Gongs in Bali

To the Balinese, a gong is something that is often revered: for its sound, its prestige, its mysticism. To the lay person, we think of a gong as a hanging instrument that makes a sort of booming sound, but it is much more than that.

As a gamelan researcher and educator at Mekar Bhuana Centre, it’s hardly surprising that I often answer questions about gongs: When did gongs first appear in Bali? How many different types of gongs are in Bali? Where are they made? How are they made?

The word gong itself has its origin in Malay that only dates back to the 17th century. However, it is obvious in both the archaeological and literary record that these instruments are a lot older. Whereas gongs have been found in the archeological record across Southeast Asia up to 3,500 years ago, the earliest mentions of gongs in Bali can be traced back around 1,000 years to a stone edict called Prasasti Pengotan (925 AD), Bangli that mentions players of instruments interpreted as either drums or gongs with sunken bosses known as bende in Balinese. For me it’s quite surprising that a gong of such high technology was the first mentioned, since it is a lot more different to produce a bossed (especially one with a sunken boss) than a gong with no boss (gong bheri in Balinese). The Moon of Pejeng – a type of instrument known as nekara in Balinese that could be interpreted as either a upright drum or gong – that could in fact be the earliest; and, even though this one is probably the result of intercultural trading with other parts of Southeast Asia, there is archaeological evidence in the form of molds which were found in Bitera, Gianyar that they were also produced locally at some time in ancient history.

© Vaughan Hatch 2018

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