Whosoever offers to me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water, that offering of love, of the pure heart I accept.
Krishna tells Arjuna what God expects and requires of an offering in the most famous passage from the Bhagavad Gita, (ix:26)
This passage lies at the heart of the Balinese tradition of preparing offerings : leaves, flowers, fruit and holy water are presented with devotion. Today’s offerings for Galungan, featured in the images below, however, differ in the sense that they are made to the returning spirits of ancestors and are placed in front of family homes in small enclosed palm leaf or bamboo cages.
Wandering the suburban back streets today,I was rather taken with these elaborately decorated cages at the base of each penjor, filled this morning with special banten or offerings. These offerings are more family based and idiosyncratic, with each basket protected from marauding birds and squirrels, so that the little rice cakes and other treats for the dead might survive for the whole of this auspicious day.
Today’s religious ceremonies start at the home temple: each family compound will have one small temple, usually found in the kaja-kangin corner of the compound.¹ Offerings are made here first, before travelling, on foot or by motorbike, to the larger community temples located in each banjar or district.
Dressed in their finest ceremonial clothes, the Balinese are enjoying their holiday. For the modern Sanur based family, this means a cone or cup of Massimo’s gelato after the family prayers: the queues outside Massimo’s gelateria are long, as men in ceremonial white udeng and finely woven sarongs, and women in white lacy kabaya and coloured sarongs queue for a sweet treat.
¹ Kaja-Kangin, two aspects of Balinese orientation, will be discussed fully in a later post.
A distant bird sings a slow, repetitive gok gok gok, a rhythmic sound, like a percussion of coconut shells or a forest gamelon band: it gently seeps into my consciousness. Further away, waves break on the fringing reef. Above, a giant black kite reaches for the clouds. It’s a warm Sunday afternoon and the gentle breeze lifts the kite sky high and ruffles the lush greenery in the garden below. But all this lazy Sunday tranquility is deceptive: the Balinese are busy and preoccupied as they prepare for Galungan. The anticipation and excitement is palpable and infectious. The topic comes up in almost every conversation. Some are eager, some are already tired from making offerings, but all are involved as the days count down from Sunday to next Wednesday, July 24th, Galungan day.
Galungan is one of the most important days of the Balinese calendars. It is the day when the spirits of dead ancestors descend to their former family homes. They must be welcomed and entertained with beautiful decorations, offerings, feasting and prayers. These ancestor spirits stay for a week, and leave on Kuningan day, which occurs on August 3rd this year. Galungan always occurs on the Wednesday of the 11th week in the Pawukan Calendar, the Balinese 210 day calendar that governs most anniversaries, auspicious days and religious events. It is possible for two Galungan events to fall within the same year, though in the 40 years I’ve been visiting Bali, this will be my first experience of Galungan.
Everyone has a role to play in the preparations. I’ve been watching teenage lads and young men cart huge bamboo poles around on motorbikes, dragging them down lanes and through markets. These green bamboo poles are then bent into shape and decorated to make the Penjor. During Galungan, Penjor frame the entrance to a village, a house or driveway, or form a colonnade along the streets. They begin to appear on Monday July 22. The task of creating a penjor is given to men and their sons, and each one I’ve met is very proud of their creation. Each penjor is unique but made using the same basic ingredients. The bamboo pole is arched at the top, representing Gunung Agung ( Bali’s sacred mountain), the body represents a river flowing from the mountains to the sea, and along its route are the products of the harvest tied to the pole: at the foot of the pole is a temporary shrine. Unlike the artificial tinsel and baubles of Christmas which make an annual appearance and then are stashed away, a penjor is made annually and consists of local, natural materials.
The celebrations start on the Monday ( Penyajaan) as women prepare coloured rice cakes or jaja which are used as offerings. At this morning’s traditional market, Pasar Sindhu, rows and rows of jaja were available for those busy women who don’t have time to make their own. On the Tuesday, called Penamphan, pigs are slaughtered to make the traditional feast lawar, a spicy ground meat dish eaten on the morning of Galungan. I spoke to a friend this morning, Ida Bagus, who was looking forward to making the lawar, having already prepared the marinade. The making of lawar is also a male duty. In contrast, I had an interesting chat with Ketut, an amusing young woman in her 40s who runs a kitchenware shop in the market. She was complaining about men taking credit for their Penjor and Lawar, while the women make small canang sari containers for a weeks ahead of Galugnan, along with hundreds of rice cake offerings and other festive foods, only to spend each day cleaning up, while the men lie about relaxing on Galungan day, eating and drinking rice wine.
Galungan celebrates the creation of the universe, the victory of good, Dharma, against evil, Adharma. It s a time for prayer, family get togethers, and offerings. On the day following Galungan, families will visit other friends and families in villages across Bali and the celebrating will continue. It’s a sweet and precious time for the Balinese, but then, most days are. There’ll be more ceremonies to discover next week, if not every day after that.
I have borrowed extensively from Bali Sekala and Niskala, Essays on religion,Ritual and Art. Fred B Eiseman, Jr. 1990, Tuttle Publishing.
Would you like more of Bali in your daily life? For the next three months I’ll be documenting aspects of Balinese life, at email@example.com
I lose all sense of time in the garden, and then I lose myself. It’s a common enough experience among gardeners. After the first flurry of harvesting, tying back overgrown tomatoes and moving hoses about, observing life’s cycle from seed to flower to fruit then back to seed, and all the while conscious of my own aging body as it bends and complains within this bounteous space, another state emerges. My pragmatic self surrenders to a semi- conscious meditation on the essence of being. Through silent awareness and invisibility, the sounds and signals of earth- primordial, spiritual, supreme- reinforce the idea of Anattā, that Buddhist concept of non-being.
It begins with a chive flower waving in the gentle breeze, now taller than the blanketing pumpkin leaves, insisting on more light. The delicate white coriander flowers belie the true pungency of their leaves, roots and seeds. Things are not what they seem. Then a strange bird call punctures the silence. High pitched like a creaking table, the sound is urgent but not bleak. I look up and see a flash of yellow underneath a broad wing span of black. It’s the yellow -tailed black cockatoo, an infrequent visitor to these lightly wooded lands. Now one, now two more, followed by a train of rasping sound, they are on their way to a distant pine tree. Word is out that the nuts are ready to strip. The guard cocky stands alert, signalling from the highest branch, a two-dimensional black stencil, a wayang puppet, an inked picture outlined in the early morning sky.
The bluest of blue of the radicchio flower is a call to the bees. I can never find the word for this blue: constructs such as Cobalt or Persian or Cornflower might have to do. And the little gem of a beetle, friend or foe, travels across a furry field that is an eggplant leaf. The mauve and white bean flowers peep from the darkness of their leafy canopy, an arrangement, a posy, a boutoniere. The beans can wait.