He is witty, he is uncanny. Some might say he’s crazy, others might say he’s just a lazy simpleton. He’s an enigma, he’s Pan Balang Tamak. He is a favorite story character for the Balinese, mainly because of his uncanny ways of avoiding the authoritarian ways of Balinese feudal life. There is no “one story” when comes to Pan Balang Tamak; his story is as endless as the human imagination.

Pan Balang Tamak actually refers to a character that is allotted a starring role in many Balinese stories. Pan Balang Tamak is often described as a lazy yet witty person, who would use his wits to make excuses to get out of work or avoid penalties from his banjar. Despite his ubiquity, nobody knows whether he actually existed or is purely fictional. His stories and misadventures were passed down orally through generations and were bedtime favorites, as they were rife with moral lessons. The stories always follow the same plot:

  • Pan Balang Tamak is involved in something with the banjar
  • The villagers of the banjar try to outsmart him
  • Pan Balang Tamak outsmarts the villagers and ends with a punchline, leaving the villagers scratching their heads in disbelief

Culture-wise, Pan Balang Tamak may be inspired by his Arabian counterpart, Abu Nawas. They share similar traits, as well as story plots, despite having stark differences in cultural backgrounds. It could very well be that Pan Balang Tamak is a Balinese rendition of the tales of Abu Nawas, adopted by Balinese who were in contact with Arabian merchants.

As there are many stories, it’s not possible to go through all at once, so here, we’ll just present two of the more popular stories: Pan Balang Tamak and his chickens, and Pan Balang Tamak’s death. Both stories are linked, with the “chickens” often regarded as the first story in the series, and his death as the final episode.

Long ago, there was a man known as Pan Balang Tamak. His neighbors knew him as a lazy man who would lie around the house all day while his wife did the chores.

One day, the head of the village (kelian) announced that the following morning, the banjar will get together and clean up the village temple. They will start “when the chickens leave the roost”. Those who fail to comply will be fined. The village messenger came to Pan Balang Tamak’s house and relayed the message exactly as the kelian iterated. Pan Balang Tamak agreed to the terms and continued his nap. The kelian thought that there was no way Pan Balang Tamak could wake up at sunrise.

The following morning, before sunrise, the villagers were already up and running to the temple with their brooms, hoes, scythes, and other equipment. Pan Balang Tamak was still fast asleep at home. The kelian was smug with victory.

Noon came. The temple was clean. The villagers were on their way home, when they met Pan Balang Tamak, who was headed to the temple. Infuriated, the kelian ordered him to pay a large fine for disregarding the community commitment. Pan Balang Tamak yawned and stared at them inoocently.

“I do not understand why I must pay such a large fine, kelian. Your orders were crystal-clear: I was to come ‘when the chickens leave the roost’. You did not say anything about an exact time. Now, you see, all I have at my house are hens. Last time I checked, hens are chickens too. My hens had eggs, so it took them quite a while to leave their roost. As soon as they did, I hurried up here,” Pan Balang Tamak explained.

The kelian and the villagers were struck with disbelief. Especially the kelian, who was red with embarrassment. Pan Balang Tamak escaped the fine.

Time passed. The villagers, especially the kelian grew tired of Pan Balang Tamak’s witty excuses. They grew so mad, they reported Pan Balang Tamak to the King of Klungkung. The King ordered his aide to poison Pan Balang Tamak.

Pan Balang Tamak knew of the plot to kill him. He then talked to his wife about his elaborate plan to face death. He subjected himself to fate, eating the poisoned babi guling that was brought over by the king’s aide. Once he was dead, his wife then dressed his corpse in white robes similar to a priest. She then positioned Pan Balang Tamak’s corpse at the family bale (open hall) in a sitting position, holding a ritual bell. She also hid a cage of bees near the body so it would sound like someone humming a prayer. Then, she waited.

The villagers were curious. They wanted to confirm that the nuisance was dead. But when they went to his house, they were shocked to see Pan Balang Tamak sitting up straight and humming a mantra. They reported what they saw to the king. The king doubted the potency of the poison and tried it on himself. He died instantly, leaving the villagers and royal family to mourn.

The stories of Pan Balang Tamak all share a similar theme: outwitting the monarchy or existing power structure. He is often regarded as a voice of the “small people”, those who are not born with the privileges of royalty in Bali. With nothing but his bare wits, he fought the monarchy, which ultimately ended with regicide. The morals of the story remain the same: be clear of what you say, and be creative when solving a problem!