The image of the Queen of the Witches, Rangda, is everywhere in Bali. You'll see her in dance dramas and on masks, temple carvings, paintings and batiks. Although there's some variation in the way she's portrayed, several features are standard and all contribute to her grotesque appearance. She has a long mane of hair, with flames protruding from her head. Her face is fierce and hideous with bulging eyes, a gapping mouth, huge teeth or tusks and a long tongue often reaching to her knees. Her fingernails are long and curled and she has enormous, pendulous breast. She wears a striped shirt and pants with a white cloth around her waist, an important instrument of her evil magic.
Several versions of the Rangda story are enacted across the island, the most common being the barong and calonarang, but she always speaks in the ancient Javanese Kawi language and alternates between high whining tones, loud grunts and cackles. To the balinese, Rangda represents the force of evil, death and destruction and she's often associated with the Hindu goddess Durga.
Rangda may have been based on a real woman, Mahendradatta, a princess from Java who married the Balinese Prince Udayana and bore him a son, Erlangga/Airlangga, in 1001 AD. According to legend, the king later banished Mahendradatta to the forest for practising witchcraft. When Udayana died, Mahendradatta, now a rangda (widow), continued to build up grudges against her powerful and unrelenting son. Eventually, she used her powers to call down a plague upon Erlangga's kingdom, nearly destroying it. Erlangga, learning the source of the pestilence, dispatched a troop of soldiers who stabbed Rangda in the heart, she survived, however, and killed the soldiers. In desperation, the king sent a holy man, Empu Bharadah, whose assistant stole Rangda's book of magic with which he was able to restore Rangda's victims to life and eventually destroy the witch by turning her own magic on herself.
Even in performance of the story, the figure of Rangda is believed to have remarkable powers, and offerings are made and prayers said before each show to protect the actors from evil forces they are invoking. Village performances of the drama often means of pacifying Rangda's anger so that she will not turn her destructive forces against them.