It is unclear where the barong originated, however it is generally accepted that a barong is a physical manifestation of a protective spirit which guards people from evil influences. In Bali, it dates back to ancient, pre-Hindu times when animism was the most popular form of belief.
Traditionally, it is believed that a barong is powerful enough to guard a village – you can also see the barong mask in temple friezes all over Bali, with the aim of driving away the demons known in Balinese as bhuta-kala.
Barong come in many different shapes and sizes. Most are representations of animals such as hybrid lion-tigers (barong ket), elephants (barong gajah), tigers (barong macan), pigs (barong bangkal), barong sai (Chinese lions), barong buntut (solo/tailless barong), ravens (barong guak), goats (barong kambing), bulls (barong lembu), horses (barong jaran), or moose (barong rusa).
Unusual barong are: gaint human puppets called barong landung (landung = tall in Balinese) barong gegombrangan (in Sayan, Gianyar), giant-faced characters called barong dawang-dawang or barong brutuk (in Trunyan).
Barong ket are the most commonly seen barong in ceremonies and tourist performances throughout Bali. Their dance is also the most developed. Most barong are danced by two dancers, one at the front head piece, the other at the back tail section, giving the creature four feet. The ones with two feet such as barong tunggal, barong bangkal and barong landung are all danced by a solo dancer.
Barong are decorated with hair or feathers depending on what village they come from. The magical power of the barong is said to be concentrated in its beard, which is customarily made from human hair. The belief in its magical power is so strong that if a village is struck by an epidemic, a lay priest is ordered to soak the beard in a glass of clean water to make holy water. This holy water is used to bring the village out of the epidemic.
The good, yet somewhat capricious nature, of the barong is finds its match in the black magic of the dastardly witch, Rangda. At a barong ket performance the presence of rangda is mandatory and is accompanied by trance dancers who along with the barong attempt to drive away the evil of Rangda.
For certain ceremonies, many barong will be gathered together to be purified. There is even a temple in Bualu, Nusa Dua named Barong-barong Temple. Barong are magically very special to most Balinese and their powers are taken very seriously.
© 2016 Vaughan Hatch