Kecak and Fire Dance at Uluwatu Temple
Over the centuries, the popular Indian epic Ramayana has been retold in various ways. I happened to attend one of them when few chapters of the epic were narrated in the form of Kecak and Fire dance performances at Uluwatu Temple, Bali. As the amphitheater filled with more and more people eagerly awaiting the performance, my eyes wandered to the backstage where the dancers were getting ready. The stage is strategically set in an excellent location where one could witness the cliff-hanging Uluwatu Temple and the beautiful setting sun.
The performance began with the priest lighting the ceremonial lamp and offering prayers to God. What is fascinating is the similarity to traditions in India. Even today, most of the Indian villages have ritual performances and storytelling in the temple premises. Minutes later, a group of bare-chested men entered the stage with a synchronized sound “Cak- Cak- Cak” and surrounded the holy flame. Before the performance, the priest cleansed them individually. There is no other music to this performance other than these hypnotic synchronized sounds from these men. The sounds grew progressively eerier as the men swayed their bodies in trance in tune with the vocals. At that point, it felt as though they have transformed themselves into spirits narrating the story of Ramayana (good over evil).
As the ‘spirits’ move their shoulders in concentric circles, the scenes from the Ramayana unfolds in front of the audience. King Rama, Sita (Rama’s wife), Lakshmana (Rama’s brother) are seen living in the forest after getting exiled from the kingdom. Ravana (King of Lanka) gets smitten by Sita’s beauty and sends his uncle Maricha to allure her. Maricha transforms himself into a golden deer and enters the forest to attract Sita. Sita gets fascinated by the golden deer and insists that her husband gets the golden deer. As Rama goes in search of the deer, Sita hears a cry from the forest and thinks her husband needs help and sends his brother. Lakshmana reluctantly leaves Sita, not before marking the famous “Lakshman Rekha” and requests her to not to step outside the circle under any circumstances. The next scene shows Ravana trying to enter the house but unable to do so due to the Lakshman Rekha. He then disguises himself as a beggar asking for alms and asks Sita to step outside the circle to give alms. As Sita blindly trusts him and crosses the Lakshman Rekha, Ravana reveals himself and kidnaps her to Lanka. Rama takes help from the Monkey clan where he meets Hanuman who pledges to help him get back his wife. Hanuman goes to Lanka and finds Sita and reminds her of her husband by giving her Rama’s ring. He is quickly spotted by the spies of Lanka who captures the monkey and sets him on fire. The play’s climax scene is where Hanuman escapes from their clutches and sets Lanka on fire. The performance ends by the priest entering the stage and again cleansing the area and souls of the ‘spirits’.
Kecak originated from an old ritual dance called Sanghyang (Trance Dance), in which a person in a state of trance communicates with the deities or ancestors. In the 1930s, Walter Spies, a German painter became deeply interested in this ritual and adapted this as a drama in the form of dance based on Ramayana. The origins of this dance, however, lead to Bona village where these eerie sounds and banging of loud vessels were used to awaken the dead. In earlier days due to lack of medical facilities, people believed that making loud noises will ward off the demons of diseases. They also performed these trance dances in front of the temples to ward off the evil spirits. People of Bona believed that performing Kecak makes an individual feel strong. Today’s Kecak dance, however, is more sophisticated to enthrall the tourists.
I captured few glimpses of the performance in the video. I wondered why Ramayana is always the chosen script for all these dance performances. I was fortunate to see Ramayana ballet performance at Prambanan, Yogyakarta which also narrated similar pages from the epic. The performance of Prambanan is much closer to my heart as it was more professional than the Kecak dance at Uluwatu. The climax scene where Hanuman set the entire stage to fire appeared grander in Yogyakarta compared to the smaller stage in Bali. Ramayana’s linear storyline with a heroic tale of good winning over evil makes it much more appealing for the tourists. It is fascinating to see how characters of Ramayana have spread widely across the globe. The famous tales of Sun Wukong, Monkey King and his journey to the west in Chinese classical novels are said to be influenced from Hanuman. Other epics like Mahabharata are more difficult to adapt and present due to their complex characters and interweaving storylines.
Kecak was indeed a unique performance where the background chant remains with you long after the event.
Copyright ©2017, Lakshmi Nair. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.