The Night in Bali of Yore

Culture | Written By, NOW! BALI |

Night-time in today’s modern Bali means partying in and around Kuta. It is a new notion. The “night” in today’s Bali is totally different from what it has been for thousands of years. The change was initiated in the 1970s and 1980s, so not so long ago. Electricity was introduced to replace the small oil lamps of village houses. With the electricity came television. “Night” did not effectively start anymore with dusk and the setting of the sun. It stopped being determined by a natural cycle to obey the whims of Man: People now went to bed after the Jakarta TV News. Their cultural memory, until then ruled at the rhythm rites and ceremonies, became increasingly ruled by national political and cultural concerns. From that time on, the Balinese lost control over their nights—and their culture. Thus, dear visitors, know that the nights that you are going to enjoy in Kuta, Nusa Dua or elsewhere, do not belong here. They belong to where you come from: from today’s disenchanted world.

TEXT by JEAN COUTEAU PHOTO BY WENI

Night-time in today’s modern Bali means partying in and around Kuta. It is a new notion. The “night” in today’s Bali is totally different from what it has been for thousands of years.

The change was initiated in the 1970s and 1980s, so not so long ago. Electricity was introduced to replace the small oil lamps of village houses. With the electricity came television. “Night” did not effectively start anymore with dusk and the setting of the sun. It stopped being determined by a natural cycle to obey the whims of Man: People now went to bed after the Jakarta TV News. Their cultural memory, until then ruled at the rhythm rites and ceremonies, became increasingly ruled by national political and cultural concerns. From that time on, the Balinese lost control over their nights—and their culture. Thus, dear visitors, know that the nights that you are going to enjoy in Kuta, Nusa Dua or elsewhere, do not belong here. They belong to where you come from: from today’s disenchanted world.

Listen how the famous painter Made Djirna from Sayan depicts the nights of his youth: “Sometimes, my grandfather would wake me up at 4 a.m. We would go together to the river, where he had put his nets to catch fish. We would also keep watch together over the rice field before harvest. Sometimes we would spend a whole night in a small hut of the kind one still sees in the middle of the rice fields. The nights were extraordinarily clear. One could still see the conic shape of the Great Mountain (Mount Agung) looming over the horizon. Sometimes meteors would flash down as they burned themselves when entering the atmosphere. All was not quiet. Strange things happened. There were lights that passed through the rice fields in the distance, without anyone holding any lamp. We would catch eels and put them in a basket only to find the basket empty when we reached home. Magic and mystery were often in the air. To calm me down, my grandfather would tell me stories from the village’s past, of the time when the Calonarang1 dancers of Kedewatan entered into a war of magic with the Cokorde of Ubud, whom they said they succeeded in defeating.”

There was also the atmosphere of night-time festivals– still partially preserved today: “Some times we left our village at nights,” Jirna says, “carrying torches in procession. It was not to go to Ubud, or even less to Denpasar but to remote villages; it was not to call on people, but to pray at some temple to which my family’s kinship group, the Pasek Gelgel, was historically related. My mother prepared the offerings and then we took to the road, walking for 5 or 10 hours till we reached the temple of destination. We presented our offerings there, received holy water, and spent the night on a mat. Upon hearing the pealing sound of the gamelan orchestra, we would wake up to share in the laughter of the masked dance clowns telling the story of the visiting ancestors. It was another world.” 

To fully understand the “power” of the Balinese night, though, one has to understand some of the idiosyncrasies of Balinese culture. First of all, the daily cycle doesn’t start at midnight. It begins at dawn, and goes from one sunrise to the other. The day’s main division is thus between day-time, lemah, and night-time, peteng. During day-time there are three “hinges” (sandi kala) of the sun: at sunrise (galang lemah), at its zenith (kali tepet) and at sunset (lingsiran). Each corresponds to a moment of cosmic mutation, a moment of danger, during which the god of time, the man-eater Kala, is on the loose looking for his prey. It is ill advised to move around or to bathe, for instance. Some villages warn their citizens by striking a wooden drum. 

To the sandis of the sun there are corresponding sandis of the night. The distinction between light and darkness affects not only the day and the night but also, by the situation of the moon, it gives a “quality” to the night. When the “hinge” of the moon is at its zenith, nyerepetan bulan, there is a moment of maximum danger. It is also the ideal moment for meditation if one wants to be endowed with magical powers. To do so, one goes to meditate to the temple of the dead, the pura dalem. When one starts shuddering, it means that “outer forces” are penetrating one’s body. Good luck to you if you give it a try. 

According to ancient tradition, the sun follows the unbridled journey of the god Surya riding his chariot from one side of the horizon to the other. Surya, also called Aditya, as origin of all rays, is considered as the Supreme God and another name for Siwa. The light of night, or the moon, is represented by the goddess Candra, or Ratih. She is often depicted sitting in front of her loom, waiting patiently for the arrival of Smara, the god of love, or expecting to be swallowed by the titan Kala Rauh, which correspond to an eclipse of the moon. 

The complementarity between the sun and the moon is symbolized by the mythological couple Candra-Aditya, the Sun-Moon, emanation of the supreme god Siwa. Siwa is the master of light. His opposite is Durga, who rules over the forces of darkness as a demonic manifestation of his banished consort Uma). These couples of opposites: day-night and light-darkness are a manifestation of Rwabhinneda, or ultimate unity of contraries, which are at the root of the cosmic movement of the world. The symbol of this unity is Atintya, the God of gods, the Sublime Hermaphrodite

This cosmic duality blossoms during the night. At dusk, “when the time to feed the pigs has arrived”, witches, the leyaks, prepare to hover around and spread ill fortune. The darker the night becomes, the greater the powers of evil are. Time for black magic is at its best when there is a new moon (tilem), or when the moon reaches its zenith (purnama). Then, the leyaks gather around ponds and look at the reflection of their hideous appearance in the water.

Night, however, is also the time for meditation, and, most importantly, love. The goddess Ratih finds herself under the spell of the god Smara. The mortals who worship these gods are blessed. Lovers are recommended to wait for the moon to rise before cavorting. Beware of the new moon, though! Before heading for home, the visiting lover should wait for the second crowing of the cock (kruyuk pang pindo) or, at the latest, when the hens leave the roost. For this is the time when evil Durga rounds up her disciples and returns to the realm of the invisible. Only then will lovers be safe, but don’t wait until dawn. There risk is then of a different nature. You may have to deal with the father, or the husband. Beware!!!

 1 The Calonarang is a magic-laden dance that pits against one another the protective Barong lion against Rangda the witch.

2 The Pasek is the name given to the most numerous Balinese clan of Bali, subdivided into numerous sub-clans, among whom the Pasek Gelgel, whose temple of origin is in Gelgel, near Klungkung.   

 

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