Pung with the new sacred Rangda mask.

In early April this year I was working at my computer when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Pung, in Balinese temple wear, with a big smile on his face. “Get dressed,” he said. “Come with me to the graveyard!” What an offer! But over the years I have learned to listen when Pung makes these kinds of urgent suggestions.

The graveyard was teeming with Balinese men and women dressed in white temple clothes. Pung pointed out a tree with a 7-meter bamboo ramp leaning against it. A white cloth along the length of the ramp led up to the trunk. “Actually it’s not one tree, it’s two,” said Pung. “A ficus that has grown around a pule (Alstonia sp) tree. The ramp is to take some wood from the pule, to make a mask for the temple.”

A ramp errected to bring a cut of wood down from a pule tree in the Ubud graveyard.
The “pregnant” growth was perfectly suited to become a sacred mask.

A few weeks earlier, a priest had recognized that the pule tree was “pregnant;” it had a burl growth halfway up its trunk, on the northeastern or “kaja kangin” side, the most holy of the Balinese sacred directions. The tree’s location in the graveyard added to the holiness of the wood, and pule trees are sacred as well.

The high priest had decided to turn the wood into a mask of Rangda for enshrinement in the temple of Shiva, known as the Pura Dalem. Rangda is a fierce female spirit, with fangs, claws, and a long dangling tongue. She is one of the two village guardian deities, along with a lion-like creature called Barong. Randga and Barong represent the balance of opposing forces in the universe.

The high priest marking out how the wood was to be cut for the mask.
The cut wood was then placed in the Pura Dalam temple where it was carefully carved over many months into a mask.

The priests of the graveyard temple sanctified a chainsaw for this special task, and wrapped it with white cloth. The man who would operate the chainsaw prayed and received blessings as well, before he walked up the swaying ramp. For about twenty minutes he poked and sliced at the tree, eventually extracting a large lump of wood, which was set on a bamboo bier and carried across Ubud to the Pura Dalem.

No one living in Ubud had ever seen this kind of ceremony before, and hundreds of locals turned out to watch the cutting, and to follow the wood as it was carried away. As the graveyard emptied, Pung and I climbed up the ramp to look at the huge gash in the pule tree. “Won’t this weaken the tree?” I asked. “No,” Pung replied. “The old people say the tree will heal over this cut. We have placed offerings here to the spirit of the tree.”

The cut made in the tree will heal over over time.
The wood from the tree was boiled continuously for 42 days.

Tradition dictated that the wood be boiled continuously for forty-two days before carving, in a mixture of water with tobacco and other plants. Over that time, every man in north Ubud took shifts in the temple, stoking the fire, replenishing the liquid, and guarding the sacred wood all day and all night. This was a once in a life time experience, and everyone was proud to participate.

After the boiling, a particular carver was sought from a nearby village who had experience and power to take on the work of carving the mask. He could only work in the temple and only he could touch the tools that began to shape the wood into the face of Rangda.

A special carver with a talent for carving sacred masks was sought for the job.
Sidakarya is an important ritual mask danced at all ceremonies.

Wealthy members of the north Ubud community offered gold and precious stones valued at nearly $50,000 to adorn the face and the long tongue that is part of the Rangda mask.

Wealthy members of the north Ubud community offered gold and precious stones valued at nearly $50,000 to adorn the face and the long tongue that is part of the Rangda mask.

Gold and semi precious stones adorn the Rangda mask.
Threads of Life donated a cepuk textile from Nusa Penida for the tongue of the mask.

Rangda masks also require bristles and plumes of horsehair and wool, and a long tongue, cut from leather and lined with a cepuk textile, a powerful protective cloth. Threads of Life was honored to donate a naturally-dyed cepuk cloth from Tenglad village on Nusa Penida.

Rangda masks also require bristles and plumes of horsehair and wool, and a long tongue, cut from leather and lined with a cepuk textile, a powerful protective cloth. Threads of Life was honored to donate a naturally-dyed cepuk cloth from Tenglad village on Nusa Penida.

Threads of Life donated a cepuk textile fromNusa Penida for the tongue of the mask.
The masks were processed through the streets of Ubud.

After the masks were complete, the community of Ubud joined the procession to bring them back to the Pura Dalam where they will permanently be installed. The final ceremony to animate these masks took place at midnightthat evening in the graveyard. The whole event was powerful. Watching Pung and the other members of the community that evening, I could see how proud they were to have witnessed such an event in their lifetime.

Recommended Posts