—There’s more to Bali than beach clubs and Bintang. Stephanie Brookes gets an intimate glimpse into the elaborate preparations for Galungan, a festival that reminds you of the spiritual charms of the island—
Galungan is a wonderful time for the Balinese, Ibu Wayan, an elegant woman from Pejeng Kelod — a small village located 5 kilometers east of Ubud — says to me with a smile on her face. “Perhaps, like your Christmas?” I nod. Having lived in Indonesia for 11 years — and calling Bali home for the past six — I understand the reference. Galungan is one of the most important festivals for Balinese Hindus. And as I look around at the feverish activity at Wayan’s family compound (and try not to get in anyone’s way as they prepare for the festivities), it’s clear to me that, just like Christmas, Galungan is a time for family. But unlike Christmas, Galungan takes place twice a year. Every 210 days to be exact, with celebrations happening over 10 days. It’s believed that deified spirits visit the earth during this time, and so all the rituals and preparations are performed to welcome and honor these returning spirits.
WALKING WITH THE GODS
You’ll know when Galungan is coming. The most obvious and beautiful visual cues are the tall, colorful bamboo poles — known as penjors — that line every road, lane and tiny street. The ends are weighed by holy offerings, forming graceful arcs that sway ever so gently in the wind. The penjor acts as a temporary throne for the visiting spirits and every part of this elegant structure is rife with religious meaning. The height and arched top of the penjor are a tribute to Bali’s highest mountain, Mount Agung, which is the home of the gods and a symbol of protection and prosperity. Bamboo, the key material in the penjor, represents one’s strength of faith.
Making penjors is traditionally a family affair, even though the construction of the structure is mostly men’s work (the women help with smaller, artistic touches). I meet Kadek — a food stall owner in Tampaksiring Market, North
of Ubud — when he ‘s working on his family’s penjor. When I ask him what it takes to make one, his face lights up, eager to show me the decorative accents that are in his family’s signature style. Penjor decorating is much like decorating Christmas trees — families develop their own traditions and personalized touches.
He shares tales of being a young boy (he’s been making penjors since he was nine) and having to go into the forest with his family to source the right bamboo pole, which needs to have good bend at the end. It was tiring, he says, to gather all the coconut leaves and young palm leaves needed for the decorations. “These days, you can buy ready-made ones,” he adds, shaking his head disapprovingly. And, almost as if to prove that hand-made ones are better, he puts the finishing touches on his penjor.
What’s a celebration without food? With Galungan, food prep is a manic three-day marathon. It starts with Penyekeban, which means “the day to cover up”. On this day, families place green bananas in huge pots to speed up the ripening — a practical act to make sure the gods are only offered bananas in their prime and a symbolic gesture that serves as a reminder that the “ripening” of moral character takes time.
Then there’s the making of jaja — a sweet, colored rice cake that’s used as offerings on penjors and at temples. “My grandma would make a large slab of rice dough,” recalls Kadek, “and she’d leave it out in the sun to dry for a
day. The whole house would be filled with the sweet aroma! When it was ready, she’d carefully cut the slab into smaller pieces and fry them. Finally, she’d glaze them with white sugar syrup. They’re still the best jaja I’ve had.”
The day before Galungan is when the action in and around the kitchen seriously ramps up. Walk into any home and you’ll see mounds of fresh ingredients — grated coconut, jack fruit tree leaves, snake beans, turmeric, ginger …
There’s tons to be done and every step of the complex operation is overseen by the matriarch. Everyone’s put to work — be caught with idle hands at your own risk. And the heady scent that fills the air! There’s the smell from chilies and shrimp paste frying in hot oil; sate lilit (skewers of spiced pork mince) and babi guling (whole roasted suckling pig) grilling on wood fire; pounding of aromatics like lemongrass and ginger for lawar (a mixture of pork, vegetables, spices and herbs). Surely, the gods salivate at the thought of the feast that will be bestowed on them the next day. I know the mortals definitely look forward to the coma-inducing amount of food they get to eat
THE BIG DAY
Bali culture comes alive in a flurry of preparations and culminates in Galungan on December 26, where endless streams of people walk through the village to bring offerings to the temples. It’s an introspective moment in the temple as locals pray and receive holy water. Don’t be scared to enter the temples on Galungan. They will be crowded for sure, but as long as you wear a sarong and a sash (and cover your shoulders), you will be welcome. “We feel so honored that you wish to show respect to our gods,” says Wayan. “I have often shared my incense and flowers with foreigners, and showed them how to pray.”
At this point, Wayan notices I’m struggling with weaving the banana leaves that are used to carry offerings of flowers. She gently takes them out of my hand, leans in and, with her deft, experienced hands, demonstrates where things went wrong. For a brief moment, everything slows down and she has a moment to breathe. That’s until she looks at the pile of banana leaves that are yet to be weaved. And off to work she goes.
Have a Local Experience
Take part in the Galungan with these activities
1. Make a Penjor
Every family has their own style of decorating penjors. In this class organised by Sri Bali Tours (sribalitour.com) you will help to make the hanging part of the penjor, and beautiful patterns from coconut leaves to decorate the pole. This is under the guidance of a local grandma, who will even whip up lunch for you.
2. Learn to Cook a Traditional Feast
Food plays a central role in Galungan and Ubud Village Plate (ubudvillageplate.com) is a great option if you wish to engage in a cooking class with a difference. Ubud Village Plate offers the opportunity for you to learn family recipes from the home of a local Balinese family. Pick up the tricks to making steamed banana leaf pepes and other delicious dishes. Cooking classes operate daily (please book 24 hours ahead minimum) with hotel pick up and the option to take a market tour as well.
3. Live in a Village
Duara Travels (duaratravels.com) offers village experiences in Sebatu Village, Ubud. For three nights you’ll live with a local host family in a traditional compound amidst beautiful rice fields and waterfalls. Watch the men build the penjor or help make offerings and you can even work on the local plantation – the experience is as rich as you want it to be.
Published Jetstar In-flight Magazine
Story by Stephanie Brookes
David Metcalf runs photo workshops in Bali and cultural photography tours in Bali, Borneo, Vietnam, Odisha India and Myanmar.