The Balinese devote most of their waking hours to an endless series
of offerings, purifications, processions, dances, and dozens of other religious
rites. Ceremonies and festivals guide a Balinese from birth to death and
into the world thereafter. There can be few places of comparable size where
ceremonial obligations hold such a sway over people's lives. There are
festivals dedicated to the art of woodcarving, the birth of a goddess,
percussion instruments. There are temple festivals, fasting and retreat
ceremonies, parades to the sea to cleanse villages, special prayer days
for the dead, nights of penance (sivaratri), harvest festivals (usaba),
blood sacrifices, and house deity anniversaries (odalan sangguh).
No one who has encountered a Balinese procession will ever forget the total
immersion into Balinese culture and the wonderful opportunity to interact
with the people on a special occasion.
Over 90% of Balinese are Hindu, so Indic holidays dominate the festival calendar. A basic tenet of the Balinese religion is that rituals and ceremonies maintain harmony between the two equally powerful forces of good and evil, and that the proper and harmonious behavior of the people brings the supernatural forces under control. Balinese also believe that the island is owned by the supreme god Sanghyang Widhi and has been handed down to the people in a sacred trust. In return, the people show their gratitude by filling their lives with symbolic activities and worship. Time seems to be measured only by the days and weeks between festivals. Because of the heat, the Balinese stage the majority of ceremonies in the late afternoon or evening and they last until early morning. The full moon is perhaps the most favorable time to view an event on Bali because of a heightened, magic feeling when a whole month's devotion reaches it peak. The new moon or when there's just a sliver of the moon, when the sky is almost completely dark, is also very spiritual. This is a time of the spirits, of renewal, for starting over.
Travel During Festival Times
Religious holidays can cause some inconvenience for travelers. Bali's roads become clogged with cars and motorcycles during the days leading up to Galungan, when people leave the towns to spend the holidays in their home villages. The opposite happens during Nyepi, an annual spring-cleaning to drive away evil spirits. Transportation ceases and all shops and businesses shut down. Travel is expensive, complicated, and time-consuming- you might wait eight hours to catch the ferry to Java. (Note that the dates of Nyepi through 1999 are: 9 April 1997, 29 March 1998, 18 March 1999).
Religious holidays observed all over in Indonesia can also affect travel on Bali. The Islamic holiday Idul Fitri marks the end to the fasting of Ramadan and the beginning of Syawal, and marks the peak season for domestic tourism. As many as 25 million Indonesians leave the cities for holiday destinations like Bali. Starting at least a week prior to the holiday, this exodus strains all transportation services and accommodations. Be advised not to travel in Bali at this time. The day before and after Proklamasi Kemerdekaan (17 August) it may be difficult to travel because of traffic jams lalu lintas macet. Don't plan to travel on these days if you're on a tight schedule. Also, starting a week before Christmas, the entire island is gridlocked with foreign and domestic tourists.
If you see a procession of women in traditional dress carrying small bowls or balancing offerings on their heads, or a group of men in batik shirts and headcloths, put on a shirt, take your camera, and mingle with the crowd-you're always welcome. If participants get in a bemo, get in after them; if they're walking along the road, fall in behind.
Get the Indonesia Calendar of Events, covering festivals, holidays, and events throughout the archipelago for the current year. Pick it up at Garuda offices in any of Indonesia's large cities, or at Indonesian Tourist Information or Garuda offices abroad.
Travel agents, hotel owners and managers, and houseboys can supply information about specific events during any given period.
Denpasar's tourist office at Jl. Surapati 7 (tel. 0361-234569) opposite Puputan Square, is another excellent place to inquire about any festivals taking place. Ask for the Bali Calendar of Events, which lists the major temple anniversaries (odalan) taking place that year. (One difficulty is that many ceremonies are scheduled only several weeks in advance.) The office is open Mon.-Thurs. 0800-1300, Friday 0800-1030, and Saturday 0800-1300. Also check your hotel bulletin board. You can always tell if a festival is going on. The tinkling of a gamelan emanating from inside a temple, gauntlet of hawkers lined up on the road, or village streets lined with high arching bamboo poles all point to a celebration or festival nearby.
You can also follow a calendar which indicates the festival dates. Balinese calendars are used by astrologers to read horoscopes, and by priests to fix the most propitious days for planting, getting married, holding a cremation, opening a restaurant, constructing a house, or gathering for some social function.
The Balinese Calendar
Indigenous calendars usually start the Balinese year with the vernal equinox (March on the Gregorian calendar). Major festivals seem to change not only from year to year, but from month to month within a specific year if viewed through the Gregorian calendar. Temple birthdays, a commonplace event throughout Bali, occur frequently at regular, scheduled intervals, but some ceremonies-such as the extraordinary mouse cremation at Ababi village near Tirtagangga which takes place once every 10 years-occur at far greater intervals.
The main problem with trying to keep up with Balinese holidays and festivals is they are three different yet parallel calendrical systems in use. Tacked up side by side on the wall, each calendar is referred to simultaneously to keep track of festivals in progress and to plan for upcoming events. Our familiar Gregorian calendar is used to determine political and Christian holidays, but dates for the most important celebrations and exorcisms are determined by the conjunction of dates on Bali's two distinctive, non-Western calendars.
One system is based on the Indian saka year which determines festival dates events in the non-Javanized parts of the island. Several major Hindu temples still celebrate their anniversaries according to this Sanskrit-based calendar. Calculated from new moon to new moon, the saka calendar is divided into 12 months (sasih) of 29-30 days each. The saka calendar commenced at the founding of the Indian Saka dynasty in A.D. 78, meaning that the year 1900 in Bali began in 1978. This system most closely follows the Gregorian year in terms of length; we can synchronize this lunar calendar to the Western solar calendar by inserting a month every 30 months. When reading this calendar, the dates run vertically rather than horizontally as in the West.
The other is the pawukon calendar cycle, imposed on Bali by the Majapahit conquerors and based on the so-called Javano-Balinese uku year which has 30 weeks of seven days each totaling 210 days. Although festival dates can't be predetermined precisely, celebrations tend to fall around the same time every year. This traditional calendar, called pelelintingan, is used to schedule the most important island-wide rituals and feasts like Kuningan and Galungan, as well as temple birthdays (odalan).
The uku year is divided into six individually named periods of 35 days (tumpek), so each has five seven-day weeks. Based on the movements of the seven visible planets and the three-day market week, each frame depicts activities that are auspicious to carry out on a particular day. Particularly powerful days occur when special dates from two calendars intersect. Also significant are those days which precede the night of the full moon (purnama), or end a month with no moon (tilem). Details of the Chinese, Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic calendars are also included so that the Balinese uku calendar is truly international.
A computer program by Balinist Fred Eiseman enables you to input Gregorian calendar dates and output lunar month and the Balinese lunar day number. Another allows you to input the year number (e.g., 1998) and get the dates for purnama and tilem for the entire year. Enter the name of one of 45 events on the list, and another program will give you the date for that event in the year you enter. Creating this software was a tormenting task because the relationships between the different calendar systems had to be worked out. The programs will work for any date, past or future, fit on a 3.5-inch double-density disk, and are menu-driven and easy to use. Complete instructions are included. For a copy of the disk, send US$25 to Fred Eiseman, 13025 East Mountain View Rd., Scottsdale, AZ 85259, U.S.A.
No ritual or purification takes place on Bali without first placating the demons and witches. If a village has been visited by a calamity such as the birth of twins of different sexes, a murder, a bad accident, an epidemic, or a flood, a priest needs to purify the ground to avert more trouble and strengthen the spiritual force of the village.
Any dangerous transitional event, natural disaster, calendrical shift, or anniversary always calls for the appeasement of ancestors who then descend to Earth and dispose of evil forces or banish vermin from the fields. In return, they receive offerings and entertainment from the people. The more elaborate the performances and music, the less likely these benign spirits are to become bored. In this way, they will dally longer on earth, continuing to protect the people.
In a ruse to drive out demons, the Balinese New Year (Nyepi) is a day of silence-no activity is allowed anywhere on Bali. A 15-day ceremony in 1991 in Ubud to straighten out the axis of the world was so complex it took an IBM computer to run the event. The grandest and most important exorcism, taking place every 100 years, is the stupendous Eka Dasa Rudra. Involving tens of thousands of people, it is a ritual purification of the whole island.
Family Rituals and Ceremonies
The most common family ritual involves placing small woven-coconut trays filled with sticky rice, flowers, and salt at the four cardinal points of the courtyard and outside the front gate of every house. Three times a day these tiny offerings (sesajan) are sprinkled with holy water and offered up to the gods-perhaps the most important religious activity on Bali.
Family rites of passage-toothfilings, first birthdays, weddings, cremations-are one-time events that require a special ceremony prepared by the family. After the passage of six months on the Pawukon calendar, an infant will be named, blessed, and allowed to touch the ground for the first time in the colorful oton ceremony. Because these intimate events take place on favorable days determined by a priest, only the family or close relatives know about them ahead of time. Losmen or hotel owners frequently invite their guests to these special occasions.
Temples are only used in ceremonies relating to God, not for petty human life and interaction. Ceremonies for people take place at home and not in a temple, although offerings are made there. A deified ancestor of the family is invited to descend and take up temporary residence in a special statue (pratima) in a house shrine or at the village temple. Every family temple in Bali has an anniversary odalan, a closed affair when the family pays homage to their ancestors and to Sanghyang Widhi, the supreme god.
Large celebrations, lasting for days and mobilizing thousands of people, are performed with startling efficiency. Nobody is left out; peasants as well as aristocrats take part in the preparations. Indeed, the Balinese seem the happiest when they are getting ready for a musical performance, building altars, fashioning offerings, or cooking a ritual feast. The idea is to fulfill your religious obligations and have a good time while you're at it.
Rules govern exactly how much food, oil, palm leaf strips, lamak, and symbolic money are offered. One way of pleasing the gods is to present them with prayers and offerings, so major festivals are brightened by rows of sumptuous fruit and flowers. Women prepare sweet cakes, cook glutinous rice, or cut decorative patterns from palm leaves. Men ready the temple grounds; hanging friezes, canopies, and banners, building bamboo platforms and altars, slaughtering pigs, erecting penjor poles, performing guard duty, and covering the genitals of statues with checkered cloths.
Another way to entertain the gods is with dance, drama, and gamelan music. Laughter brings joy to the gods, so each household makes a contribution to the musicians. Both the higher deities and the gods of the underworld are taken into account, one reason why Balinese festivals are so noisy, colorful, and confusing. Be patient as nothing happens to a fixed schedule. Your inquiry as to when a procession or event will take place will always be "Sebentar lagi . . ."
("In a little while . . .").
Fashionable dress shows respect and is also a mark of social prestige. Women don rich handspun kain and ornament themselves with jewels, scarves, and pounded gold in their hair. At festival times a young woman looks her best. She's allowed to wear lipstick and makeup at religious events but not in daily life when it would be considered too flirtatious. Infant girls wear flowers in their hair and bright sashes around their tiny waists. Men wear a brocaded headcloth, kris, and colorful sarung.
A large temple festival is like a stage for a lavish form of metaphysical theater, a three-ringed circus of the arts when the temple comes alive with devotees who crowd into the courtyard and parade between the shrines. Babes are carried in the arms of small children, priests recite mantras, elders translate poetry from sacred lontar, children fly kites, and men gather to joke and gamble with brightly colored Chinese cards or fight their cocks. Clove cigarettes and incense smoke choke the air, peanuts and rice cakes are sold, and there is spirited gossiping among neighbors and friends. For three or four days almost without break, ritual dances, festive music, and dramas are performed as if the occasion were a gay costume party instead of a fervid act of worship. Finally, bloated with sensory pleasure, the gods are invited to return to their heavenly spheres.
The best way to behave at family events-funerals, selamatan, circumcisions, weddings, prenuptial ceremonies-is to watch the Balinese and mirror them. As in our country, family events need invitations. Just because you're a tourist doesn't mean you can stroll into a family compound where something interesting is going on. You're welcome to attend any "public" ceremony or festival at a temple, and encouraged to actively participate, as long as you follow certain rules. There's always room for one more in a crowded courtyard-just nudge a few people over, roll out another mat, or pick a pillar to lean against.
Since festivals are religious occasions, traditional dress (pakaian adat) is expected-a sash worn around the waist, often handed out for a small fee near the entrance. Most hotel/bungalow owners are only too happy to supply you with the necessary clothing and accompany you. If you don't have a sash, wrap a sarung or even a towel around your waist. Wear long pants or skirt and your best shirt or blouse (no beachwear). A nice gesture is to make a simple contribution such as a couple packages of cigarettes or some pens and notebooks for the kids. Proper dress is all the more appropriate if you're invited to attend a family ceremony.
Stay in the background. Don't stand in the way of people praying and never stand or sit on a wall or platform higher than officiating priests. If you enter an area of prayer, remove your shoes and sit cross-legged on a mat or the ground. Ceremonies and religious events, particularly in the Denpasar area, charge small fees (Rp200) to enter temple compounds. Women are not allowed inside temples during their menstrual periods; photographs and tape recordings are permitted except at prayer services.
Holidays of Other Faiths
Major holidays of other religions are also national holidays on Bali. Ramadan and the Islamic holy days leading up to Idul Fitri are fervently observed by Bali's Muslim community, and Christmas is enthusiastically celebrated among Christians. At Christmas time Ubud's Puri Anyar is bedecked with colored lights, ropes of phony gold fur, giant effigies of Mickey Mouse, and large plastic snowflakes.