Have you ever seen a Balinese dog? I am sure you must have. These small, ugly animals are everywhere. They lurk in every corner in groups of four or five, peering at you in defiance with their small beady eyes, their tails jigging in the air. If you are, like myself, a white-skinned Caucasian, they can identify you immediately from your body odour, since we stink – the Balinese say Westerners stink like calves, and it might be true – and so they bark at you relentlessly, untill you set off in a run. These dogs are really the scourges of Bali.
I try not to be racist, but it is difficult sometimes: It seems that the Balinese have passed all the negative aspects of their character down to their dogs. The nicer the Balinese, the nastier their dogs. One wonders whether there isn’t some connivance between the two. Is it the Balinese way to tell us that there are too many tourists around? Who knows?
The Balinensis caninensus is a protected species. Greyish or greyish-black, it is as indigenous and specific to the island as its pigs and humans. But it is ‘racially’ purer.
Unlike pigs, which are now encouraged to breed with their ‘Western’ counterparts, and unlike humans, who do not have to be encouraged at all, Balinese dogs are prevented from any interbreeding, with the exception of the so-called ‘Kintamani dog’, believed to have descended from a ‘Western’ warrior dog that had lost its ways in the mountain resort of Kintamani at the turn of the century.
The Balinese dog is normally protected by Balinese local writ: it is forbidden to import dogs.
Apart from its obvious advantage from the point of view of racial purity, the prohibition is of little impact. Rabies is present throughout Indonesia, including on the resort island Bali. In fact, an outbreak claimed a record 12 lives in the first half of 2015 .
Each year, numerous people in Bali die from the disease. Avoid touching dogs– and animals like monkeys during your stay. It is difficult to get immediate post-exposure vaccination, even in Denpasar.
Why are there so many Balinese dogs around?
Some reasons are well known, while others are related to the characteristics of the Balinese culture: dogs cost next to nothing to their village masters. They live off the offerings put down daily at the ‘strategic’ corners of the house.
Demons’ food becomes dogs’ grub. But the defilement does not stop there. In remote villages, the dogs do not hesitate to go to the house’s field of impurity, the teba, and fight with the pigs over human refuse. No wonder Balinese dogs are neither very clean nor healthy. Their skin is often infested with open sores, which stink of rotten flesh.
In spite of these vicissitudes in the dog’s life, dog meat, particularly that of the black dog, is quite a delicacy in some places. Very few villages nowadays allow dog butchering, but those who do make it their choicest food. The flavour must be worth the risks; I still recall seeing a dog-meat peddler being chased by angry barking dogs as he travelled with his ‘stock’.
As if it were not enough to be eaten by men, dogs may also be offered as sacrificial meat to the demonic forces (buta yadnya). One of the main exorcisms in Bali, the resi gana, cannot take place without the sacrifice of a specific dog: the balang bungkem.
Its peculiarity is not on account of its species, but of its skin color, which is of a particularly ugly red. This sacrifice might well have something to do with the fact that Balinese dogs are thought to symbolise the principle of tamah or lust, whereas the duck and the cock, also often used in Balinese rituals, are respectively associated with sattwa, or purity, and rajah or passion. The three of them constitute the triguna or trilogy of the main drives of nature.
Talking of lust and passion, Balinese dogs offer quite a show indeed, knowing neither shame nor embarrassment. Perhaps this should be put down to their indifference or stupidity. But anyway, they are as careless as they are heedless. They just do what they think they have to do whatever the looks they get or the consequences.
They also cross the road to die in big numbers. Is it another sacrifice, to be the speedometer control of the crazy Balinese roads?
Balinese dogs are not all bad though. Listen to this story:
Dharmawangsa the king and his four Pandawa brothers, having defeated the evil Korawas, enjoyed in their kingdom a long and lasting peace. One evening, they decided that time had come to take the road to heaven, which was, they were told, up there, up the Indrakila Mountain.So they set out for the climb.
A poor village black dog took up their trail, and faithfully followed them. It was a long and tiring trek, so long and tiring in fact that the king’s brothers died on the way one by one.
Nakula and Sadewa the twins, Arjuna the seductor and Bima the brave, all died on the slopes to heaven. Only Dharmawangsa had the strength to carry on, accompanied by the faithful dog.
Eventually Dharmawangsa reached the doors of heaven, located on the summit of the mountain of snow. He was just about to enter, followed by the dog, when the guardian god stopped him with these words: “O Dharmawangsa, how dare you come into heaven with that animal of filth, send it away. Heaven is for you alone, the virtuous king of the world, but not for a vile dog.”
Dharmawangsa looked at the dog, and replied with a smile: “O god, what is that heaven of yours, if it is closed to this faithful dog? I tell you, my lord, I would rather go to hell than abandon this companion of mine.”
He had barely spoken these words before a huge brillance came up: the dog had just transformed itself into the god of virtue, Dharma himself. And the god said: “Dharmawangsa my son, welcome to heaven, you are the just among the justs”.
Thus, Dharmawangsa reached heaven.
How not to love Balinese dogs.
Text by Jean Couteau