What I Learned About Sacred Masks

Today, we got to visit the expansive home and studio of our guide Surya’s mask carving teacher, Cok Raka Tisnu, vice-chair emeritus of the music and dance department at Udayana University in Denpasar. His family’s royal compound, which houses several generations of his family, stretches for an entire city block in the village of Singapadu.

On my various trips to Bali, I’ve enjoyed seeing masks used to great effect in dance performances and at festivals. In Balinese dance, there is a core set of stock characters you see repeatedly. It is only men who wear masks in performance; women perform with elaborate makeup.

In the mask carving studio today, we witnessed masks and giant barongs in all states of evolution: the initial carving of the wood, the fine and intricate painting of the mask, the making of jeweled leather headdresses and elaborate costumes. It was an incredible feast for the eyes with half a dozen craftsmen working in the open air on a variety of tasks.

One of our guides, Judy Slattum, has written the authoritative book on masks in Bali. This afternoon, as we sat in the carving workshop drinking tea and eating Balinese sweets, she taught us about the different kinds of masks, their symbology and uses, and how they’re made.

There are many skilled mask carvers in Bali, but few are considered skilled enough and infused with enough spirituality to carve special sacred masks, those directly imbued with spirit. Sacred masks are never sold or made available to collectors. They are commissioned by temples and used exclusively in ceremonies.

Earlier this year, Judy’s husband Surya was chosen to carve a sacred mask, and today we got to see his finished mask—the headdress for it was just being completed. Just a few days from now, during one of the final days of our tour, Surya’s mask will be blessed in a ceremony and purified so it can receive spirit and be transformed into a sacred mask.

Judy outlined the procedure for us. Through a village high priest, spirit informs villagers that they need a sacred mask—and may reveal the name of the carver destined to carve it. That’s what happened to Surya. He’d been carving art masks for decades, but now for the first time, spirit chose him to carve a sacred mask.

Then the proper source of the wood had to be found.

Sacred masks can only be carved from the wood of a tree that embodies a special spirit that must be regularly appeased with offerings. If that tree has a knot, the knot can be removed to carve a mask because removing it won’t harm the tree. A priest from the village brings offerings to the tree, goes into trance, and asks the tree for permission to take the knot. And if the spirit of the tree grants permission, the knot is removed.

Once he had the wood, Surya consulted the Bali Hindu calendar to find the most auspicious date to start carving. He invoked special prayers and blessings every time he worked on the mask. That same calendar was consulted to determine the date, just a few days from now, when the mask will be purified. And later still, the calendar will determine the most auspicious date to hold a midnight ceremony in the cemetery when spirit will enter the mask in a ball of flame.

Here is some of the remarkable craftsmanship we witnessed today. Photos by Jamey Marchese, Tamara Myers, and Eileene Tejada.

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