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Prasi Souvenirs: Tenganan, Bali

I Wayan Ardana carefully etched the surface of the dried palmyra leaves with the tip of a pengrupak, a tiny iron knife with a triangular tip. In a fluid, measured movement he manipulated the sharp knife to create an engraved sketch on the leaves’ the smooth surface. Several minutes later, a rough image of the island of Bali was formed on the leaf. The 50-year-old Ardana smiled as he inspected his work.

“When it is finished, it will be a beautiful, albeit simple, map of Bali on strips of palmyra leaves,” he said.

“This map is one of the most popular souvenirs from this village.”

Ardana is a resident of the tiny village of Tenganan, the home of the proud people of Bali Aga, which means “mountainous Balinese” as explained by Wasti Atmodjo.

The custodians of an ancient culture and belief system, the people of Tenganan have long considered themselves to be the original Balinese.

Their unique, traditional and conservationist way of life has drawn a steady stream of foreign visitors to the village that is nestled on the slopes of a wooded hill in Karangasem regency, some 70 kilometers east of the island’s capital of Denpasar.

With the growing tourism industry, demand for distinctive mementos from the village has consequently also risen.

Prasi, drawings made on ental or strips of dried palmyra leaves, are one of two most popular souvenirs that have ever came out of the village.

The other is Geringsing, a hand-made fabric with sacred motifs created using a rare double-ikat method. Geringsing is very expensive and difficult to make. Naturally, many visitors opt for Prasi.

Ardana is one of dozens of Tenganan villagers who create Prasi for souvenirs.

Traditional Prasi is mostly an intricate visual narration of selected episodes taken from Hindu epics like the Mahabharata or Ramayana. Souvenir Prasi, on the other hand, generally take the form of simple drawings like the Bali map, traditional calendars or characters from Hindu mythology.

“After the desired images are inscribed on the surface of the leaves then we will apply a special oil to the leaves. The oil will darken the engraved areas, thus enhancing the visual quality of the images,” Ardana said.

The special oil is made by frying kemiri (candlenut fruit, Aleurites moluccana). One kilogram of kemiri can yield enough oil for a hundred palmyra-leaf strips.

“Most of the foreign visitors to this village purchase the map of Bali and the calendar,” he said.

To create his Prasi, Ardana usually uses an ental that is 30 cm long and 4 cm wide.

“I can provide ental of different sizes if a customer wishes,” he added.

It can take up to eight strips of leaves to create one calendar. The loose strips are attached to each other with strings of yarn. The covers are made of strips of engraved bamboo. Ardana can produced two calendars in a day.

The prices for the palmyra-leaf map and calendar range from Rp 100,000 (about US$10) to Rp 150,000. During the tourist season, Ardana sells up to 20 calendars in a day.

“In a quieter season I generally sell two or three pieces per day. However, that’s already more than enough to meet my family’s daily needs,” he said.

One of Tenganan community’s figures, Wayan Sadra, said the trade in Prasi and Gringsing had became one of primary sources of incomes for his fellow villagers.

“Fortunately, Tenganan is a close-knit society, a nature that has made it easier for us to arrange it so that the profitable trade will not turn this community into a place where its residents fight each other for a slice of the profits,” Sadra said.