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Making A Sacred Mask  

by on Thursday, 20 September 2007No Comment | 2,748 views

In Bali, a sacred mask serves as a protector of a village. Balinese believe that it protects all its followers as long as the deity that resides in the mask is constantly appeased with rituals and devotions. When a temple priest has a vision instructing the worshippers to acquire a sacred mask in which the deity of the temple can reside, the priest and worshippers will summon a consecrated mask maker to create a sacred mask in which the protective deity will reside. Only a few carvers in this island are qualified to carve a sacred mask. Only a member of high caste are allowed to initiate the carving of sacred mask, and difficulty of forming the mask further limits the eligible.

The process of making a sacred mask begins with choosing a propitious day to cut the sacred wood for the material of the mask from a sacred tree. The choice of the tree from which the sacred wood is secured is also extremely important. The sacred trees which are considered fit as sacred mask material are Pule (alstonia scholaris), Waru Taluh, Kepah, and Kepuh Rangdu. Most mask makers prefer Pule (white cheesewood, milky pine, or milkwood) while for the sacred mask Kepuh is considered superior since Banaspati Raja (guardian of the trees) resides in this tree. Both Kepuh and Pule are strong but not thick, which facilitates the carving process, and are light in color, which makes them simple to paint.

Chopping down a sacred tree is asking for trouble so the priest and the mask maker only chopped a small amount of wood out of the sacred tree, accompanied by prayers and offering that ask permission of the spirit of the tree. There are two deities that have to be appeased with offerings before chopping activity is begun, first the god of the place where the sacred tree grows usually a temple, graveyard, or crossroad; and the second one for the spirit of the sacred tree.

Once the wood is cut, it is taken to the temple of the village, where it will eventually reside, and the initiation of the carving process must be done in that temple. The wood must be allowed to dry out for several months, as green wet wood is said endanger the health of the carver. If the wood is deemed sacred, it will be kept in the temple a prescribed day.

Another auspicious day is chosen and two set of offerings is prepared when the carver begin to carve the sacred wood. The one of the offering is dedicated to the Sun God, as a witness of the work and the other for Taksu, the god of talents, asking a blessing for success. Holy water is sprinkled to purify the wood, the carver, and his carving instruments and the carving process begins.

The shape of the mask and all design details are made in accordance with the wishes of the villagers who order the mask. The carver first shapes the raw wood with a hand axe, using quick, rough strokes. The outline of the face and its features begins to appear. The forms are further refined by a flat and smooth chisels. The carver sits cross-legged, holding the mask with his feet, since both of hands are required for carving. The carver takes great pains to make the mask symmetrical. He will measure a distance on the right side of the mask than transfer it over to the left side.

Using a knife to create detail, the carver searches out obscure and stubborn areas, especially the eyes and nasal-labial folds. All the while, the carver intermittently stops to examine his work, comparing it with another mask or working at it in the mirror. The back of the mask is cut out with curved knife, and concave areas are shaped to accommodate the facial planes of the wearer. The surface of the mask is smoothed with a flat knife than with different grades of sandpaper.

The next step is painting. For a sacred mask, only traditional paints, made of organic materials are used, and prescribed painting procedure is long and complex. For a base traditional paints made from ground, calcified pig jaw or deer horn must be used. Color comes from various sources; yellow from clay, black from carbon, gold from gold leaf, and red from kincu which is imported from China. Other colors are made by mixing these basic pigments. The painting process is along and arduous works, for a sacred 150 layers of paint have to be painted on the mask to achieve the desired result. Only the front of the mask is painted, nothing behind.

Trim is finally applied. For a sacred Barong mask, the beard of the Barong is usually made of the hairs of its priest or the hairs donated by the villagers. For a mask which is used in a dramatic performance the facial hairs are made from goat skin, which is cut to shape and attached with knotted bamboo fasteners.


Then the mask is given a purification ceremony rid it from uncleanliness accumulated in the process of creation. A sacred mask needs an elaborate purification ceremony. The ceremony consists of three steps: prayascita and melaspas, which purify the mask and costume from indignities suffered during the creative process, and ngatep, a process of unification of the mask with the body (costume).

The most important ceremony for a sacred mask comes afterwards. The Pasupati (investing magical power) ceremony is held in a propitious night. In a Pasupati ceremony a deities is invited to enter and reside in the mask. The ritual is performed twice, first in the inner courtyard of the temple and at midnight in the cemetery. During the rituals in the cemetery, a spirit enters the mask as a ball of flame that does not cast light or shadow. After the light enters the mask, the priest will fall into a state of trance, he wears the mask, dancing and running around the grave yard. Those who are watching surround and capture the priest, and presented an offering to release him from trance. After this the priest wraps the mask in white cloth inscribed with magically powerful characters and symbols and places it in the temple. Now the mask serves as the protector of the village as long as rituals are followed to appease the spirit.

Materials for this writing are taken from Judy Slattum and Paul Schraub’s Balinese Mask: Spirit of Ancient Drama.

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