The Moon of Bali


Galungan is a great national festival day for the Balinese. It is a day when all the temples ring with merriment. It is the time when the Balinese believe the supreme God Sanghyang Widi and a retinue of deities and ancestral spirits descend from heaven to spend ten days on earth in their temples. Galungan is celebrated every two hundred and ten days and, for ten days, there are continuous processions to the hundreds of temples. The Barongs are paraded in the streets, marched from village to village, often stopping on the roadside and dancing on the spot.

Maybe the day I am about to describe was especially auspicious because of Galungan but we set off early in the morning to a series of adventures which made me wonder.

We had met a handsome, distinguished Balinese, Cokorda Mahun. ‘Cokorda’ is the title for Prince, or, as one very old man told me as he was introducing his six year old great granddaughter, also to be addressed as Cokorda,  `. . . the same as your Lord Clarence’. Said Cokorde Mahun. Cokordas seem numerous, perhaps because, as one proudly told me, `my father had thirty-five wives . . .’ and to top that, he showed me a photograph of one of his father’s beautiful wives. Cokorda Mahun owns an old, luxurious American car, and he earns money renting it, with himself as guide, to travellers. We hadn’t enjoyed this scene before – our travelling had been on our own and on public transport. How wonderful it was to drive so slowly (for he nurses the car) to villages I had as yet seen only on the map. Travelling in this way with so much space and comfort was luxury; we shared it with a young friend.

Our first stop was Pedjeng where we saw the `Moon of Bali’. It is the largest cast drum in the world, and its origins are lost in the Bronze Age. It is cast in bronze in one piece, over 1.8 metres long, a graceful, waisted shape with flared ends. It is still almost intact. The head is decorated with a large, many pointed star, and mysterious, beautiful, mask-like faces circle the upper section of the drum. I wonder about the people who made it; the Balinese have no recorded history of this early race so resort to legend and myth …`long, long ago one of the thirteen moons of heaven fell to earth and was caught in a tree at Pedjeng . . .’ and so they display it, raised on a platform as high as a tree in the inner temple grounds. Other pavilions within the temple grounds house wonderful, ancient stone images of Gods and spirits. They gaze out over the sawahs where they have recently been found, testimony to the rich historical past of this area.

For a long time I had wanted to visit the village of Tenganan. It is close to the holy mountain, Gunung Agung (Great Mountain), a still active volcano whose peak, often wreathed in cloud is over 3,000 metres high. Agung dominates the mid-eastern Bali landscape. Its last eruption in 1963 caused devastation, loss of life and isolated one-fifth of the Island. To climb its peak is part of the course for high school students in Bali; a feat of endurance and skill for both girls and boys who are proud to speak of their adventure and night spent shivering on the summit.

Tenganan is one of two villages in Bali whose inhabitants are known as the Bali Aga. Their origins, customs and religious beliefs survive from pre-Hindu times. David and I had already set out three times to visit Tenganan but obstacles and intrusions on our journey always made us turn back. And it almost happened again.

We had turned off the main road and were within two kilometres of Tenganan when we came to a halt; hundreds of brilliantly dressed Balinese took every inch of the road as they moved, laden with offerings, to a village square and temple further along the road. We inched our way at the rear of the procession and came to a halt with them. Offerings were made at the cross-roads and blood sacrifice was made. Chickens were killed and the blood allowed to blend with flowers and incense on the roadway. It was impossible to take the car any further. We began to move through the crowd planning to walk to the walled Tenganan which we knew to be nearby. I became alarmed when I saw a man with a kris turning the point of its long curved blade upon his chest. I had heard of the kris dancers, where young boys, said to be in trance, dance in a frenzy, repeatedly turning the kris upon themselves. I had seen this too, climaxing the colourful, highly entertaining dance drama Barong. But this was different, not a tourist performance. We had stumbled upon a Balinese celebration to honour Galungan.

Before I could stop her, our young friend dashed away to take photographs followed by David and Cokorda Mahun. I was rooted to the spot aware that we were intruders. I felt menaced and sick at the sight of the chanting, leaping man whose chest trickled with blood. Near the dancer was a white robed priest who was praying and sprinkling water. The crowd parted and the dancer moved to several others, also in trance. They moved awkwardly to the rhythm of the gamelan which played percussively with a monotonous, scant, melodic line. At intervals the dancers would plunge the kris energetically to a high point above the breast.

A mass of people lined the square and all interest was on the dancers who paused when David and our friend, the young girl approached. Suddenly I saw the man with the bleeding chest wave his kris at them. He repeated this gesture several times, raising his arm and kris in a thrusting outward gesture and moving toward them. It was obvious he wanted them out of the way. The crowd murmured. David and the girl disappeared, but I saw a tall man approach Cokorda Mahun. He took his arm and propelled him toward the Priest pointing in my direction.

I felt unwell, weak-kneed. I sheltered in a small wayside Warung directly opposite the piled offerings and dead chickens. Twenty-five rupiah bought me a glass of thick, steaming coffee and a few deep breaths settled my nerves. The kris dancers had separated me from David, so I was relieved to see Cokorda Mahun and the Priest. Cokorda Mahun was muttering angrily. He’d been rebuked by the mayor for his and our breach of etiquette. This was a special occasion and the crowd and dancers were offended we wore no temple sashes. The girl’s shorts and long brown legs were a further distraction and most unwelcome. So we were being moved on. Cokorda Mahun had been instructed by the Mayor to move his car and the Priest now propelled him and I toward it.

The kris dancers were now joined by two small, beautifully costumed girls, about nine years old, a contrast in their grace and delicate movements to the entranced men. Incense sticks burned in their elaborate beaten gold and flowered head-dresses. The crowd chanted and formed a procession which with gamelan and dancers began to move from the square to the nearby temple. Cokorda Mahun and I watched it from the shelter of the car then quickly made our way to find the others.

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