The Legend of Kebo Iwa

If you frequently travel between Sanur and Ubud, there’s a fat chance you’ve seen the big baby statue sitting in the Sakah intersection. It depicts baby Kebo Wanara, a mighty Balinese warrior of legend circa 12th to 14th century. His legendary feats have put him in the pantheon of demi-gods of Balinese folklore, so much that the statue of him as a baby towers over passing tourist busses plying the busy intersection. On some nights, particularly when there haven’t been enough offerings made, locals report hearing a baby crying at the intersection. Some whisper about seeing the baby walk the streets in their dreams.

Never heard of him? Balinese whose eyes gloss at the mention of the Majapahit Empire have probably never been told the stories of the mighty military genius Kebo Wanara either. His name literally means “Stud-virgin Bull”, because he is remembered as not having sired any offspring. He is more affectionately called Kebo Iwa, a rather infantile way of saying his name, which may explain why his baby-feats are more remembered than his adult ones.

Legend has it that from the day he was born, Kebo Iwa had a voracious appetite. Not satiated by his mother’s milk, he would gesture towards his mother’s cooking until he was fed freshly cooked white rice. It took more than a village to raise this child; the neighbouring villages also, so eager were they to partake in the raising of this miracle giant-child.

When drought and famine struck, making it difficult to feed him, Kebo Iwa dug deep wells with his bare hands to irrigate the community’s rice fields. The tall lad with broad shoulders went on to become a mighty warrior, master-builder and carver. Legend has it that he carved the exquisite Gunung Kawi cave panels near Tampak Siring with his nails.

In Kebo’s day, totemic names of powerful animals were very popular in Java and Bali, especially among strongmen or warriors. The Bull’s arch-enemy was Gajah Mada (“Elephant General”), the mahapatih (Prime Minister) of the Majapahit Empire. Gajah Mada was credited for bringing the empire to the peak of its glory, during the 14th century, when its influence spanned the entire South East Asian archipelago from what is today Thailand to Papua New Guinea, from the Philippines to Darwin.

An interesting historical anecdote is that the only major war the Majapahit waged was against Bali. The rest of the territory was controlled by facilitating trade and/or intimidation rather than conquest. This leads some historians to believe that Bali was an important power in the region at the time. Part of this was due to the military genius of Kebo Wanara, who successfully fended off many conquest campaigns from Java.

Gajah Mada declared a truce and invited Kebo Wanara to Java with the offer of a giant virgin-bride as his peace offering. Upon meeting the lady, Kebo was asked to honour his bride by digging a well, and was then buried alive.

History lessons at Balinese schools do not mention kingdoms in Bali prior to Javanese influence much; if at all. Perhaps this is part of the national identity-building agenda to glorify the times when the country was unified under one Kingdom, namely the Sriwijaya and Majapahit Empires.

As a child, I would read folk tales about Kebo Iwa and giggle at Kebo Iwa’s curse to Gajah Mada (and the Javanese): “You shall be ruled by men who stink like cows for three and a half centuries!” A very clever reference to the Dutch (or so I thought).

To write this piece, however, I scoured contemporary print and online versions of the story and was disappointed not to find any reference to the men who stink like cows.

Instead, the ending has been changed. Kebo Wanara bursts out of the well, debris flying in the air, and fights Gajah Mada man-to-man. During the fight, Gajah Mada obviously losing, the Majapahit minister explains his dream of uniting the archipellago. Kebo Wanara apparently falls for the beauty of this vision, and tells Gajah Mada his weakness: limestone. Ka-pow, Gajah Mada punches a limestone cliff to make some dust and throws a handful at Kebo Wanara. Breathing obstructed by limestone dust, Kebo Wanara loses his magical powers and is slain by Gajah Mada.

In the version of the story I read as a child, Kebo Wanara tells his bride-to-be (a huge bride-doll controlled by a puppet-master) his weakness to limestone dust during the same conversation she asks him to dig a well. The cunning Gajah Mada buries him alive with limestone first, and then with the earth and rock he had dug out from the ground.

White-washing is common to sanctify the victors in history. Nevertheless, I think the community artists rendering Kebo Iwa’s image honoured him well by presenting him as a baby out of limestone. There, even in the depiction of his care-free times as a baby in Bali, illustrating stories mothers tell their children to encourage them to eat to grow strong and tall, lies the element of his defeat.

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