Bali is the island with the largest Hindu population in Indonesia (83% of the people on Bali identify as Hindu). Recently, it has become a wildly popular tourist destination, with tourism-related activities making up the most of its economy. Although its well-studied and documented culture seems to transcend time and space, numerous changes have been underway since Bali’s first contacts with the West (XVI century), to the extent that the issue of how their identity has been impacted by tourism can get very controversial. The unique Balinese Hindu culture is so embedded within the long historical development of the society that local communities were clustered as non-political entities which developed in accordance with the Hindu worldview and philosophy.
Agama Hindu Dharma (Balinese form of Hinduism) is a mixture of Indian philosophy, indigenous practices and reverence for Buddhist deities. Indigenous beliefs, such as animism and the famous ancestor worship, are the backbone of Balinese thinking. Spirits and ancestors are feted with offerings and housed in shrines or natural elements. They may affect every aspect of life, and, therefore, a complex apparatus of rituals and taboos is necessary to prevent an outbreak of calamities, diseases, deaths, and any other kind of adversity. On the whole, the Indonesian archipelago is characterized by folk tales, encounters with giants and terrible creatures. No real distinctions between the living and the dead exist, and ever-present evil spirits inhabit even the bright green rice paddies of the islands.
A stunning example of the Balinese cultural richness is the wayang, a form of puppet theatre art found also in other parts of Southeast Asia. In the Wayang Bali the stories, drawn from the Mahabharata myth cycle, are narrated through puppets’ shadows manipulated by rods against a screen lit from behind. The light, usually an oil lamp, represents the sun, the shadow master (dalang) is the spiritual leader and the “creator”, the screen symbolizes the world, while the wayangs (puppets) are all the creatures. Thus, the performance becomes a representation of the cosmos. The story is accompanied by a special music called gender wayang, a style of gamelan distinctive of the Balinese tradition.
Spirits can be effective solutions to disturbing questions, offering a cultural victory over the unalterable nature. They can upset the social order, and, to avoid this, the victory over them needs to be reiterative and ritualized. There are many types of receptacles for spirits (including puppets, bowls of water, and even human beings), and, in general, Balinese create comfortable “homes” for the spirits to dwell in. Balinese masks, for example, have interesting functions and roles. They are used in several situations such as dance dramas, ritualistic performances but also weddings and funeral rites. Masks help Balinese to display the divine power and provide them with a material manifestation of that power.
During the ritual dances, the Balinese believe that the masks can inspire the dancers, who in turn entertain the masks. There are human, animal and demon masks. This last type can be deemed to be rather scary, with stretched and widened mouths, protruding eyes and sharpened teeth. There is, for example, the child-eating Rangda, demon queen of the leak (wicked witches of the Balinese tradition), the epitome of evil who symbolizes fears. Her servant (or daughter) is Rarung who can bring people back from the dead. She appears as a beautiful woman, but can immediately turn into a terrifying creature. The king of the spirits is Barong, a lion-like creature, and enemy of Rangda. Their battle symbolizes the eternal conflict between good and evil, and it is performed in the Barong dance, a unique tradition of the island.
The Indonesian strong focus on animism results in a countless number of forces which interfere not only with religious practices but also with daily activities. The memedi, for example, are humanoid ghosts who live in big trees close to villages. They can play dirty tricks but are not dangerous. Naughty child spirits are called tuyul. They are typical figures in Malay mythology and can be friendly or spiteful. In the Javanese mythology, an individual who owns a tuyul is said to become rich instantly, but in exchange, he or she will die slowly and painfully. Another mysterious creature is the jenglot which is described as a living human-like doll. It has dark skin and a resemblance to mummies. It is believed that jenglot, fed by their keepers, consume blood as nourishment.
The Balinese people have a unique relationship with supernatural entities which are part of every moment of their lives. They fear, worship, feed and respect the spirits. Sometimes, they can also fool them – during the Nyepi, the Balinese “Day of Silence”, they have to deceive the spirits that no one is actually on Bali so that they will leave. Eventually, all these features establish a colorful connection between the Balinese and unearthly beings which is a peculiarity of their continuously changing identity, and it undoubtedly livens up their exclusive culture.
What other Balinese monsters and spirits do you know of? And what are the scariest spirits of your culture? We’d love to hear from you!
With Tribalingual you help revitalize endangered cultures by learning their worldviews and languages. You can explore hidden stories and traditions, talking directly with our first-hand cultural experts, and you can prevent the disappearance of cultures that would deprive our humanity of its richness and diversity.