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Kecak: The Fire Dance of Bali

The barren arena has just a massive black lamp made of stone that dotted the center. No stage setup, no curtains, no extra lightings, no hint of any backstage music either. The arena of Pura Uluwatu in Bali, Indonesia is more like a mini open-air auditorium.

This is the stage for 50 dancers of the famed Kecak (pronounced as Kechak) Dance, a traditional art form of Bali in Indonesia. One is left wondering what kind of dance performance it would be!

A priest in a white garment walks into light of the solo lamp in the center of the circular place and you know the stage is set. The lighting of the lamp is a signal of commencement of the world-famous Kecak Dance of Bali. That stirs up all in their seats, craning their necks not wanting to miss any sight.

Chants of chak chak chak… faint at first grow stronger within seconds! Half clad men; more than 50 in number, dressed in black and white check patterned sarong, chanting chak chak chak, enter the stage. Slightly mind-boggling, it makes one curious – whatever does it mean?!

The men come in a disciplined rhythmic manner, take up their seats in concentric circles at the edge of this circular place chanting chak chak chak and swaying a bit. One by one the main artists make their entry dancing on their nimble feet. With expressive eyes and gestures with fingers, they convey their roles.

Pura Uluwatu arena in Bali, Indonesia.

Slowly the drama unfolds, the story takes shape and the characters evolve distinctly. The chant gets high-pitched whenever the scene climaxes and soon slows down to a murmur too and the men sway according to the same rhythm. 

If you are aware of the story of the Hindu epic Ramayana, you can name each character easily. No need for any lyrics, hymns, or dialogues. Just the mere rise and fall in pitch of the chant of chak chak gave us the overall effect of the drama including the climax and final closure.

The story, a small part of Ramayana: Rama goes hunting for a golden deer on Sita’s insistence. Lakshman stays back to protect Sita, but again on Sita’s insistence, Lakshman goes out to protect Rama. Meanwhile, Rahwana comes seeking alms in the disguise of a beggar. The moment Sita steps out to give alms, Rahwana carries her away to his kingdom.

Rama takes the help of Hanuman, the Monkey God. The drama is infused with humor with Hanuman’s entry. His tail is set on fire by Rahwana’s men and he keeps jumping around spreading terror; albeit with little humor. The dance takes the name Fire Dance from this scene.

While Kecak Dance can be seen in other parts of Bali too, it is at Uluwatu Temple the experience seems exceptional. With the sun setting in the background, the sun’s final rays created amazing silhouettes, and the torches borne by the artists reflecting their dramatic actions and gestures cast a magical spell! 

Chak chak chak… the sound haunts your mind long after the show is over. So, it meant the chatter of monkeys! A story told by the monkeys with no words or lyrics, just chak chak chak, hence sometimes known by the name Monkey Dance too.

Lord Ram in the Kecak Dance retelling of the Ramayana.

How Ramayana reached Bali

Hinduism reached Indonesia from India in the 1st century. The religion crossed seas from the Indian mainland through traders and Hindu scholars.

Ancient Chinese records of Fa Hien of 414 AD mention two schools of Hinduism in Java. Additionally, Chinese documents from the eighth century refer to the Hindu kingdom of King Sanjaya as Holing, describing it as exceedingly wealthy.

Another widely believed reason for the spread of Hinduism in Indonesia is that Indonesian royalty welcomed Indian religions and culture. The rulers first adopted the spiritual ideas of both Hinduism and Buddhism and soon the masses too adopted them. Hindu epics are part of the country’s culture. They believe Hindu epics promote values like loyalty, courage, and integrity of characters.

History of Kecak Dance

Kecak Dance was first developed in Bona, Gianyar during the 1930s. For the people of Bali, dance is a medium of expression of cultural values; they use it to convey their folk history and mythological stories. It is an important part of rituals associated with life, cremation, and death. They perform while praying for the prosperity and health of their community.

Kecak Dance is one of the nine popular forms of dances of Bali. The older version was more a kind of trance ritual. Male performers chanted chak-chak in chorus with different rhythms and pitches. Sanghyang Dance, another traditional dance of Bali, has chorus singers and girls dance in trance. It belongs to the broader classification of Wali Dance, a form of the sacred dance of Bali. The present-day Kecak dance version is a mix of Sanghyang dance and the original form of Kecak dance-themed on the mythological story of the Hindu epic, Ramayana.

It was the joint effort of an artist named Wayan Limbak and a painter from Germany, Walter Spies, that put Kecak Dance on the world map of dances. Their goal was to put up a performance for the public. 

Interestingly, since the 1930s, Kecak Dance has been performed by only men. It was until 2006 that women too began to perform this dance. Today Kecak Dance is performed not only in temples but also in cultural parks and in international theatres. However, it is most mesmerizing to watch in Pura Uluwatu in the evenings with a dramatic sunset as background!

Indrani Ghose is a freelance writer from Bangalore, India, and is passionate about travel, culture, cuisines, life stories, and bird watching. She blogs at isharethese.com. 

Destination Bali

Bali is a very devout, sacred Hindu island—a shining green emerald etched into the equatorial heart of the primeval, volcanic Indonesian archipelago. Bali continues to maintain its ancient cultural links to India—it is an adamant and joyous outpost of Hindu reverence and religion. A ring of high, coastal perimeter temples guards their sacred, secret island both from invaders—and from the omnipresent forces of lurking, local black magic practitioners. The Balinese are secure under this divine benediction: everything that they do is done under the protection of the gods. The Balinese will never give up their deities, sacred religious foods, village priests, cycle of offerings, village ceremonies, temple anniversaries, and extravagant, traffic-stopping processions.

Local Balinese women in brightly colored, pink and yellow lace kebayas and silken sarongs parade through the narrow village streets in breathtaking, traffic-stopping, single ceremonial file. They balance heavy, six-foot-high, layered-fruit offering towers (banten tegeh) on their heads while enroute to visit another village temple.  I took a one-day class at Ubud’s Puri Lukisan Museum on how to construct the offering tower (the trick is in a hidden, vertical interior stand and sharp bamboo sticks to affix the fruit in even rows!)

There are elaborately carved, strategically placed paras stone temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, Lord Brahma, and Lord Vishnu in every single village on the island—long referred to as “the island of ten thousand temples.” The Balinese will invite you to come to their homes to share their ceremonies, home art galleries, village cooking, and weddings. Royal cremation ceremonies showcase Bali’s devotion to the Hindu divinities.  Everything else stops—time itself ceases and freezes solid—whenever a massive, elaborate cremation ceremony must be staged to honor (and consecrate to the flames) a king or member of the royal palace of Ubud. Indian tourists to Bali will be warmly welcomed, and you will find much that is familiar in shared roots and religion—but with a delicious Balinese cultural twist!

Delicious traditional Balinese food served on a leaf plate
Delicious traditional Balinese food served on a leaf plate

“Spiritual growth and health tourism” options are abundant in the rice-field-ringed, traditional village heart of Bali. Ubud is the cultural capital and sacred healing center of Bali, blessed with an abundance of yoga studios, spas, herbal healing sanctuaries, beauty and massage treatments,  traditional healers, local village balian, jamu sellers, beauty regimens, natural beauty products, Balinese dance performances, health meditation teachers, and holistic intuitive healers.

Shadow Puppet Performance
Ubud is the perfect setting to see a wayang kulit shadow puppet performance—a spiritualized art form which still holds tremendous power in Bali and Java. The highly trained dalang (puppet master) assumes formidable supernatural powers (he is almost in trance) during the entire wayang performance. Sequestered behind an oil lamp-lit screen, he re-enacts ancient familiar scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana legends (spliced with contemporary, often comical, Balinese social and political commentary).  He uses and manipulates his own large, ornate, powerful collection of carefully crafted and blessed, magically charged puppet characters. Behind the glow of the ancient oil lamp, he is an otherworldly spiritual force to be reckoned with—and treated with great care and deference. The wayang kulit can typically go on for hours on special ritual occasions.  Young Balinese couples will still hire a wayang group to stage a performance at their home wedding ceremony to entertain the guests.

Behind the scenes of a Wayang Kulit Puppet Show
Behind the scenes of a Wayang Kulit Puppet Show

Balinese Wayang Kulit shadow plays take place in conjunction with temple celebrations or other religious gatherings. The first time that I saw the wayang was in Ubud in the 1990s—I was captivated and entranced by both the ink-black, night-time, rubble-strewn performance space and the sacred ritual subtext of the experience.  The purpose of the wayang is to bless the occasion by inviting ancestral spirits to visit the location.  Bountiful offerings are presented before, during, and after the performance, which may last from three to four hours. Balinese wayang is not an all night performance as it is in Java. Plays usually begin sometime between nine and eleven o’clock. The Balinese dalang takes on the role of priest, performing acts of offering and cleansing. Mantras are recited before and after the performance. A primary purpose of the shadow play is for the dalang to make holy water—to be used for prayer and to bless the area and the participants. Holy water is prepared by adding flowers to water from a high stream, and reciting mantras with incense and sprinklings of rice (abundant offerings are also presented).

Natural Spas
Luscious-smelling, organic spa products manufacturers are clustered in the environs of Ubud—offering their own brand of authentic, village boreh scrubs.  These poultices originated in the golden age of Balinese rice cultivation. Tending the bright green, terraced rice field rings, the farmers were constantly exposed to the raw elements. They labored under the heat of the sun—standing fast against tropical gusts—while mired knee-deep in damp earth, irrigated, mirror-like flooded paddy fields, and pools of water. This gave rise to assorted muscular aches and pains. The cure was a restorative boreh powder—a combination of medicinal roots, spices, and bark crushed into a healing pack. Bali’s ancient, indigenous boreh—a healing and warming paste used for sickness—warms the body, enhances blood circulation, relieves aching joints and sore muscles, and enhances skin elasticity.  The fresh herbal aromatics also relieve headaches, colds, flu, and runny noses.  It is commonly applied to the forehead and temples, shoulders, back, foot, knee, and legs. Following a harsh day hoeing in the fields, the boreh provides welcome warmth to cold rural legs and feet. After the farmer washes up, eats dinner, and gets ready for bed, the pack will be applied and left in place throughout the night (especially during the cooler rainy season). It will be rinsed off in the morning. This warming sequence is also applied in modern, “traditional spa treatments,” with boreh described as a body warmer, beauty scrub/body scrub, healing paste and exfoliant all at the same time—both remedial and cosmetic.

A Balinese spa with a natural spa bath
A Balinese spa with a natural spa bath

A healing boreh product is usually composed of fresh coconut oil, flowers, aromatic roots, cardamom, cinnamon, wild ginger, galangal, cloves, pepper, nutmeg and rice powder. All ingredients are milled into powders and blended with warm water for immediate use. The archetypal bark and cloves blend has a pleasant odor (brown rice acts as a glutinous viscous base). The paste is applied to areas of ailment and then left to dry. In the villages, you can see the typically rugged Balinese elders with patches of dried boreh on their temples, arms, and legs. Different ailments may call for alternate or additional ingredients such as sandalwood, mesui, and sitok (other indigenous tree barks), coriander, bengle (a type of plant widely used in local and Chinese medicine), and an extensive list of herbs. Older Balinese (even with a mild cold) will send a child to purchase a list of herbs and spices from a small, traditional warung stall across the village road, or simply gather some home-grown roots and leaves from their back yard gardens and fields.

A relaxing, rejuvenating day spa indulgence is another integral element in Ubud’s arsenal of healing, happiness, and wellness choices. I recommend the Tamarind Spa at Murni’s Houses in Ubud for the ultimate in luxurious, body-pampering bliss. It lives up to its beautiful name—a place for magical caretaking, delicious scents, and the ultimate in body and soul rejuvenation. Most spa products in Bali are natural and contain local Balinese herbs, plants, flowers, and spices grown in Ubud’s equatorial, tropical highland Garden of Eden. The native plants used in the Tamarind Spa all grow in rich, local volcanic soil. The village of Ubud (obad means “medicine” in Balinese) is the source of many of the Tamarind Spa’s superior concoctions—a naturally fertile area lush with emerald green leaves, roots, barks, and herbs.

In Bali, spiritual income is as important as physical income: the use of raw, organic spa ingredients benefits the local farmers. Honeycomb may come from area bee keepers, and seaweed is brought over from Bali’s pristine sister island, Nusa Lembongan. The high quality of the fragrant ingredients enhances the Spa’s body and bath treatments, scrubs, facials, massages, and exfoliants. You will stare—with love and longing, and anticipation—at your beautiful, fragrant bar of soap sitting on the treatment room ledge. It awaits your every pleasure. This is the type of soap that you bond with—that you build an intimate relationship with—an indulgent delight! You may find yourself lingering in the gorgeous hot shower in a fragrant haze. Your skin feels soft, silky, smooth, and relaxed—like everyone and everything else in Bali.

A private and serene area of a Balinese spa
A private and serene area of a Balinese spa

For the ultimate Balinese spa experience, you must take the famous, flower-filled, mandi lulur bathtub extravaganza—which originated in the sumptuous royal palaces of Java to preserve the beauty of the pampered royal princesses. You will luxuriate for an hour in a warm, gleaming tub filled with fresh flower petals, red hibiscus blossoms, and vivid marigold flowers and sip hot ginger tea from small, elegant, celadon-green stoneware cups. It does not get any better than this.

The nearby Tjampuhan Hotel and Spa on Jalan Raya Tjampuhan (near the old Dutch suspension bridge) is another well-established, wellness destination in Ubud. It offers a unique Romanesque grotto setting decorated with traditional Balinese carvings and stonework set into the river valley. Hot and cold whirlpool baths compete with multi-level, gladiator-like natural, tree ringed pools: I lingered here all afternoon in amazed bliss. The cliffside day massage beds are unique in the world: clients can relax “en plain air,” accompanied by the relaxing sounds and sights of the rushing river below. I had hours of fun watching a beautiful, brightly colored, yellow and brown striped snail slowly crawl up the rocky wall of my open-air massage space.

Yoga and Healing
If you want to recover, grow, and find inner peace, you must come to Ubud. Ubud’s organic/healing sensibilities run deep: some of the finest and most creative yoga studios in the world make their home in the sanctuary of this bustling, rice-field bracketed Balinese village. Linda Madani’s Intuitive Flow yoga studio is perched high above the stone stairs leading up to the bucolic, beautiful local village of Penestenan. A Canadian expat, Linda, has done advanced spiritual training with a member of Ubud’s royal family, Cokorda Rai, in ancient Balinese yoga and healing techniques. Her gorgeous, Intuitive Flow yoga space has a wrap-around view of the lush countryside below: classes with Linda are a life-changing, life-enhancing, “spiritual yoga” odyssey.

Bali has a worldwide reputation as a monastic refuge of restorative healing, renewal, and health. The massive Bali Spirit Yoga Barn studio on Jalan Hanoman in Ubud is relaxing, friendly, comfortable, earthy and unpretentious. Here, you can nourish your body, mind and soul. The Yoga Barn has five yoga studios with wooden walls and floors, blessed by a myriad of carved Ganesha statues. The multi-level Yoga Barn is nestled in an oasis amidst lush rice paddies, an organic farm, and a jungle ravine: it is a Balinese architectural miracle of local green grasses, lotus ponds and bamboo.

A center of spirituality, the Yoga Barn offers delicious organic vegetarian food, a yoga clothing boutique, and a full roster of mind and body-opening yoga classes, retreats, yoga festivals, and yoga teacher training courses. The instructors are international “yoga teachers in extended residence” in magical Ubud (from the United States, Australia, and beyond). It is a very liberating experience to enjoy your yoga practice in this special, supportive, transformational environment: “If you hug Ubud, it will hug you back!” I bought a special seven-day pass to the Yoga Barn, and was in residence there from morning until night for one of the best weeks of my life!

I finally learned the meaning of the all too common “monkey mind” expression: like an overactive macaque, our unquiet, unsettled thoughts are always jumping from tree to tree!  Nor will I ever forget Bodi Whittaker’s “bliss ball” teachings—straight from Byron Bay, Australia. Hold your palms body-width apart, facing each other in front of you.  Imagine that there is a large round bliss ball between them.  You can feel the very palpable, joyous positive energy running between your hands. Use it as an open-ended source of happiness, peace, and enlightenment. It works!

Vivienne Kruger, Ph.D. is the author of Balinese Food: The Traditional Cuisine and Food Culture of Bali, 2014.  Vivienne Kruger launched her own tour company and is leading fabulous, fully guided two-week tour groups to Bali.  Please visit www.balinesefoodculturaltourstobali.blogspot.com for complete information and booking.