The Penjors Have It

Celebrations and fireworks are getting under way half a world away. But here in Ubud, blessedly, there’s not a single star-spangled banner in sight.

Instead of red, white and blue flags waving in the breeze, a much more breathtaking sight has been appearing along the roads of this town in the past day or two: penjors, extremely tall bamboo poles, their ends curved in an arc, decorated with woven young coconut and palm leaves, pompoms, fruit, cakes and flowers, are being planted on the right side of every house entrance. Penjors are symbolic of the holy and volcanic Mount Agung and as a token of gratitude for the fruits of the earth.

It’s the eve of Galungan, after all; the most important festival in Bali symbolizing the victory of virtue (dharma) over evil (adharma). Celebrated twice a year, Galungan takes place every 210 days, corresponding to the Balinese pawukon calendar.

Galungan is a time when Balinese return to their ancestral villages to repair, clean and bless their family temples in the belief that the spirits of ancestors return to earth for the next ten days to dwell briefly again with their descendants. Family temples and shrines are decorated in the finest cloths and hangings (even my own little shrine was outfitted with a new skirt!)

Families make extensive offerings of food and flowers to the ancestral spirits, expressing gratitude and hope for protection. Bamboo altars are erected at the gates to each home, with intricately woven palm-leaf offerings for the spirits. Temple ceremonies, gamelan performances and Barong dances abound. People are dressed in their finest clothes and jewels. Women carry (heavy) offerings on their heads, while men carry (lightweight) palm fronds.

This year, Galungan falls on July 6th – but the preparations began days (in some cases, weeks!) ago and swung into high gear as of yesterday:

Three days before Galungan, on Penyekeban, families “cover up” green bananas in huge clay pots to speed their ripening; bananas being an essential fruit in offerings.

Today, Penyajahan, is when Balinese prepare cakes known as jaja. These colored cakes made of fried rice dough are used in offerings and are also a special treat eaten on Galungan.

Tomorrow, the day before Galungan, is Penampahan – or slaughter day. Typically the slaughter of pigs, but also chickens, takes place in the pre-dawn hours; after which the sacrificial animals are brought into the temple, used as altar offerings. The remainder of each pig not used for sacrificial purposes is shared between families, eaten as satay with lawar (a spicy pork and coconut sauce dish).

If you walk along the roads of Ubud this week, and step underneath or in the shadow of a penjor, pay attention… see if you don’t feel overcome by the feeling that someone is looking over you, protecting you, showering you with blessings, light and beauty.

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