Dewi Ratih and Kala Rau

I bought this beautiful statue from a lady in Rijswijk. Her parents lived in Sumatra from 1949 to 1952, where her father worked for the Dutch postal and telegraph company. They bought the statue of a merchant who went door to door with wood carvings and other souvenirs. The lady was surprised when I told her that the statue was not from Sumatra but from Bali.

The wood carving depicts a slender goddess figure disappearing into the open mouth of a demon. The demon, of which only the head is carved as a pedestal, has round bulging eyes, a big nose and an open beak with crooked tusks and a long tongue.

The female figure holds a slip of her clothing with her right hand. Her body is slightly turned and her face is turned down, looking the demon in the eye. She wears Balinese earrings (subengs), wrist and upper bracelets (gelang kana) and a beautifully decorated crown. Her clothing consists of a hip cloth (kemben), which is tied by a belly band, and a bapang, a cloth that hangs in two collars from the shoulders on the upper arms.

The carving represents a mythological scene, a Balinese variation on the eclipse motif, in which the sun or moon is devoured by a demon. The story, taken from the Adiparwa, is that Kala Rau (or Rahu), a demon from hell, sneaked into heaven out of curiosity and stole a cup of amrita. Before he had managed to swallow this immortality potion completely, Wisnu – who was warned by the sun and the moon – cut off his head with his kris*. The demon’s body died but his head became immortal because he already had a gulp of amrita in his mouth.

Since then, out of spite, Kala Rau has tried to devour the sun or moon to rob the gods of light. Kala Rau is therefore also depicted in Balinese art as a demon head with a disc in its mouth. In this version, the moon has been replaced by the goddess Ratih, who is associated with the moon (her partner Semara, god of love, is associated with the sun). The wood carving thus represents a moon eclipse.

The statue is 42 centimeters high and weighs 3 kilos. Some striking details are the goddess’s bare breasts, the bird’s head (Garuda mungkur) in her neck (not visible in the pictures above) and the pineapple-shaped fruit or flower in her left hand**. These details differ from most later wood carvings of Dewi Ratih and Kala Rau and indicate that it’s an old statue from around 1950.

* In another version of the story, Kala Rau is beheaded by Wisnu throwing his chakra disk at the demon.

** It is probably a lotus bud. Goddesses like Dewi Ratih are often depicted with a lotus flower.

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