Vilifying the Ancient Goddess

COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Een Balinese danser met een masker van Rangda de heksweduwe TMnr 10004670.jpg
A Balinese dancer wearing the mask of Rangda (1929) – Tropenmuseum

Rangda is electrifying, dangerous and otherworldly. She embodies power. She has protruding eyes, pendulous large breasts and a large red tongue hanging down her body. Her mouth is full of big teeth and curving fangs, her fingernails are extended to long pointed claws and her unkempt mop of gray hair hangs down her back. Legends of Rangda include her fondness for eating children as well as causing disease and pestilence.

For well over half a millennium, the island of Bali has cultivated their own unique form of Hinduism, comprising a complex tapestry of animistic beliefs, Buddhism, as well as other traditions and belief systems. Bali’s tumultuous political history is known from written records of dynasties dating back to, at least, the ninth century CE – its past closely intertwined with that of its larger neighbor Java as, over the centuries, the two islands have frequently been united under the same kingdom. From the fifth century on, traders, priests, and adventurers sailing from India and China brought to Bali and Java a variety of Hindu and Buddhist ideas and practices which were adapted and assimilated into the Balinese culture. These many aspects of the Balinese identity is very apparent in the figure of Rangda, the “Queen of Leyak”, who embodies a culmination of the island’s history and many influences.

File:Rangda and Barong (16864521666).jpg
Barong in the middle of two Rangdas

It is useful, at this stage, to understand a little of the Balinese cosmology. The Barong dance is a part of the ritual drama which focuses on the ongoing battle between good and evil – with Barong representing the good and Rangda representing Evil. Although not obviously gendered, Barong is understood as male and depicted as dragon-lion with an ornate feathery tail. Rangda, on the other hand, is always female. The Barong protects villages from plague and malicious magic, whereas Rangda is the one inflicting those plagues and difficulties.

However, much like the goddess Durga is seen as a benevolent mother goddess in the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam and Kerala, Rangda is also considered a protective force in certain parts of Bali. The colors associated with Rangda — white, black and red — are identical with those associated with Durga.

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