Wood – Stone Carving – Balinese Masks

Wood – Stone Carving – Balinese Masks



The history of woodcarving is similar to that of Balinese painting.


Traditional style

There are hundreds of species of trees in Bali and at least 39 of them are used in woodcarving. Up to the 1930s, it was highly formulaic, and craftsmen tended to copy each other. Carvings consisted mainly of gods, heroes and demons. In the majority of cases they served a religious function, but they also decorated the palaces of the rajas. Woodcarvings were not made for ordinary home decoration.

Traditionally Bales or pavilions in temples and palaces are carved on a grand scale. The Bale has a roof, which rests on horizontal wood beams. Pillars support the roof. Very often the intersection between the beams and the pillars is decorated with a Garuda bird or birds. The Garuda is the eagle-like carrier of the god Wisnu. The beams and pillars are carved in stylized forms, very elaborate and very detailed. Sometimes they are gilded, as in the proposed new restaurant at the entrance to Murni’s Villas.

Modern styles

Modern styles arose to appeal to tourists, who were beginning to come to Bali in the 1930s. Encouragement and suggestions came from Spies and Bonnet, who saw that tourism could create a source of income. The article entitled Balinese Painting describes their activities, especially in Ubud, in relation to painting and they did the same thing for woodcarving.

The modern styles can be classified as:

The elongated style

Walter Spies inspired this style. The subject matter became realistic. The movement initiated by Spies is still very much alive today. The carvings are elongated, made of fine hardwood, sanded and finished without paint. They are then polished to a fine sheen. They are very smooth and good to touch. The shapes are extremely fluid.

The first woodcarver to carve in this style was I Tegelan in the village of Belaluan. He had admirers in Mas, a village a little to the north: Ida Bagus Ketut Gelodog and Ida Bagus Nyana. Mas then became the centre of the new style. There are some examples in Puri Lukisan in Ubud. Perhaps the best carver was I Nyoman Cokot of Jati, who died in 1971. He carved Hindu deities and demons, but in an original style.

The squat style

This is the opposite of the elongated style, invented by Ida Bagus Nyana. Still popular, the weeping Buddha is a typical example, his head in his hands. The wood is highly polished, simple, massive and fully closed,

The driftwood style

The two sons of I Nyoman Cokot, in Peliatan-Teges, developed this style incorporating faces, animals, demons and plants carved out of the twists and turns, often almost hidden, of the branches of Jepun Bali, a variety of frangipani, and the dark maroon gegirang wood, these being particularly suitable. Only the carved parts are finished,

The wooden fruit style

This was produced for the mass market. Painted fruit,banana trees, frogs and cute animals of all kinds are carved from softwood, some of quite good quality. They tend to be cheap.

Stone carving

The only stone available in Bali is paras. Paras is tuff, a combination of volcanic and dust that contains some sand and clay. It is soft and grey and plentiful and is used by carvers to sculpt the numerous statues, large and small, which guard temples, palaces and houses. Many are characters from the Ramayana and Mahabarata epics. Temple walls are covered with carvings. Shrines inside temples, or parts of them, are generally made of paras.

The outside walls of Murni’s Villas are covered in paras. It is almost as soft as wood – and it is also fragile. We decided to leave it plain and uncarved. Because it weathers badly and requires constant renewal, it provides a good living for carvers: it provides continuous work and a honing of skills. After a short time, moss grows on the outside of paras walls. It makes them look very ancient.

The stones are quarried at the riverbank, cut into blocks there and transported to the temple or other building. Then they are fitted without mortar. It takes a long time. The process involves wetting and then grinding adjacent blocks against one another. Once in place, the detailed carving starts.

There are a large number of stone carvers in Batubulan, a village on the road from Ubud to Denpasar. The wood carvers work there and the shops have hundreds of carvings for sale at reasonable prices. Stone carving has not really succumbed to tourism. They can be a bit heavy to carry on a plane.


Balinese masks are of ancient origin and act like a lightning rod in the sense that they attract the spirit of the person to be portrayed. They are sacred. The Balinese believe that living masks can provide inspiration for the wearer, whether he is a dancer or actor. The plot of the play or dance comes from the mask. In other words, as the Balinese say, the mask “speaks”.

Masks are used in dance and drama performances and are treated with a great deal of respect. They represent the faces of gods and heroes, so the persons they represent are revered. Masks are put on the head, which is the most sacred part of the body. It follows therefore that masks should never be put on the ground or stepped over. They are usually kept out of sight, wrapped inside a box, which is often covered with a white cloth.

Masks take many forms and are usually carved from wood. Endless sanding and at least 40 coats of paint achieve a striking glossy surface.

Sacred masks have a power called tenget. If a mask has tenget, it is alive and when a dancer puts it on, he actually becomes the person or god portrayed by the mask. These very powerful masks have been brought to life by a ceremony conducted by a pedanda, a Brahman high priest. They are kept in special shrines and receive offerings every full and new moon, every 15 days on Kajeng-Keliwon and when they are used. In addition, they get special offerings on the day known as Tumpek Wayang – see the article entitled Balinese Calendars for a discussion on the Tumpeks.

Traditional Balinese mask theatre has no stage, dressing room or auditorium. Open-air performances are the most common. The direction of the playing area is dictated by cardinal points, which symbolically affect the entrances and exits of important characters. For more on the cardinal points see the article entitled Balinese Symbolism.

Masked dance

There are three main types of masked dance:


Topeng traces its roots to India and Java. The origin, according to lontar palm leaf books, is 840 AD and possibly earlier. Topeng is Javanese for “mask.” The stories are about the early genealogical histories of the early kingdoms of Bali and Java. They are then brought up to date. They therefore validate the exalted status and authority of the high castes.

Dancers are usually men. He undergoes a ceremony with a Brahman priest before he dances for the first time. He thereby becomes “married” to his masks. Topeng is often passed down from father to son. They are sometimes asked to perform in other villages and there are usually references to local stories and families, presented in an amusing way.

Before dancing, the dancer will make two offerings one to Siwa, the god of dance, and the other to the Butas and Kalas, the low spirits. He will tap the box containing the masks three times to wake them up. He will take them out, remove the white cloth, and sprinkle them with holy water. He will wait for the priest to indicate the auspicious moment for the dance to begin.

The Department of Information has arranged for topeng dancers to tour villages and appear on television about family planning, politics and irrigation programs and the like.

In Hindu Java, the early rajas insisted the masks were held in place by the teeth, so that the dancers could not speak and ridicule the king! There were cases during the Dutch and Japanese occupations of dancers being imprisoned for satire.

Wayang Wong

This is a sacred masked dance-drama, involving human characters, but also, and more often, animal masked characters, especially monkeys. For details, see the article entitled Balinese Dances.


These dramas involve a variety of demons. For details, see the article entitled Balinese Dances. Only carvers who are members of the Brahman caste are allowed to carve sacred Barongs. A sacred Barong mask can take up to 150 layers of paint.

The mask always indicates the personality of the person portrayed. As with representations in paintings, good people look pleasant and serene and wear white masks. Bad people have fangs and bulging eyes. Aggressive people look strong and their masks are black. Brave people have red masks and loud, rough people have purple masks. The same conventions are employed for statues and puppets.

The mask carver, Undagi Tapel, is likely to come from a family of carvers. Most come from the villages of Mas or Singapadu.

Wood – Stone Carving – Balinese Masks