce their own chests. The gamelan pounds a metal fanfare as Barong enters, joining Rangda in a swirling anima-l dance of the Lower World while the men writhe on the floor in agonised trance, straining against their kriss. A real priest revives the men with tirtha (holy water).

The dance holds ancient keys to the human condition. The movements of the King and his advisers are a caricature of patriarchal swagger. Their costumes are built up around their heads so that these men are neckless, moustachioed, half-demonic faces barking orders. There is something primal in their gestures. The face suddenly tilting, a pause before high-stepping across the stage like a demon.

The two men beneath the 80kg Barong costume must conjure the illusion of a four-legged animal. The mask must come to life. It must sample the air, gazing inwards. It must snap round, gnashing at some quick, invisible energy. It must dance – fur, bells and beard made of the hair of premenstrual girls flying. In these transitions from entranced stillness to wilful movement, we recognise the anima-l mind. In Barong’s unblinking eyes we recognise infinite desire to perceive, to experience, to live. We are mesmerised, put in touch with our organic (Lower World) and inorganic (Upper World) essence. Like us, Barong is a weave between Upper and Lower, Spirit and Mat(t)er, Garuda and Naga. Essentially the same, and yet so different. Barong is familiar and alien at the same time. The archaic in us remembers.



On another level we can compare Calon Arang, the wounded widow, with the Biblical figure of Lilith, neglected while Adam and Eve got together, and by extension, Durga. In some versions of the story Calon Arang is betrayed by her own daughter. Modern commentators observe the patriarchal propaganda about certain aspects of the feminine. The Calon Arang drama is designed to conjure fear and loathing for feminine wrath. Drawn from the male dancers, these energies are only rebalanced by the presence of divine-profane Barong, who has been summoned by the priest. Like Toety Herati, I found myself wondering about gender politics.

Having downloaded Barong music from iTunes, I tried unsuccessfully to imitate the suling (Balinese bamboo flute) on my Peruvian quena (bamboo flute). On my fourth visit to Ubud I found a flute maker and teacher. In one hour with Wayan I had learned the basic fingering; in five, the circular breathing needed to carry the sinuous tunes. Gamelan is an orchestral form with standards and scales and set ways of decorating the melody. There is a yogic mapping between the music and the human body. I realised how accustomed I am to playing ad lib.

The following week Wayan invited me to a Barong performance at a temple above Ubud. I arrived at his house in the evening, and chatted with his wife until he arrived. She told me they only had one child, which is unusual and deemed somewhat unfortunate in Bali. Perhaps, she joked, it was because Wayan was of lower caste than her. Men are allowed to marry upstream. Women are not.

Running late, Wayan and I flew by scooter to the temple, stacked above a bend in the road and already overflowing with people, all Balinese. I follow Wayan through the crowd, trying not to stand on people, and sit in the space he indicates next to him. At once he produces his flute. The orchestra starts up.

I realise where I’m sitting. Cross legged behind a group of children, I’m wedged between Kendang (double headed drum) and Ceng-Ceng (cymbals). The flute player next to me rests his leg on mine. The massage I had earlier only seems to have inflamed my glutes, and my knees are already protesting. Moving an inch to my right I will obstruct the drummer. The rapid hands of the cymbal player brush my backside. The sound is deafening. I cannot believe my luck.

The small rectangular stage is surrounded on all sides by stonework and Balinese – mostly men, wearing uniform white udang (turban) and shirt with dark sarong. Groups of women sit together, wearing matching outfits – bright blue or fuchsia crochet tops, broad sashes and floral sarongs. I meet many eyes, but only briefly. No one chances a smile. Perhaps they reflect my own self consciousness. Perhaps there are cultural factors. The relentless influx of the bulay (foreigner). I am the only one here, but I have infiltrated into the heart of the orchestra.

I watch people discretely trying to work out where I’m from. Half Indian-Malaysian, half Scottish, I can be hard to place. It varies according to context. In London people think I’m Moroccan or Brazilian. A man selling cassettes in Ourzazate, Morocco clocked my earlobes as Indian. Perhaps in Bali I am Javanese. Perhaps an itinerant from Rishikesh, whose eye might be dangerous to meet.

After roots, the second question in Bali is marital status. I watch conjectures forming about my being here alone. And perhaps about the white and silver embroidered sarong I bought in the almost empty Pasar Seni Dua (Central Market 2) and two-tone goatskin money belt I chose rather than a standard black nylon one. It’s easy to break the temple dress code. For women of course there is a vast range of patterns and colours. Men are preoccupied with certain knots and folds and subdued colours designed to compensate for the basically feminine business of wearing a sarong. Perhaps there are questions of sexuality. Perhaps the lack of acknowledgement is because the novelty of bulay in Balinese gear has long ago worn off. The smaller children stare back like yogis, dark eyes shining. They do not smile. They are simply present to the fact I am there among them – tolerated, if not exactly welcome. A fat boy plays with a mobile phone. Somehow this is comforting.

A curtain is drawn back and the first of three Barongs enters. A Barong Ket (lion Barong) with beige fur. I am close enough to touch it. A competent performance, yet the two men beneath the costume don’t quite manage to conjure the spirit of Barong – to sustain the illusion of a four legged power anima-l. The children act as if they own the place, ducking beneath the swirling skirts of Barong to call out to friends and parents. The fat boy plays a laser pointer off Barong’s mirrored coat. Another kid punches his arm.

The second is a Barong Celeng (boar barong) with black velvet flanks and the kind of face that is painted on the tips of missiles. Dog-stretching, jangling, trotting, it is pungently animal. But the show stealer is another Barong Ket. The orchestra cranks up to a furious tempo as it goes into a four legged frenzy, frangipani flying from its girls’ hair mane. This is the ecstatic dance of a power animal. Everyone is spellbound by the time it departs, somehow managing to exit the stage via the narrow gap in the corner. People scramble out of its way. Pecalang (security) men leap to help the huge contraption through.

A pause, a coda on the kendang, and the orchestra explodes into frantic arpeggios as Rangda enters, tongue dripping from jagged maw, obscenely long nails outstretched. Nine young men wielding kriss rush on and surround Rangda. One look at their faces and it’s clear they’re not acting. Their absorption is total. Their fear and loathing of Rangda is real. One by one they rush at Rangda and stab her repeatedly in the chest. The costume is more than thick enough to protect the man wearing it, but the force with which the youths hurl themselves at Rangda has four muscular Pecalang men struggling to keep the melee from staggering back into the crowd. Maybe the actor has a bruised chest in the morning but each time Rangda returns undaunted, unharmed.

She retreats behind a steel ladder – behind the veil – held in place by Pecalang men. The youths haul and shove at it as though their lives depend on it. The space keels one way and the other. People scramble everywhere, getting out the way of the tranced men. They throw themselves on their kriss, rolling on the floor in agony. Anything could happen, the whole thing sliding out of control. I realise the gamelan has stopped.

Like emergency medics the priests rush in. A pug-faced mangku (priest) and several women set down a cloth laden with coconuts and canang (offerings) and start flicking tirtha (holy water) everywhere. Several youths have to be physically restrained, the kriss wrenched from their hands. One right in front of me is totally out of it. It takes four men to hold him down. Barong is summoned and stands over him, jaws snapping at whatever evil clouds him. Faces are slapped, mantras are chanted. Normality returns.

The Lanzon totem at the Temple of Chavin, Chavin de Huantar, Peru

The Lanzon totem at the Temple of Chavin, Chavin de Huantar, Peru

Sat inches away, I feel separate. By my foreignness of course, and by my love of Barong and Rangda. I cannot access the fear and loathing. I see Rangda much as I see Barong. Their protruding fangs remind me of the Lanzon, prehistoric totem of Chavin de Huantar in Peru. Both resemble Bhoma, the demonic face grinning through carved foliage above doorways in Bali. I see a silvan ensemble. Here is Pan, the Green Man, Pachamama. Here are satyrs, nymphs, centaurs, therianthropes. Celebrations of the weave of spirit and matter. Light and dark are simply different colour threads.

Perhaps the archaic revival is a revision of the old devil-gods. Do I under-stand them from an evolved perspective, or does their darkness repel me? I cannot relate to this male rage at the female demon. Perhaps it is buried within me. Perhaps there is a rite or sacrament that opens the tomb. A stone portal, carved with leaves and demons. I imagine pausing there, in highly evolved sarong and man-bag, wondering if I am going forwards or back. If all is a dance of light and dark, does transcendence earn you a place in the audience. Is that where I want to be? Or do I want to be part of the action?

I am roused by loud protest from my knees. I tell Wayan I am going to stretch my legs. The basket I brought filled with incense and canang has disappeared. I squeeze out of the temple, start up the scooter. A local lad speaks to me at the roadside. Hati hati, he says. Be careful.

© 2013 Nizami Thirteen


Lives of Trees


Mother trees and underground networks

Mother trees coordinate the forest via underground networks

Professor Suzanne Simard, at the University of British Columbia has compiled this short film over on about the interconnectedness of trees. Fans of Lyn Margulis will at once recognise the leitmotif of the Mother – symbiosis not mindless competition and survival of the fittest. Here we have the rise of the Goddess in scientific terms. Now that we can talk about the interface of fungal networks and the cortical cells of tree roots, we may just be on our way to general acceptance of the esoteric ideas put out by R Gordon Wasson and others regarding the role of fungal networks in the well being of the forest, and of the Earth itself.

Watch the video! 


War on Terra: Forests still under threat

Campaigners at the Forest of Dean

Campaigners at the Forest of Dean

The UK Government’s apparent U-turn on the slash and burn sell off craziness earlier this year is tremendous testament to the power of online campaigns.

More than 16,000 people signed up on, 500,000 on 38Degrees, and a number of influential grass roots organisations were founded or consolidated. One of these, Hand Off Our Forests (HOOF), has been able to gain traction with the ongoing Government consultations.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman announced a halt to the sell-off back in February, made a public apology and set up the Independent Panel on Forestry, which lives at DEFRA and is chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool. Since the Panel made its first visit to the Forest of Dean, where HOOF was founded, it has received more than 30,000 views sent in by the general public, and it is hoped that many of these will feature in the Panel’s final report to the government in April 2012. For more details read the update by Ian Standing, secretary of HOOF, and be sure to check out the main HOOF website.

At the same time, the forests are still under threat from the same government’s National Planning Policy Framework. If you scratch beneath the surface of the Government’s various statements it is not hard to find plenty of room for doubt that it will keep its promises of suspending forest sell-off. We might very quickly note in passing that the so-called Environment Secretary voted “very strongly in favour” of war in Iraq and of renewing the Trident nuclear missile system – both, aside from any moral or left-right political spectrum arguments, have and will cost the UK enormous sums of money, of which if a fraction were saved, the Government would not be in the unfortunate position trying to sell off the country’s very own heritage.

And of course the sell-off has not been suspended in Wales or Scotland. See the Forest Commission Scotland and Wales sites. In short, politics is a tricky business with shifting goals, many compartments and a notoriously short memory.

Ergo: The mission continues! 

Essential links:

  1. Hands Off Our Forests and Woodlands! Stop Government Sell Off!
    Join via Facebook for bulletins, updates and discussion.
  2. Hands Off Our Forest
    Forest of Dean based activist site.
  3. Save Our Woods
    Site run by Exmoor based activist Hen Anderson.
  4. Jonathon Porritt
    Writer and environmentalist’s forest campaign page
  5. Green Knights and Wild Things
    A short essay in the more focus of this site.

Green Knights and Wild Things

Viewing a map of the world with some friends the other day, half-seriously exploring our general decampment from “civilisation”, we came to the conclusion that there was almost nowhere left to go. Between us we had either lived or been born or travelled extensively on all of the continents. Our criteria were nothing special. A typical mixture of escapism, pragmatism and simple humanism. We wanted somewhere that would nourish our bodies, minds and spirits. Somewhere we might survive, in the mundane if not urbane sense, yet where survival would not mean desperation, scraping by at all costs. Somewhere we might enjoy walks, views, running water and singing air. Somewhere we might find inspiration from crackling fires and whispering woods. Somewhere we might share with likeminded souls. We were in other words hunkering after Where the Wild Things Are.

Where the wild things are

Where the wild things are

You will recall from the story – as with countless other fairy tales traditional and modern – that this is the place where we meet our own shadows, own them, befriend them, dance with them by the light of the moon. This is the place where light interweaves gracefully with dark, onto which fabric the soul projects its deepest desires, its deepest fears. A place which in turn projects a sense of order, a sense of place and relationship for all these things into the soul. We know from all the fairy tales that this place is of course the forest.

It is our place, in every sense.

In the sense that it is our original habitat. In the sense that it is still ours to own. In the sense that if we destroy it we destroy ourselves. For where then will we dance with our shadows? Maurice Sendak’s 1963 story is for children, but its message is for all ages. What will we be nothing left to the imagination, nowhere left unlit? Everywhere a zoo, a golf course, a theme park.

The forest is our place in every sense. It is the place of sense. It is ours in no sense – in no cence.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

This was the message of the Green Knight. Cut off my head only if you agree to suffer the same in a year and day. My head will grow back. Will yours? The adventures of Sir Gawain, then, are the adventures of humanity in its fall from grace, in its divorce from nature and headless galloping. In its great trial. The place of reckoning is the Green Chapel, the heart of the forest. There, the Green Knight shows Gawain mercy, but only after he has fully surrendered, honouring the original contract.

There is no getting out of this contract.

Which is something we seem to have forgotten only very recently, in the grand scheme of history. Since the Europeans turned up in Africa, in Latin America, in Asia, and with the same darkly ingenious manoeuvre produced pieces of paper that said the land – be it forest, mountain or pasture – was rightfully theirs by order of a king or queen the locals had never heard of. The locals were subject to those pieces of paper too. If they were seen by the conquerors as wild things, they were not befriended.

Among many others the 2008 documentary The End of Poverty traces our headless, heedless steps very carefully. From the birth of capitalism and globalisation as those nefarious contracts were issued, to the perilous situation ‘civilisation’ finds itself in now. Where vast numbers of people have no clean water. Where most people live in appalling poverty. Where monetary cabals of the North suck the South dry. Where the poor South in fact pays for the rich North. Where the machine seeks to commodify everything. The land we stand on. The water we drink. The air we breathe. The animals are animate flesh bred for burgers, and the forests have become plantations – renewable sources feeding our printers.

This is where it goes when there is nowhere for the wild things, when the dark is not in step with the light. When the dark in fact masquerades as the light. As God. As Good. As the future. As civilisation.

And when the dark masquerades as the light it is capable of tremendous Ironies. Such as the idea that civilisation is that which is not the forest. Civilisation tapers away from the great towers of ‘Light’. At its fringes ancient trees are cut down so that a family may survive by selling charcoal.

We have beheaded the Green Knight.

Who will honour the appointment at the Green Chapel?