The most compelling part of the temple complex, however, comes from its nightly kecak and fire dance performances.

“Kecak” is derived from an old Balinese ritual called the sanghyang – a trance dance driven by its participants’ repetitive chanting. In its ancient form, the sanghyang communicated the wishes of the gods or of the ancestors.

In the 1930s, a German visitor reformatted the sanghyang into the more familiar kecak performance – doing away with the spiritualistic aspect of the dance and building it around the Hindu Ramayana epic.

No musical instruments are used in a kecak performance – instead, you find about thirty bare-chested men sitting in a circle, uttering “chak… chak… chak” rhythmically and repetitively. The total effect is trance-inducing – repetitive voices and outlandish costumes creating a trippy multimedia experience.

The performance plays out as the sun sets, and the culmination involves a giant fire display that is integral to the plot. (Visitors wearing flammable material may want to get a seat higher up in the stands.)

Rama and Sita

To help those unfamiliar with the Ramayana, synopsis sheets are handed out to audience members before the show.

The plot goes like this:

Rama, a wise prince and the legal heir of the throne of Ayodha, is exiled from the his father Dasarata’s realm. He is accompanied by his beautiful wife Sita and his loyal younger brother Laksamana.

While crossing the enchanted forest of Dandaka, the demon king Rahwana spots Sita and lusts after her. Rahwana’s deputy Marica transforms himself into a golden deer to distract Rama and Laksamana.

Rahwana then transforms into an old man to fool Sita into stepping away from a magic circle of protection set by Laksamana – thus fooled, Sita is spirited away to Rahwana’s realm of Alengka.

Rama and Laksamana discover the deception too late; lost in the forest, they encounter the monkey king 

Hanoman, who swears his allegiance and goes off in search of Sita.

Hanoman finds Sita in Alengka. The monkey king takes Rama’s ring to Sita as a token of his contact with her husband. Sita gives Hanoman her hairpin to give to Rama, along with a message that she is waiting for his rescue.

Hanoman marvels at the beauty of Alengka, but begins to destroy it. Rahwana’s giant servants capture Hanoman, and bind him to be burned. Hanoman uses his magical powers to escape from certain death. Here, the performance ends.

Despite the historical and cultural implications of the performance, the Uluwatu kecak performance is strictly for the tourists. The fiery escape of Hanoman is played up for visual effect, and the actors who play Hanoman, Rahwana, and the giants ham it up mightily. The night I watched, Hanoman went up to a bald German tourist in the front row and rubbed the man’s head, to everyone’s amusement. 


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