Kecak Dance - Truly Balinese, Truly Hypnotic
Updated: Mar 7, 2022
Introduction of the mythological story of Ramayana
The one experience that sums up all the drama and mystic of Bali is the Kecak dance. This is a live performance of a part of ‘Ramayana’ with key characters and another 30 men who do the chanting. The dance itself has it’s roots in an old Balinese ritual called the ‘Sanghyang’ which was a way to communicate with God through trance caused by repetitive chanting and performed during sacred ceremonies to ward off epidemics. No musical instruments are used, only the repetitive chanting in different ways - after a while you actually hear it as a background score and forget that this is ‘chanting’ with no instruments! The performance is about an hour long.
What makes this truly remarkable are a heady concoction of the below:
Sita and Rawan
The story: The dance is the depiction of a story - and the way it unfolds in the setting is part of the charm. The part performed from ‘Ramayana’ where Sita, Ram’s wife (Ram being the personification of Hindu God into an ideal man- King of Ayodhya) is taken away by Rawan, King of Lanka (Sri-Lanka) and how Hanuman finds her but ends up setting fire in Lanka. This is why you may also see this performance being called Kecak and fire dance. As the performance is an hour long, knowing the story makes it more enjoyable - the snapshot from Ramayana is which is the basis of the performance is provided below.
The vocal music and chanting performers
Location: There are lots of places where you can witness Kecak dance, but the best without doubt is the one at the Pura Luhur Uluwatu Temple - ‘Ulu’ means head and ‘Watu’ means rock, describes the position of the temple which stands on a cliff 200m above the Indian ocean. The kecak performance takes place in an amphitheatre looking out at the Indian ocean and the magnificent sunset that beautifully coincides with the part where Hanuman starts setting Lanka on fire creates a visual that is etched in your memory forever. In the day and age of smart phones, watching something like this on a cliff with a view of the ocean and under the open sky is an experience of a lifetime.
Hanuma introducing him to Sita and giving her Ram’s ring as a token
Drama: The chanting and the striking costumes add drama to this performance. Hanuman’s entry is one of the highlights and the character at Uluwatu is quite a character! Interacts with the audience without letting the authenticity of the story slip.
I was whispering my own narration to 4 year Oviyan so he made sense of what was happening. With thumb in his mouth and eyes wide open in fascination, he only opened his mouth once. This was the point when the chanting had stopped for a few seconds and the spectators sat in anticipation. At this very moment, the silence was broken by - ‘Will the queen be trapped in the castle now forever?’ There were bursts of laughter’s and all eyes at us! Within a split second Hunuman, the monkey God entered and gave a little hi-five to my monkey. But my monkey wasn’t expecting a big furry thing with a huge tail to show up unannounced and burst into tears! Anyway, this was quickly fixed and the show went on.
On our way out, we were asked by a lot of people how Oviyan understood the story - and this is why we want to share the story.
Hanuman starts setting Lanka on fire
Snapshot of the story performed during Kecak dance
A bit of context first - Ram with his wife Sita and his younger brother Lakshman go into exile for 14 years in the forest to honour the promise his father made to one of his queens. During their exile, Rawan’s sister comes to woe Ram who doesn’t reciprocate her desires and therefore turns to his brother Lakshman who then chops off her nose. Humiliated and ‘mutilated’ she returns to Lanka. But Rawan then decides to avenge her, so orders of his associate Marich to take the form of a golden deer and lure Ram and Lakshman away.
This is where the performance starts - Sita sees the golden deer and asks Ram to get it for her. Ram senses a trap but who can win an argument with wife! He goes in pursuit of the deer and is lured further and further away. He finally shoots an arrow and the deer turns into a demon and cries out for help in Ram’s voice. Sita hears this asks Lakshman to go out and rescue Ram. Lakshman also senses the trap and tries to convince Sita that Ram is under no danger. But then upon Sita’s ‘orders’ leaves in search of Ram but before that he draws a circle around their ashram (home) with protective mantras and asks Sita not to step out of that under any circumstance.
Rawan's son Indrajit
Soon after he leaves Rawan shows up as a Bhikhshuk (Brahman/ priest who accept offerings including food in return for performing prayers and rituals). He tries to cross the line but cannot. He then calls out for Sita and asks for food. Sita asks him to stretch out his hand not wanting to cross the line, but Rawan tells that this is an insult to him as he should be invited and served food. He also says that he can ‘see’ that her husband is in trouble and he would curse them for this insult. Sita crosses the line in fear being cursed and as soon as she does Rawan reveals himself, kidnaps her and takes her to Lanka in a flying vehicle. (You can see the Sita temple if you visit Sri-Lanka, which is apparently the place where she was kept (Read our Blog on Sri Lanka here). Garuda, the vahana bird of Vishnu tries to save Sita but gets one of his wings chopped off by Rawan. He is then discovered by Ram and Lakshman and he tells them that Rawan took Sita in a southerly direction. (You will see references to Garuda in a lot of places in Bali and wooden sculptures of Garuda are carved by skilled Balinese artisans).
Indrajit capturing Hanuman
So Sita ends up in Lanka and to get her back, Ram travels south to Lanka. On the way he meets Hanuman, son of the God of wind and leader of the vanar sena (monkey army). He goes in search of Sita and manages to give her Ram’s ring as a token. However Rawan’s son attacks Hanuman and captures him, and they set his tail on fire, Hanuman escapes but sets the kingdom ablaze in the process.