In Ron Fricke’s ‘Baraka’ – which incidentally was also one of the movies that set off the wanderlust in me– there is a mysterious and esoteric sequence from Bali. A group of bare-chested Indonesian men sat in a semi-circular huddle wearing the checked Balinese sarong and a flower in their ear – and sang a peculiar song which only had the sounds of ‘cak cak cak’. As visually captivating as ‘Baraka’ is, the scene also was an aural delight. The chants echoed through the open courtyard of the temple, and there was something else about the whole scene. Something that drew me to find out more about the whole thing.
That was the first time that I heard of Kecak. And also the first time I heard Kecak.
Further Reading: Another esoteric sequence in Baraka involves the whirling dervishes of the Sema ceremony in Turkey. Click to read more about it.
Kecak is a Balinese dance drama which tells the tale of the Ramayana. Deeply rooted in the sacred Sanghyam dance of Bali – with performers in a state of trance – Kecak was modified by Walter Spies, a German musician who lived in Bali and added elements of the Ramayana and replaced the sounds of the Gamelan, with the singers singing ‘cak’ instead. The Sanghyam ritual dance inspired the Javanese to develop the Kuda Kepang dance. And the Balinese came up with the Kecak.
Over time, Balinese artists visiting international events made the Kecak marginally popular. And then Ron Fricke blew the lid off this Balinese secret by adding it to ‘Baraka’. Since then, it has remained one of the important cultural spectacles that one needs to experience when visiting Bali – even if it maybe slightly clichéd and staged.
But to experience it, I had to first get to one of the ‘sad Kahyangan Jagad’ – the six holiest places of worship in Bali. One of these holy places was famous for the pesky monkeys that inhabit the forests around it, the delightful sunsets viewed from here, the grandeur of a Javanese temple that sits atop a cliff. And of course, for the daily Kecak shows.
I found myself riding towards Pura Luhur Uluwatu. Or the famed Uluwatu temple.
Pura Luhur Uluwatu
The Pura Luhur Uluwatu was as grand as every backpacker tale I had heard about it. After all, it was one of the Balinese Pura Segaras.
The Pura Segaras are sea temples, built by a 16th century Javanese monk named Nirartha. The temples were positioned in such a way that they created a chain of temples around the island of Bali. Somewhat similar to how Dan Brown positioned the Illuminati churches around Rome in ‘Angels and Demons’. Only, Pura Segara was neither in Rome, nor was it a work of fiction. This list includes some of the most famous temples of Bali, like Pura Tanah lot.
Further Reading: Getting muddy in the island of the gods. That time when I went to Asia’s first toughmudder run in Bali.
Despite all this, I didn’t venture to take out my camera until I was INSIDE the Pura Uluwatu. You can thank the monkeys for this, as the whole neighbourhood was filled with these guys. The macaque monkeys of Uluwatu are notorious for snatching things from visitors and then forcing you to offer them something for the return of the item. These monkeys have perfected the art of ransom!
Hanging out with the Kecak performers
After purchasing the tickets to enter Uluwatu temple for IDR 30000, I started lazying around the temple complex and clicking different angles. Eventually, the walk took me towards the amphitheatre where another tourist official started selling the tickets for the Kecak show. The show itself started at 5 pm, but the ticket sales started by 4.30 pm. The seating was limited, so I bought the tickets and went into the amphitheatre anyway. You know, the early bird gets the best seats, right?
But there was an added advantage. Entering the amphitheatre at 4.30 PM meant that I could meet up with the Kecak performers backstage. Well, there wasn’t much of a stage, but a small dome at the back where the performers hung out before the show. Those who had acting roles were busy getting their makeup and costumes on. So busy that they did not look like they wanted another stupid photographer poking his camera into their trade.
But the singers. Oh, those guys were a fun bunch! All of them hung out together, sporting white dots on their faces while dressed in their traditional black and checkered sarongs. And not to forget the red flower tucked away behind their left ears. I joined them for a quick chat, but it ended up with a riotous flow of Balinese jokes!
The show begins
At 5 pm, the amphitheatre was packed. I bid the performers best of luck, and came back to my seat, engulfed in chatter from all over the place. And shortly after, the Kecak singers made their entry too.
If anybody didn’t know it until then, the audience finally grasped the reason why Kecak is called Kecak. The singers started with a slow, rhythmic chat of ‘cak, cak, cak’. At times, one of the lead singers would give a command chant, which would change the pace of the chanting. It went from fast to slow. And then back to fast.
And then came the performers. The Kecak dance was an enactment of the Ramayana tales, so needless to say, all the characters were from the Ramayana. First, there was Rama and Sita – both of whom were played by female actors. They danced around the lamp gracefully to the tune of the chanting.
The singers huddled around the central lamp, which was lit up by a caretaker sometime during the show. They raised their hands sometimes, and sometimes even smiled or winked at the audience. But they did not stop their chants.
And then, Hanuman jumped into the fray. No, he literally jumped in, from one of the walls surrounding the amphitheatre. At this point, there were some comic elements to the show, like Hanuman going around to check lice on the heads of some members of the audience. Although I felt these were unnecessary, I know these are required to make any traditional show a commercial success. The comic element was taken up a notch, with the entry of Ravana and some of his sidekick demons.
Further Reading: If you are looking for something a little more authentic, visit during the Galungan Festival for some Balinese cultural exposure.
Ending with a fire dance and fiery sunsets
In the Ramayana, Ravana was an evil king of Lanka, who kidnaps Sita and takes her back to Lanka with him. Rama sends Hanuman to find out Sita’s location, but he gets captured by Ravana. While in captivity, Hanuman ends up burning Lanka with his tail, which he sets on fire and runs around.
This backstory is the impressive ending of the Kecak show at Uluwatu. The amphitheatre stage was soon converted into a fiery abode, as the Kecak show reenacted the burning of Lanka. Hanuman was jumping all over the place, and kicking around the bundles of hay set on fire.
As the sun sets beautiful over the Uluwatu cliff in glorious shades of Orange, this also brought the splendid show to its end.
Further Reading: If you are not a fan of Sunsets, check out the sunrise at Campuhan Ridgewalk, in Ubud, Bali.
Getting to Uluwatu: Uluwatu is roughly 25 KMs from Bali’s Ngurah Rai International airport. Easiest to reach using a rented motorbike, or by cab. Public transport is almost non-existent.
Schedule of Kecak Show: 5 PM, daily. Arrive an hour early for tickets and general sightseeing.
Tickets for Uluwatu temple: 30000 IDR
Dress code: Being a temple, dress modestly. Even if you wear shorts, you will be given a Balinese Sarong to cover over it.
Tickets for the Kecak fire and dance show: 150000 IDR
This post is part of my travel stories about Indonesia. Click here to check out other amazing stories from Indonesia.
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