The white magic of sacred masks

As well as the “classical” masks worn in ritual dances, two Balinese masks are marked out for being exposed in the temple and carried in procession around the village. Together the couple of masks are called barong landung (“great protector spirits”) representing a black-faced male divinity and a white-faced female one, personifications of a king and his queen. The two characters represent the positive forces, white magic, and being two opposites reunited, they symbolise totality and prosperity. Together they performed a protective function, of purification and rebalancing the village.

During two of the most important yearly ceremonies of Balinese tradition, galungan and kuningan, the masks were exposed and carried on large anthropomorphic structures to which they gave faces. The first ceremony, in which the barong landung are exposed in the temple, marks the moment when the ancestral spirits return home to visit their Balinese descendants. The second, marks the time when the ancestors return to the celestial world at the end of the galungan, and involves a procession in which the masks are carried throughout the village to dispense blessings and protection. Given the protective function attributed to the masks, these were also used in peculiar historical moments marked by disorder, difficulties or illness.