Dancing With Spirits; Kuda Kepang And Barongan
By Phil Foo
With the younger generation being uninterested and the art itself being banned in a few states, and discouraged in others; Kuda Kepang and Barongan is a dying traditional ritualistic performance that is seldom seen these days. What is performed are more entertaining watered down performances without the ritualistic element. Lucky for me, I was invited to experience one in its true form. This here is my experience.
It was a dark and quiet night. We were seated in a large circle on cemented ground somewhere in the paddy fields of Sungai Besar, Selangor. In front of us lay flat wooden horses awaiting their dance partners for the traditional dance performance that was about to start.
Flat wooden horses waiting for their dancing partners.
It wasn’t long before the sounds of “dings” and “dongs” started filling the warm air of this tropical Malaysian night. These sounds created by the musicians playing on their musical instruments (gongs, khendangs, xylophones, etc.) marked the start of the performance that we have been patiently waiting for.
The shaman doing a ritual before the performance where all performers must bath in smoke.
Shortly after, a shaman started doing some form of ritual that is said to open the doors between our world and that of the spirits. Suddenly the warm air turned cool with temperatures dropping slowly. The dancers in their black traditional costumes then picked up the flat wooden horses and begun swaying them. Holding their flat wooden horses against their bodies they danced in circles following the lead of a princess on a white flat wooden horse.
‘Along with these dancers are three friends from our group who volunteered to take part in the dance not knowing what was to come.’
One of the masks worn by the performers during the dance. This mask is that of a monkey.
As the dance progressed on into the night a few dancers wearing scary looking mask depicting various animals, a princess, a clown, and two persons in a tiger suit; took to the grounds and started following the dancers to the beat of the music. In my head I was combining the rhythm of the gongs and khendangs (traditional musical percussion instruments) to Guns And Roses’ Sweet Child Of Mine, was and having quite a bit of a laugh doing so.
Suddenly a few of the dancers gave out loud screams, dropped their flat wooden horses and masks on the ground. They went into a weird scary trance as if possessed by the spirits that were earlier invited by the shaman to join in the dance. The air went from cool to cold in a matter of milliseconds and it was now that the performance took a nightmarish turn. These dancers started acting out the roles of the masks that they earlier wore (animals), and horses; having taken on the personalities of their dancing tools.
Dancers and their horses doing their thing.
Before the start of the performance I was telling myself that this is nothing more but a show. A show put on for us, the media folks who so wanted to learn about the Javanese culture and traditional dances brought over by the Javanese folks decades ago. At this point I am not sure anymore. Is it just a show? Well, I will let you think so for now as I go on and about my writing.
As the show progressed things got weirder. Some of the dancers started doing things that humans just simply will not do to avoid getting hurt. One of the younger dancers started biting the husk off an unopened coconut the way a monkey does. Another dancer started slithering on the ground like a snake. Those who took on the personalities of the horses continued galloping in circles; strangely all of them in perfect rhythm.
Some of the folks in the audience got possessed too. They should have stayed out of the unseen boundary.
It wasn’t long before things got from weird to downright scary; violently scary. Fights were breaking out amongst the dancers. They turned into animal warriors displaying weird fighting stances and martial arts patterns. Someone then reassured us that as long as we do not go into the circle we will be okay. The shaman had created an unseen fence (boundary) surrounding the dancers and the spirits ensuring that the spirits will not be able to cross over it (invisible fence) and cause harm to us; the spectators. Feeling reassured we continue watching the show while some of us went around shooting photos.
The shaman battling a dancer who is possessed by the spirit of a tiger.
Could things get any worse? What can happen, will happen. Suddenly the shaman who was trying his very best to contain the spirits by removing them from some of the dancers who have gone a little too weird and even injured; gave out a scream himself. Just what we needed. The one who is supposedly in control of things is now himself possessed and in a trance.
The dancers in their animal personalities started breaking out of the circle (invisible fence), and they started “running” up trees. Two of them actually; one with the spirit of a tiger and the other, a bird (the shaman). There goes the assurance of the unseen safety fence. I quickly shot as many photos as I could from below, taking precaution just in case they started throwing coconuts at us.
The Shaman and his assistant subduing one of the possessed dancers and removing the spirit.
Without any unforeseen incidents the shaman alighted the tree and still had the ability to contain the spirits although in a trance like state. He managed to remove a few more spirits before being possessed by yet another spirit, this time an elephant. Makes “perfect” sense. Here’s why. He tried earlier to remove the spirit of a tiger from one of the dancers and failed. A stronger animal that would have a chance against the tiger will certainly have to be an elephant. But even in his elephant state he failed to remove the spirit of the tiger despite trying a few times.
At this stage most of the possessed dancers have had whatever spirit that was earlier in them removed by the shaman. But as the show continued a few more dancers who were not performing got possessed too and started going all weird. More work for the spirit possessed shaman.
A participant from our media group who was earlier possessed, now relieved of the spirit and too weak to stand and walk. Help is on the way.
It has been well over two and a half hours now since the show started. This also means that our three media friends who volunteered to take part in the dance must be really exhausted. Either that or they were too afraid to stop. They too could be possessed. Lucky for them someone went up to them (yes, after two and a half hours) to ask if they would like to stop. Two of them happily agreed and returned to their places outside the invisible fence.
One other friend of ours who was dancing, looked different in a scary way. He did not look like himself. As the person went up to him to ask him if he wanted to stop, he replied nothing. He was quieter than a mouse. He just went on dancing in the same circle that he has been doing for the past two and a half hours. The person then tried to take the flat wooden horse from him but he scarily looked at the person as if ready for a fight. He then pulled the horse back and continued on with the dance. Still think that this is just a show? I personally do not think so anymore.
The shaman digging out stones and concrete at a wooden bridge.
Anyway, the shaman went around in his elephant state eating plants and digging holes as if searching for something. He then walked to a bridge, dug out some rocks and found a hole. He marked it with chalk and when back into the circle. There he started screaming again before picking up hot burning coals and eating them. He then went back to the tiger possessed man to try to remove the tiger spirit. Yet again he failed.
This time the tiger possessed man picked up a coconut and started to bite the husk off whilst walking in a circle. He then threw it up in the air some two to three storeys high and continued on his way. I watched the coconut being affected by gravity, fall back down hitting him (tiger possessed man) right on his head and burst into pieces. No, not his head but the coconut. He then picked up a piece of the coconut and started eating it.
Finally subduing the spirit of the tiger and sending it back to its realm.
Oh yes, what I forgot to include earlier in this article is the use of a whip to control the dancers. The whip is used to contain and control the possessed as the shaman did his thing to remove the spirits. Back to our media friend who could not stop dancing. The person who tried to stop our media friend from dancing earlier returned with this same whip and hit him lightly (I hope) on the arm twice. Suddenly the expression on his (media friend) face changed. He dropped the flat wooden horse and with a blank face slowly walked out of the circle and sat under a coconut tree. Phew! Safe at last.
This performance has gone on for way too long. The fight between the Shaman and the spirit of the tiger that has possessed the dancer got more and more intense. For the many years that he has been messing with these spirits perhaps they have gotten bored of him and decided not to leave.
Possessed dancers being controlled by spirits.
After some thirty minutes or so the shaman finally succeeded and the dancer collapsed to the ground motionless, tired from the whole ordeal. But what about the shaman? Someone has got to remove the spirit from the shaman. How will this end?
Just when we thought that the only issue now is with the shaman, he (shaman) gave out another scream pointing in the direction of a coconut tree. Unfinished business perhaps. He then gestured in a hostile manner for someone (or something) to come to him as if asking for a fight. Puzzled, the crowd looked towards the coconut tree and slowly without any expression on his face, our earlier possessed media friend walked towards the shaman. The shaman gave out another scream and then grabbed the head of our media friend with one hand while pointing to the sky with the other. He gave out one more loud scream and our media friend collapsed to the ground. At last the spirit has left his body leaving him exhausted and without energy.
Shaman tries to remove a spirit but did not manage too.
The shaman then walked towards a drum and stood on it giving one very loud scream with his hand pointed to the sky (as if to tell the spirit to return to where it came from) before collapsing on the ground himself. Someone then went to him, picked him up, and helped him stand before walking him back to a chair where he sat and recuperated for about 5 minutes. He then gained enough energy to stand but looked somewhat in a dazed.
The entire performance from start to finish took slightly over three hours; an hour plus more than expected. We were told much earlier that the duration of the performance depended on the spirits as well. There were times when the performance went on till early in the morning. Anyhow, I am glad to have experienced this performance as it is a dying art here in Malaysia, and is something many Malaysians have not got the opportunity to watch.
Information On Kuda Kepang
Our media friend who was possessed by a rather stubborn spirit that did not want to leave the first time round. Two other media friends who participated in the performance looking on.
Kuda Kepang is a Javanese traditional ritual dance that used to be performed during the paddy harvesting season. Spirits of various deities are called or invited to possess the dancers or performers. These days, a more entertaining form of this dance (without the involvement of spirits) is performed during certain events and functions. Dancers and performers are known to not only eat hot burning coal but broken glass, and other dangerous objects. There have also been instances where performers climbed onto roof tops of houses and ran from roof to roof.
The kuda kepang and barongan dance will only end when all the spirits that were summoned to possess the dancers have returned to their realm, and the door between their world and ours, closed. Sometimes these performances go on for many hours when more and more spirit possessions happen to either other dancers from the troupe or visiting troupes. Nevertheless, it is a performance worth watching.
To experience Kuda Kepang and Barongan, contact:
Abdul Rahman Daud
Tel: +6013 607 7025
Homestay Haji Dorani
Parit 1 Sungai Haji Dorani, 45300 Sungai Besar
Note: this performances are not done on a scheduled time but are on a request basis.
Here is a follow up article on what to observe should you decide to watch Kuda Kepang and Barongan