Sacred Balinese Masks and Their Meanings

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Bali is known for its epic beaches, sprawling rice paddies and its ever-growing yoga community, but its art and culture should not be overlooked! With this in mind, we delve into the history and Balinese masks.

You can’t go to Bali without noticing these intricate and elaborate masks dotted around shops and shows across the island. Used in ceremonies and traditional dances, these sacred Balinese masks are so much more than a work of art, and each design has a deep history and meaning.

Balinese Mask Designs

Balinese masks come in all shapes and sizes with everything from human faces to animal figures. While each Balinese mask is individually designed, some styles are used regularly to portray emotions such as angriness, calmness or being in love. These typical masks are used for specific ceremonies or events such as parades, dances, shows or even kids’ entertainment.

The Meaning Behind The Masks

Balinese masks are full of spiritual meaning that stems from the history of animism and dynamism on the island, along with influences from Hinduism. It is believed that God(s) can be found in all things; this includes the physical form of a mask. The masks are created to house spirits and energies and are used in rituals or ceremonies as a medium for ancestral spirits to pass back over to this world. It’s somewhat similar to the Mexican beliefs for the Day of the Dead celebrations.

Making and Using The Masks

Making Balinese masks is an art form that has been passed down from generation to generation. It is said that the masks must be produced by a member of the Brahman caste; these are the only people to know the rules and rituals for creating such an important piece. These carvers are known as ‘undagi tapel’.

Mas, a small Balinese village, is particularly well-known for creating these masks, with carvers using a selection of wood and a vast array of tools to design and make them. The animal masks, in particular, take a huge amount of time and money to produce. The makers use everything from goat’s skin and buffalo hair to boar’s teeth. These masks take hours of painstaking painting and carving to create. Additionally, the production time and cost is so high that whole villages or communities often club together to pay for the masks that are necessary for local ceremonies.

Each wooden mask is uniquely designed with certain styles, rituals and processes going into each one.

The wearing of a traditional Balinese mask is a sacred task, and the dancers and performers usually undertake blessings and purification rituals before they begin. Once ready, they then represent divine messengers who bring words from God(s) or ancestors past to the present day.

It is an honour and a privilege to become a Balinese performer and the dancers play this role with great respect.

If you get the chance to witness a traditional Balinese performance with intricate wooden masks being used, you really should go! Alternatively, you can see some of the wonderful hand-crafted masks in shops and museums across the island.

While you can take a souvenir version of the masks home as a gift or memento, truly sacred masks should be reserved for locals who treat them with utmost respect and use them in traditional ceremonies.

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