Comprehending Calonarang’s Significance in Balinese Daily Life

Comprehending Calonarang’s Significance in Balinese Daily Life

basur-calonarang-2ITS–“The witch hobble forward, clutching her stick in both hands, doing a cramped, old woman’s dance, taking one step with one food drawn up, bending forward with stiff neck and back, moving in half-circle with curious jerky steps. She totter to and fro, glancing around with dull eyes, and clutches he shawl over her chest as she zigzags  in slow movement up the stage, to the vibrating  drum and flute”.

That’s how Bali most famous witch, Calonarang, is described on stage. She never fails to astonish her audiences, who watch her with the mixture of joy and horror. Some children cover their eyes with their hands and others hold their parents’ hand tightly.

The Calonarang is always performed at night, when the magic effects are believed at the strongest. Its climax should be reached at midnight. Generally, it takes place near a graveyard, preferably outside the Pura Dalem (temple for the dead).

The character known as Calonarang has special place in Balinese daily life, not only for people how are concerned with black magic but also for those who aren’t. It is a story about witches or leyak in Balinese. No other story in Balinese dance-drama has a stronger plot than Calonarang in describing black magic or witchcraft. The story is also very interesting because of its mystical quality. This is due to its setting in the middle of big tree, the banyan tree, usually nearby graveyard. A true Calonarang’s performance, in connection to religious ceremonies,  can be found simply at remote villages. However, now it is presented also to the tourists in five star hotels, but bearing very little resemblance to the original one.

Harmony in Balinese culture is determined by dualism: good-evil, black-white, up-down, hot-cold and  dark-light. This is outlined in Samkhya (teaching about harmony and balance). Therefore it is believed that the evil spirit is absolutely needed to harmonize the dynamic of Balinese culture. Thus Leyak or witches play a very important role in the development of Balinese traditional culture.

The Calonarang story is based on a historical event which is later adopted into Balinese dace and play. It took place during the reign of Erlangga, king of Java in 11th century. Erlangga’s mother was Mahendradatta, a princess from Java, and her husband Dharmodayana, a Balinese ruler.

As written in Balinese lontar Durga Purana Tatwa, Mahendradatta became a witch after her husband betraying her and taking many mistresses. She then went unto Bathari Durga (goddess of evil) and asked Durga to teach her black magic in order to kill her husband’s mistresses. The turned into a witch and together with her followers she went on a rampage, pouring down disease, destruction and death on East Java. To maintain her magical power, she often needed the bodies of dead babies and her daughters and followers would be sent to cemeteries on grisly errands. King Erlangga tried to destroy her, but her magical power was too strong. The king then sent a holy man, Empu Bharadah, to destroy Calonarang. The Calonarang play is the final episode of her life when The Empu Bharadah tried to destroy her.

The story shows that the black magic is born out of jealousy and injustice, and this is still passed on generation to generation. Balinese people have their own name for those who practice black magic and who can cure it. The character who practices black magic by causing harm and sickness to other is called Balian Pengiwa. Reversely, he or she who has power to cure someone from black magic, is called Balian Penengen.

Many Balinese people talk about this matter openly and admit the existence of Balian Pengiwa and Balian Penengen, particularly in remote villages. A Balian Pengiwa is very powerful and everyone in the village is afraid of him / her for being able to cause undiagnosed diseases.

“Balinese people pay great attention to Calonarang because it is connected to their belief, but no to their religion” said Prof. Ngurah Bagus, a prominent Balinese culture Anthropologist.

“The Balinese perceive Rangda as their protector from misfortune. Beside, they enjoy the beauty of good and evil in the drama” he continued. “The character of Rangda in the dram is conflicting. Mahendradatta, who later became a rangda (devil), also became a protector to people who presented  her talisman for protection against misfortune. In real life, people believe a talisman can protect them from the spell black magic or help one vent  vexation, jealousy and vengeance” he added. Ngurah Bagus said that in this modern era people still depend on some extends of Balian, but less so than the old days.

Written by Putu Suasta

First publihed in Jakarta Post Daily

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