For well over half millennium, the Island of Bali has cultivated their own unique form of Hinduism.
Its tumultuous political history is known from written records of dynasties dating back to, at least, 9th century CE.
From the 5th century on, traders, priests and adventurers sailing from India and China brought to Bali and Java a varietyof Hindu and Buddhist ideas and practices which is adapted and assimilated into the local culture.
According to traditional Balinese mythology, Rangda is the demon queen of the Leyaks, a sort of witches or ghosts that appear as humans during the day but at night their head and entrails break free from their bodies and fly around cemeteries and villages.
Terrifying to behold, the child-eating leads an army of evil witches against the leader of the forces of good — Barong.
The battle between Barong and Rangda is featured in a Barong dance which represents the eternal battle between good and evil.
Rangda is known as a Leyak queen, the incarnation of Calon Arang, the legendary witch that wreaked havoc in ancient Java during the reign of Airlangga in late 10th century.
It is said that Calon Arang was a widow, who has mastered the art of black magic, who often damaged farmers’ crops and caused disease to come.
While Rangda is similar also to Durga (or Kali) in some cases, a major Hindu goddess associated with protection, strength, but also a benevolent mother goddess of fertility and destruction in Northeastern India, she is mostly considered by many as the personification of evil.
She was linked to the legend of Calon Arang, but also to the legend of divorced and exiled Javanese queen Mahendradatta and, not by chance, the name Rangda in old Javanese and Balinese language means “widow”.
Her large protruding eyes represent anger, cruelty and self centeredness. The long white boar-like fangs remind us she is merciless wild beast. And her meter-long blood-red tongue of fire represents her eternal insatiable hunger.
The wild woman known as Randga, or the Widow, is the personification of evil for the Balinese.
As story goes she was born Mahendradatta, princess of Java, and when she came of age, her father arranged for her marriage to King Udayana and shipped her off to the neighboring isle of Bali.
But without silly romantic fantasies in her mind.
As a royal, she had a job to do and a responsibility to her people but, as a queen, she didn’t have much power.
Her marriage, in fact, would politically tie Java to Bali, and that was all that was required of her, aside from making sure she provided heirs.
And still today, all over Bali, you’ll see statues of her holding innocent children…the instant before she devour them!
But let’s statt from the beginning.
When her husband, the king, died, her people began to call her Rangda, which means, not by chance, “widow”, even if he cast her aside to marry another woman.
Actually their union had been a strategic alliance to unite two kingdoms, but she craved power.
Although Hindus have hundreds of deities, the one she focused her prayers on was the goddess Durga, a strong woman, a fierce warrior, her many arms clutching weapons, riding upon a snarling tiger.
And this was who she exactly wanted to be.
But Mahendradatta had few options and, with little power of her own, she decided to turn to witchcraft, learning how to control demons.
But secrets never last long in a palace as it seems that someone, hoping to gain favor with the king, told her husband what she was up to at night.
As a result, king Udayana called the court together, condemning her she had let evil into Bali, and exiling her, only with the clothes on her back, without food or supplies.
Surely Udayana assumed she would soon die, and everyone could forget all about her and the fact that she had corrupted the island with witchcraft.
But Mahendradatta wasn’t a weak woman, and she called upon Durga and the demons to protect her.
Meanwhile some villagers who had learned of her exile, went into the jungle to seek her out as they wanted her to teach them magic, and how to enslave demons.
And these were her first students, leyaks, or witches, as she was no longer the Queen of Bali, but Queen of the Leyaks and, eventually, Queen of Demons.
Days passed by, until one of the demons she used to spy on the court returned one evening to inform her that her husband planned to remarry.
He wanted replace her, the woman who brought his children but also Erlangga, the king-to-be, into the world and, trembling with anger, Mahendradatta sent a message to her son to meet her at the edge of the jungle.
However it seemed the young boy feared his father more than he feared her.
After her firstborn’s betrayal, she learned that her daughter, Princess Ratna Menggali, a young maiden known for her loveliness, couldn’t find a single suitor because people were afraid of her mother.
Since the difficulties of her daughter, she got very angry and she intended to take revenge by kidnapping a young girl which she brought to a Death temple to be sacrificed to the Goddess Durga.
The next day, a great flood engulfed the village and disease also appeared so that many people died.
Thus Ratna became her pupil, and one of her most powerful leyaks.
Probably you didn’t know that on Bali, babies are holy, because they have only recently left the spirit realm.
Interestingly, for months, the Balinese do not let their newborns even so much as touch the ground because Demons are relegated to the dirty, profane earth, where only the filthiest of body parts, the feet, should touch.
For this reason, whenever they learned of a child’s death, Mahendradatta would send Ratna and the other leyaks on a mission to dig up and steal the corpse for their black rituals.
And eventually her patron deity Durga, pleased with her drive and her devotion, granted her immortality and full dominion over the demons.
She had become a goddess.
One day, years later, she learned that Udayana had died and Erlangga was now king.
Mahendradatta, now Rangda, the widow, refused to forgive him for not defending her honor.
Erlangga knew of the danger of his mother’s wrath, as reports of desecrated graves had spread, of a wild woman of the jungle and her pet demons, which wreaked havoc on the people of Bali.
While her son mustered an army to fight her, she sent a foul plague creeping throughout the kingdom and, within days, half of the population died.
What chance would mortal men have against a goddess and her army of witches and demons?
So he called upon Empu Pradah, a legendary holy man, and he was told to seek the aid of another god, Barong, the King of the Spirits, a mighty shape-shifting beast.
He sometimes takes the form of a boar, sometimes an elephant, sometimes a tiger, even though the lion guise is his favorite.
Erlangga’s army approached, carrying wavy silver knives called keris, the tips coated with poison but, thanks to Rangda, all of the soldiers were suddenly consumed with an overwhelming desire to turn their toxic weapons upon themselves.
But just as the daggers were about to pierce their skin, Barong cast a counterspell and, instantly, the skin of Erlangga’s soldiers became impenetrable.
And this was the start, and the harsh reality: Rangda and Barong were to engage in a never-ending battle.
Neither good nor evil could win.
Barong’s battle is seen as necessary, and the Balinese love him because he is considered their benevolent hero.
But the world must remain in balance, and Rangda must do her part too.
How can you know what happiness is if that’s all there is? How would you know peace without war?
This is just the balance of good and evil.
In fact, an important but difficult thing to remember about Balinese religion and mysticism is that no god or demon is all good or all bad.
Rangda is the female embodiment of divine negative energy, and the the eternal conflict with Barong extends far beyond a simple battle of good and evil.
Although they represent rival ideologies that can be viewed as positive and negative, they are portrayed by the Balinese as inseparable and symbiotic forces that could not exist in isolation from one another. Like Yin and Yang, each contains elements of the other.
And there is never a winner as the state of equilibrium is an ongoing struggle.
Images from web – Google Research