Have you ever wondered why sometimes when you are in Bali you see rows of beautiful bamboo poles lining the streets? Why can they be seen at some times and not at others? Well, the streets get decorated every 210 days for a celebration known as Galungan. Galungan is a 10-day ceremonial time to honour and welcome the ancestral spirits back home to Bali. The island must look welcoming, colourful and festive for the gods. Galungan also symbolises the victory of good (dharma) over evil (adharma), during which time Balinese Hindus perform many rituals.
Welcoming the Ancestors
The island is ablaze with colour as the Balinese make elaborate offerings and also perform dances at the temple to entertain the returning spirits. The house compounds that form the nucleus of Balinese society come alive, and families make prolific offerings at their local temples to express their gratitude and to seek protection.
The Welcoming Penjors
The whole island sprouts tall bamboo poles, or penjors, which are usually decorated with fruit, coconut leaves, fruit and flowers, and are set up at the entrance to every house. And, yes, we have one outside our Balinese home because I live in Bali. At each gate of each dwelling you will also find small bamboo altars erected especially for the celebration, each one bearing woven palm-leaf offerings, flowers and fruit.
Preparations for Galungan begin well beforehand. Penyekeban, meaning the day to cover up, occurs three days before the Galungan day. This is the day when green bananas are placed in huge clay pots and covered to speed their ripening. Penyajahan occurs two days before the Galungan day and is a time of introspection for Balinese. Colourful Balinese cakes known as jaja are made from fried rice dough. These are used in offerings and also eaten during the 10-day Galungan period when you see piles of jaja in every village market. The day before Galungan day is Penampahan or slaughter day. This is when the Balinese kill pigs and chickens for uses such as temple altar offerings. On Galungan day streams of Balinese devotees can be seen bringing elaborate offerings to their community temples. The next day the Balinese visit their extended family and closest friends. They wear their finest garb on this day and preferably new clothes.
Ten days later, Kuningan marks the end of Galungan. This is the day the Balinese believe the spirits ascend back to heaven. It is another fine and glorious event. You will see unique offerings of yellow rice. If you are staying in a village, expect a knock at the door, as your neighbour will no doubt give you some.
You may also see the Ngelawang performed at this time. It is an exorcism dance performed by a barong, a representation of a mythical beast known as the divine protector. The barong is invited into houses as he makes his way through the village. His presence is meant to restore the balance of good and evil in a home. The residents of the house will pray before the dancing barong, who will then give them a piece of his fur as a keepsake. After the barong rocks up at your front door and pays a visit, it is customary to offer of a canang sari (a flower offering) containing money, or it is appreciated if you can give a monetary donation direct to the barong helper.
During Galungan traditional Balinese food is abundant, like lawar (a spicy pork and coconut sauce dish) and satay. If you love trying local food, some restaurants will feature extensive arrays of Balinese specialities. Make sure you try some.
At Galungan the beautiful penjors line every road, lane and tiny street and sway in the wind, a continual reminder of this grand welcoming home of the ancestral spirits. Food, offerings, flowers, celebration and blessings honouring the invisible world bring balance to Bali – famed Island of the Gods.
Story by Stephanie Brookes
Photo by David Metcalf
Galungan is held every 210 days on the Bali calender.
Stephanie Brookes is a travel writer and blogger with tales from Indonesia and beyond.
Author of Indonesia’s Hidden Heritage
David Metcalf runs cultural photography tours in Bali, Kalimanatan, Japan and beyond.