Rituals as Adventure in 1800s Bali

Grand, ornate rituals are a wonder to experience in real life and thrilling to read about in fiction, but usually boring in RPGs. There are no interesting decisions for the players to make: you just sit there listening to the GM narrate the spectacle. But it doesn’t have to be that way! To show how to make awesome adventures about rituals, let’s dive into one of the best settings for rituals we have: the ‘theater states’ of 19th century Bali, in what is now Indonesia!

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Pura Besakih, the holiest Hindu temple in Bali.

Image credit: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas. Released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Bali is an island about the size of Delaware. In the 1800s, it was the last refuge of Hindu, ‘Indic’ culture in the Indonesian Archipelago. The rest of what is today Indonesia was long-since Islamized, then conquered by the Dutch. (The Dutch would conquer Bali in 1906). Though the island’s people were settled rice farmers, steep mountains and deep canyons prevented the formation of a centralized government. Instead, six to ten city-states exercised nominal authority over their own small territories, each run by a shifting network of local nobles paying lip service to the city’s king. The focus of the each city’s government, such as it was, could not be on governing, as no government of the period was organized or united enough to carry out the functions we associate with ‘ruling’.

Instead, the cities focused on spectacle. Every event of consequence required a ritual, the grander and more public the better! Unlike in Europe, where coronations, military parades, stately architecture, etc. were a means to an end – impressing people so they act the way you want – the rituals in Bali were the end goal. The dominant political and social belief in Bali at the time was that of the ‘exemplary center’: that the court and capital encapsulate in miniature the broader universe. The material and supernatural order of the world are reflected in the appearance of the court. By providing a model, a “faultless image”, the court shapes the world into its proper form. Performing the rituals well keeps the universe on track. Performing them badly introduces the same faults into the real world.

Balinese nobles seized on many opportunities for rituals: pilgrimages, ordinations, blood sacrifices, cremations, suicides. There was an annual blessing of the dynasty’s heirlooms, a ritual for the coming-of-age tooth-filing of teenage nobles, and a ceremony to reconsecrate a temple after repairs, a new accession to the throne, or a natural disaster in the area. Rituals often involved some combination of carvings, flowers, ornaments, masks, dances, songs, chants, gestures, postures, and the use of royal heirloom weapons. Naturally, all these elements were symbolic of highly-developed, polysemic (a single symbol with multiple distinct meanings) elements of Shaivist Hindu theology.

Temple offerings.

Image credit: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas. Released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Let’s look at a specific example: the cremation of the King of Gianyar in 1847. It was a three-day affair. On the first day, the Purification, the king’s relatives and other nobles washed the body and dressed it: mirrors on the eyes, flowers in the nostrils, wax in the ears, and iron the arms. On the second day, the Obeisance, attendants moved the body to a special display pavilion in the palace and surrounded it with leaves, rice, and the dynasty’s heirloom weapons. There, nobles came to pay their respects to the late king.

But it’s the third day, the day of the actual cremation, that most concerns us. Corvée laborers assembled a two-story structure atop a hill where the king would be burned, complete with a gilded roof and crimson pillars. They also built a gorgeously-ornamented, fourteen-story tower of wood outside the walls of the palace. Some 40,000 spectators gathered around the walls to watch these next events unfold.

Because a corpse is ritually unclean, and nothing unclean can pass through the gates of the palace, laborers built a bridge over the wall of the palace, leading to the top of the fourteen-story tower. Attendants carried the body of the king up the bridge and onto the tower. Then five hundred men picked up the tower and began carrying it towards the hill where the king was to be burned. Behind the king’s tower came three smaller ones. Atop each sat one of the king’s junior wives.

These towers went down the road as part of an enormous procession of soldiers, priests, dancers, musicians, and carriers of sacred objects. At the head of the procession, the high priest rode in an open chair, around which was wrapped a long cloth serpent. The snake’s head served as a cushion for the priest, and its tail was tied to the king’s tower, implying the serpent was dragging the king to the cremation.

A modern Hindu cremation in Bali

When the procession reached the hill, the high priest’s task was to kill the serpent. He took a bow and fired an arrow at the snake from each of the four cardinal directions. Each arrow was tipped not with an arrowhead, but with the large flower of the champaka tree. Then men took the ritually-slain cloth serpent up to the two-story structure where the king would be burned. They wrapped it around the king’s casket, built in the shape of a winged lion.

Another bridge permitted attendants to bring the king’s body down from its tower and place it in the casket. They placed five small plates of metal, inscribed with the appropriate phrases, in the king’s mouth. The high priest read the vedas, and then the two-story structure was set alight with body and coffin inside.

As the king burned, his three junior wives were carried three times around the structure, then lifted onto the bridge. Each held a single dove. Attendants poured oil on the flames. One by one, each junior wife leapt from the bridge into the inferno below, releasing her dove as she fell. Two of these women did so without hesitation. The third faltered, but ultimately leapt. All three perished without a sound.

Image credit: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas. Released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

At your table, you can use a fictional setting based on 19th-century Bali to make rituals matter. If the proper performance of the ritual has (or is believed to have) a very real impact on the world, it gives the scene purpose and stakes. Now all you need is a scenario where the PCs have interesting decisions to make during the ritual! Exciting scenarios include:

- You are involved in a combat that is taking place during a ritual. You’ve got to win the fight, but you have to do it in a way that doesn’t interrupt the sacred elements of the ritual. In a sense, the ritual becomes the fight’s terrain, except it’s terrain that changes every few rounds as the ritual moves into another phase.

- You are performing the ritual and must carry it out despite obstacles. Pass each player a sheet with three ritual steps they must perform and at what time. Yet obstacles keep arising that risk interfering with those directions: sabotage, combat, assassination, well-meaning but ignorant helpers, and/or acts of God. Find ways to overcome these obstacles and keep the ritual on track!

- Interrupt or infiltrate a ritual to alter it in a specific way. This should bring about changes in the world or in the cosmos. Carefully plan how you will alter the ritual to create the maximum effect – and keep people from stopping you!

- You need to undermine this ritual, but forces outside your control keep you from interrupting or infiltrating it. Instead, you have to find its fatal metaphysical flaw by exhaustively researching it. Interrogate priests, trace the supply chain of the ceremonial components, follow up on the participants, and look over the unique ritual objects until you find an Achilles’ hell you can exploit from afar.


Source: Negara: The Theatre State in Ninteenth-Century Bali by Clifford Geertz (1980)

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Everyone needs content for their RPG campaigns: adventure hooks, puzzles, NPCs, political machinations, combat encounters, and adventure sites. That’s what this site provides! I draw RPG content from real-life fact and folklore, then give advice on how to adapt it to your fictional campaign. I believe content that is grounded in reality (however fantastical) is richer and more vibrant, and your players will appreciate the difference.


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