If there is one Indonesian art form that enjoys international fame and brings to mind the idea of a “magic show”, it is undoubtedly the shadow theater or puppet show: the “wayang”.
The flickering shadows of ancestral figures dancing on a white screen as they are shaped and unshaped by a flickering lamp. They tell the stories of yore: the struggle of the 5 Pandawas of the Mahabharata as they try to recover their kingdom, or Prince Rama’s longing for his kidnapped Sinta. And the performance is the real magician, the carrying, singing in Old Javanese, joking in low and high Balinese and deftly manipulating, while sweating under the heat of the oil lamp, heroes and villains, gods and giants. Intermediary of and with the gods, he is the “priest” par excellence (my uncle is the mind), the teacher, the one through whom all the Balinese, before colonization, learned myths, religious philosophy and rules of ethical behavior. His art encompasses the entire Balinese teaching. He supplied the school with the days before the modern school.
Everything in a wayang performance is imbued with symbolic meaning. God is likened to “Sang Hyang Ringgit” – the great puppeteer – and the earthly carrying he is his intermediary. The screen stretched across four bamboo sticks on which he performs symbolizes the world (jagat raya), while the banana stalk on which he strings his puppets at the foot of the screen is our Mother Earth (Pertiwi). The oil lamp is the divine source of cosmic energy, which gives life to all living things. Sitting cross-legged in the center to play in front of the screen, thus allowing the shadows to be seen on the other side, the carrying literally interprets the cosmic struggle between the forces of “good” (or preservation) and “evil” (or destruction) at work in the world. These forces are represented by the puppets who enter from the right and left of the dalang respectively. This cosmo-religious function is of the utmost importance; entertainment is only secondary. The wayang performance never begins without a long Old Javanese litany, which began with a call to Sang Hyang Ringgit to come down and literally inhabit the then demiurge carrying.
Wayang performances are held at ritual events, when the Neck The (intangible) world comes to life and the cosmic balance is at stake. The stories change according to the event being celebrated: marriage, post-cremation ceremony, vows etc., mythical heroes play out episodes in which corresponding stories of love, the holding of a great party or the death of a hero is the main topic. The heroes and villains address each other, never the spectators; they speak Old Javanese and their speech is translated into Balinese by the ‘buffoons’. This stratification of the discourse, of the story, further strengthens the sacredness of the show, which only occasionally ends in buffoonery.
Considering this key role of the wayang, it is not surprising that an entire week in the Balinese calendar of 210 days of 30 seven-day weeks is attributed to it, which determines – together with the lunar cycles of the Saka year – most of the rites of the religion balinese.
Every 35 days, at the intersection of Saturday of the 7-day week and Kliwon of the 5-day week, the ‘Tumpek’ ritual days occur, in which an important aspect of Balinese life is celebrated at the end of the corresponding week. There are 6 of them crowdeds: addressed respectively to weapons (Tumpek Landep, 2nd week), plants (Tumpek Uduh, 7th week), ancestors (Tumpek Kuningan, 12th week), music (Tumpek Krulut, 17th week), animals (Tumpek Kandang, 22a) and wayang (Tumpek Wayang, 27seventh week).
The Tumpek Wayang, which comes at the close of Wayang week, is considered the birthday of the wayang. The dalang makes offerings to his series of puppets and above all to the most sacred ones: the divine buffoons (Delem and Sangut, respectively from the positive and negative sides). He usually has a shrine in his family temple through which he addresses the “spirit” of his talent, or taksu, which inhabits it during its performances, and through which it enters into communication with the forces of the intangible world. The villagers may also visit the dalangs to ask for the holy water produced by sacred performances.
However, the particularity of the wayang week, and of the Tumpek wayang, is also that of unleashing destructive cosmic forces that the Balinese must repel. The story goes that Shiva’s demonic son Batara Kala – the Lord of Time – goes on a rampage during this week, and children born during wayang week are to be protected by a purification ceremony.
The origin of this ritual is mythological. It dates back, so the story goes, to the birth of Batara Kala from a drop of seed that fell into the sea after his father was rejected by his wife Uma. Since Shiva feared the consequences to the world of his demonic son’s bad temper, he asked him to cut off his fangs and thereby control his demonic temper.
Kala accepted, but on one condition: that he could devour those children born like him on Tumpek Wayang. Shiva agreed. Alas, fate had decided that Shiva’s wife would give birth to another son born in Tumpek Wayang: Dewa Rare Kumara, the patron god of children. When he heard of it, Kala claimed what he was owed. He should be able to eat his brother. Shiva and Uma begged him to delay, as Kumara was still a child. But after he grew up, there was nothing they could do to stop their demon child from stalking his prey. But before he could be captured, Dewa Rare Kumara had escaped and taken refuge among humans. Furious, Batara Kala chased him throughout the middle world, wreaking havoc all the while. He was about to capture it, when his brother hid in a gamelan, just as the shadow master was performing a purification ritual. Batara Kala saw the offerings there and, hungry, carelessly swallowed them. But now he had eaten what was not his by decree of the gods. The dalang was furious and demanded revenge: ashamed, the demon god agreed to give up trying to devour his brother.
Since those times, Dewa Rare Kumara is the protector of children. Kala – the Balinese Chronos – is still the “devourer” Lord of time and people, especially children, but he only devours those who are not respectful of the ritual prescriptions. He is more dangerous during the “joints” (sandi) of the day: sunrise, noon and sunset. It is also a danger to all those born during wayang week. To ward off this danger, people who have a baby born in this week usually take a vow to hold a Sapuleger wayang performance, which tells the story of Kala pictured above and then purify (ngruwat) the baby from all danger.
The Tumpek Wayang ceremony and the related story of Batara Kala remind us that for the Balinese, time is anything but neutral. It is heavily charged with positive and negative cosmic energy which the individual, as a microcosm themselves, must keep in balance with each other through an appropriate ritual.
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