When the Gods Come to Earth
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
For the people of Bali the Galungan festival is the highlight of the year.
They dance and feast on slaughtered pigs and fermented bananas to commemorate a battle between an evil king and the forces of good. Their houses are decorated with long bamboo poles, and their deified ancestors are believed to return to earth to join in the celebrations.
ERIC PASQUIER enjoyed the spectacle of Galungan.
Twice a year the whole of Bali celebrates its most important religious ceremony when deified ancestors descend to their former family homes.
Schools close, Balinese businesses shut and those who can return to their home villages.
Since the ancestors and other gods must be suitably entertained and welcomed, it’s a time of great feasting with particular days set aside for making the special dishes that form part of the prayers and offerings. Although Galungan falls on a Wednesday, most Balinese will begin their Galungan 'holiday' the day before.
Called Penampahan, it’s a day of preparation when the women of the household create beautifully woven 'banten' (offerings made from young coconut fronds), and prepare colourful rice cakes (‘jaja’), and sweets (such as ‘tape’ and ‘dodol’), while the men start on the animals.
Pigs, ducks and chickens are all used in traditional dishes - finely diced pork is mashed to a pulp with a grinding stone, and moulded onto sate sticks that have been already prepared by whittling small sticks of bamboo.
Delicate combinations of various vegetables, herbs and spices are combined (by male cooks) to make up the 'lawar' (sliced meat and fish mixed with raw blood) dishes.
A suckling pig will also be part of the feast for the following day.
A key element in the festival is the long bamboo pole, or 'penjor', which is used to decorate the entrance to a family compound.
By late Tuesday afternoon these have spread all over Bali.
Another essential is the ‘lamak’, a long narrow runner made from palm leaves. This adorns the shrine and alter found in every house and comes in a wide range of designs such as geometric patterns or a stylised form of Dewi Sri, the rice goddess.
On Wednesday, the day of Galungan, the crescendo of drums at dawn will announce the arrival of the Gods descending from heaven. After family worship,
Balinese families, dressed in their best, flock to the village temples with food and offerings for the heavenly guests. Women with precariously balanced ornaments on their heads arrive all day, high priests recite mantras as they sprinkle worshippers with holy water.
Scores of food stalls (warung) set up for business outside the temples offering sizzling satay, stews, and urab, a spicy Balinese delicacy made up of steamed vegetables and grated coconut.
There are fruit sellers, ice cream carts, and tacky plastic toys for sale, medicine men offering extravagant potions and adding to the cacophony, dancers dressed as mythical beasts (barong) that prance about offering blessings in return for donations.
On this day, visits are also made to the homes of other families who may have helped the family in some way over the past six months and offerings are taken to the cemetery for ancestors not yet cremated. The third day, Umanis Galungan, is a time to catch up with relatives.
Throughout the Galungan celebration there are many temple festivals, such as at Sadenan off the Samur coast. Beautifully dressed Balinese (with offering balanced on head) wade into the shallow waters of the small sheltered harbour at Suwung Batan Kendal to squeeze onto an overcrowded boat trip.
In Eastern Bali, villages stage sacred “rejang” dances. Young girls wear tall crowns woven from palm leaves and dance slowly and solemnly to the gamelon, circling the temple three times to symbolise the three aspects of God the creator, the preserver and the dissolver of the universe.
The send off for the Gods is almost as dramatic as the arrival. After staying in the temples for 10 days they return to heaven on the day of Kuningan. This is the last and most important day of the festival. The finest sarongs and sashes are worn once more with worship and offerings at the temples. Everyone is on their very best behaviour, every village bustles with music and dance and the streets are crowded with elegantly dressed families carrying huge mounds of breathtakingly beautiful offerings.
And in another 210 days (according to the Balinese calendar) the party begins all over again.