Tales of Nusa Penida : demons, convicts and a bird with a blue mask.
Demons and the balance between good and evil
Nusa Penida is a place of pilgrimage for Balinese Hindus. They go there to visit a temple whose negative energy will balance out the positive energies of the divinities of this world. The Balinese spiritual belief system, a unique hybrid of Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism, conceptualises the universe in terms of balance, and respects both good and evil as equally necessary and mutually present. Indeed, the Balinese give offering not only to their gods (altars above ground) but also to their demons (on the ground).
As it happens, Nusa Penida is the island where the most famous Balinese evil spirit (used to) reside(s) along with his army o ghouls, demons and other dark spirits. His name is Ratu Gede Mecaling, spreader of disease and misfortune. He was formerly the last king of Bali, Dalem Bungkut, banished to Nusa Penida for being a warlock and practising black magic.
In his anger at being outcast, I Mecaling decided to deceive the Balinese and take his revenge. He came back to Bali under the form of a Barong (lion type creature, leader of the good armies) on Nyepi day - the Balinese new year - day of rejoicing and celebration. He sent terrible epidemics and natural disasters across Bali and nearly succeded in destroying the island of gods. Priests and holy men were sent to defeat him which they successfully did with the help of the real Barong. However, his spirit still lingers on the island and remains encased in the temple of Pura Ped.
Since then, the Balinese have made Nyepi the day of silence to hide from any evil spirits who may decide to return. No sound is made, no light is lit in order to remain invisible to the creatures of darkness.
The Balinese come on pilgrimage to the temple either to boost their power in the practice of black magic or, more often, to acknowledge the darkness in the world and find balance in their life between positive and negative energies thus finding calmness and wisdom; as is the Balinese way. They might ask for protection from sickness and misfortune as a little added bonus.
Nusa Penida, what’s in a name?
The origin of the name Nusa Penida is widely debated, some say it comes from ‘Pandita’ or priest to honour the metaphysical battle the Balinese priests fought against evil to defeat I Ma/ecaling. Others claim it means ‘bad chalk’ in reference to the white cliffs and chalky limestone the island is made of. Others yet claim it comes from the word bandit. Indeed, old dutch maps name it ‘bandit island’ (probably a deformation on Pandita).
Though it is unlikely to be the real origin of Nusa Penida's name, it could indeed be an apt name for the island, since it served as a type of penal colony in the past. Until the beginning of this century, the Rajas of Klungkung used Penida to banish disobedient subjects. Some accounts state that only people from the three highest casts - Brahmins and priests (Pedanda), Noblemen (Weisa),and knights( Ksatria)- were exiled to Nusa Penida. They were not all criminals, but could be political intriguers, people not able to pay off their debts or transgressors of marital laws (!). Interestingly, transgressors of marital laws would be those who practice incest, described as intercourse with one’s children, parents, siblings or someone else’s wife! Adultery was harshly punished it seems!
What of the bird?
Nusa Penida island is a sanctuary for Bali’s endemic bird, the Bali Starling. The bird, also known as the Bali Mynah, used to be greatly sought after by collectors despite being protected as an endangered species. These beautiful birds, pure white with a light blue mask, could easily fetch 3000 usd per captured bird on the black market and many were willing to risk imprisonment for several months’ wages. By 2005, only a handful of the birds remained in existence.
With the momentum of a local NGO, (Friends of the National Park Foundation), Penida became a sanctuary for the Bali Starling and an example of a Community Based Conservation project. Ensuring Island wide participation in the sanctuary project was no small feat. It took two years and endless meetings, conversations and debates to get everyone on board. All 46 villages agreed to an awig awig, a regulation upheld by customary law, which would ensure the villagers’ active participation in the bird’s protection. And it worked; by 2012 over 100 starlings flew freely over Nusa Penida.
To help ensure their survival, you can adopt a Starling, which are bred in captivity then released on the island (firstname.lastname@example.org).
These are but a few tales of Nusa Penida’s rich history. There are many many more fascinating stories that we will endeavour to share with you in future.