Celestial Visitors: Bali

The Galungan and Kuningan festivities have just come to pass, and we Balinese have done our best to be good hosts. There are many religious, cultural and spiritual reasons for our devotion at these two festivals that fall on Bali’s 210-day rice-growing calendar.

My favorite is the one I have prepared for my grandchildren. I came up with it when being asked to explain why we have this festival by a tourist with a two-minute attention span:

“We host celestial visitors from the heavens for 10 days every Balinese year. They come down with the rays of the morning sun on an auspicious Wednesday, the day of Galungan, and rise up after a brunch feast on the Saturday-week, 10 days later, which is Kuningan.

“In preparation for this, every Balinese Hindu householder prepares a decorated bamboo pole penjor, which stands tall at the entrance to the home, curving elegantly toward the road above the electricity poles and power lines.

“The curve of the penjor signifies a mountain, which the spirits of light call home. It is decorated to be lush and beautiful to be welcoming to a passing celestial visitor.

Should they decide to stop by, a drink of holy water is prepared in an earthenware jug. Snacks are also provided in the form of cakes, fruit and little pockets of rice, nuts and spiced fine-grated coconut.

“Every day we would replenish the snacks and drinks, and in respect we don’t place them on the ground like offerings for the earth spirits. We would make a little bamboo platform with a roof at least a meter off the ground should our visitors feel like lounging around for a while. Hopefully, they like the view of the mountain we erected in memory of their home.

“Just in case (and this is very likely) our ancestors decide to come along for the hoy-day, we provide Galungan-to-Kuningan snacks at the family temple too. Besides the traditional offerings, there are the favorite kretek cigarettes my grandmother puts in place for my grandfather.

And of course, if I feel like having a yarn with Dad, I’d bring some arak-brem, a rice-whisky and palm wine cocktail that he favored.

“Yes, the family temple is like a traditional satellite phone to call family members who have gone on their ultimate journey beyond.

It’s very handy to have within the family compound, but when the family grows bigger and bigger the temples branch out too.

“On Galungan I would try to go back at least three branches to visit my extended family temples as well. It’s always a bonus catching up with some distant emigrated cousin.

“Mind you, if it weren’t for the temples we belong to, we’d be hard pressed to remember all our relatives because not many of us have a written genealogy, and hardly anyone has a family name. We trace our ancestry through temples.”

By this point, I’ve waffled. Eyes would start glazing to tell me my two-minutes is up.

This is pure conjecture, but perhaps visitors to Bali find it so welcoming because we believe we are constantly entertaining hordes of celestial visitors. We also know how to deal with the riff-raff so they don’t spoil the party.

When we are entertaining spirits of light who come as deities of the thousands of temples in every place of natural splendor on the island, we make sure the lower spirits don’t get jealous by offering a sacrifice. Depending on what kind of impression we need to make, the sacrifices can get bloody.

There’s an acknowledged balance: for entertaining highs there must be sacrifices.

While there are the rare cases of sensitive human visitors to Bali who totally freak and jump on the next plane home, most of our Homo sapiens visitors (who are not too sapient) are completely oblivious to the bustling spiritual traffic.

The portly Dutch retirees on their budget holiday that I pass on my walk home from the office, for example.

Staying at the bungalows attached to the Grand Bali Beach in Sanur, they are for the most part oblivious about the garden villa-supplied incense and offerings daily for the mythical ruler of Java and Bali’s south sea.

She, the lady in green, even reserved a room in the high-rise when it first was built as Bali Beach with Japanese war reparation money.

In 1991, careless painters ignorant of invisible thinner fumes left a cigarette stub smoldering in the ground-floor Qantas office. Unobstructed ventilation shafts quickly distributed the flames throughout the high-rise, reducing the modern palace to a black lump of cinder-dressed concrete.

It was quite a spectacle for mum, sitting with a late breakfast and watching Rambo-like scenes of helicopter evacuations form our house one kilometer up the beach.

One room was spared by the blaze. I’ve seen it. Some smoke-damage was evident, as well as singed corners around the doorway, but otherwise the room was unscathed.

Seasoned and wannabe politicians come from far and wide to light incense and meditate there, seeking support from the Goddess.

Whenever I walk past, I instinctively glance to the buildings and nod in respect, but usually I’m totally absorbed watching the sea.
Maybe I have a lot to learn. I’m more in awe of nature than the shrines we have erected to it.

Kadek Krishna Adidharma is a Bali-based environmental engineer who works as a cultural liaison officer and is an interpreter.