Bali is not merely a paradise island; unlike the rest of predominantly Muslim Indonesia, Bali is an anomaly, a Hindu island that possesses a good dose of animism, the belief that everything, including inanimate objects, contains life. Bali is also an endless festival and a movable feast: with more than 20,000 temples on this island, and with each temple celebrating its birthday every 210 days according to the Balinese Saka and Wuku calendar, something at any moment in time will remind locals and visitors that life is indeed meant to be celebrated. And the most important feast for Balinese Hindus is Galungan.
Don’t expect Galungan to be dramatically different than any normal Balinese festive day (apart from the day of silence, Nyepi), though most agree it is the best time of year to experience celebratory Bali. Galungan celebrations last for 10 days and honour Ida Sang Hyang Widi, the creator of the universe, as well as the spirits of all sainted ancestors, which are believed to visit the earth on this particular day. Balinese are encouraged to express gratitude and hopes for protection to the spirits, and to show their gratitude to the creator, in a festival that symbolises the victory of good (Dharma) over evil (Adharma) – Galungan in fact means “When the Dharma is winning”.
The root of Galungan is of course the local religion, called Agama Hindu: an amalgam in which gods and demigods are worshiped alongside Buddhist heroes, the spirits of ancestors, and indigenous agricultural deities. This authentic culture created by gracious and adaptable Balinese people, which encompasses lots of unique celebrations, uses modern day mythology to remind people who they are, what they are and how to live a good life in this increasingly changing world.
The intensive preparations for Galungan start several days before the actual feast day.
The preparations begin effectively three days before Galungan, on Penyekeban (which means “the day to cover up”). Families store bananas and fruits that will be used as offerings on Galungan day after covering them up in huge pots to speed their ripening. Penyekeban, besides its literal meaning, also has a more important symbolic meaning for the inner world of the individual human being: just like the fruits we cover to have them ripe, so the individual has to ripen in order to be in a position to siege over the selfish desires and actions of the ego.
Penyajahan, occurring two days before Galungan, is a time of introspection for Balinese people, as well as time when they bake coloured cakes made of fried rice dough called Jaja, used in offerings and eaten specially on Galungan. In this time of the year, you can find Jaja in every Bali village market.
Penampahan, the day before Galungan, is called slaughter day and it is not for the squeamish people since there is usually lots of blood around. Locals offer animals such as pigs, turtles and livestock to be slaughtered and offered as sacrifices to the gods in the temples or on altars. This ritual suggests that these animals will come back as higher creatures in their next life.
Finally the climax of the celebrations, Galungan day, throughout which local temples are crowded with Balinese devotees coming and going, praying at the temples and making the offerings that have been prepared since Penyekeban day. Women can be seen carrying fruit and flower offerings piled four feet tall on their heads, while men bring palm fronds. As you can imagine, Galungan is marked by the sudden surplus of traditional Balinese food around, so do take advantage and sample local delicacies if you are around.
Balinese Hindus perform Galungan rituals that are meant to welcome and entertain the returning spirits, with the house compounds that make up the nucleus of Balinese society coming alive with devotions offered by the families living within. Tall bamboo poles decorated with fruit, coconut leaves and flowers, and called Penjor, are set up on the right of every residence entrance on the island. You will also find small bamboo altars set up especially for Galungan at each gate, each one bearing woven palm-leaf offerings. Offerings to these ancestral spirits are bountiful and include food and flowers; they are also placed throughout a home, at the doorways of local shops, and in rice paddy fields.
NGELAWANG AND BARONG
Ngelawang is a ceremony typical performed during Galungan, which includes a dance at the rhythm of the Barong that describes the fight between good and evil – Barong and Rangda. Ngelawang is like an exorcism where the Barong – the divine protector in the form of a mythical beast – is invited into house as he makes his way from village to village and temple to temple. His presence in the house will restore the balance of good and evil, and house residents will pray before the dancing Barong and make an offering of a Canang Sari – a tiny square tray woven out of coconut leaf containing flowers and money. The Barong will finally give them a piece of his fur as a keepsake.
The tenth day after Galungan is called Kuningan and marks the end of Galungan celebrations. This is the day when spirits ascend back to heaven, and the day when Balinese visit their kinfolk and closest friends, making special offerings of yellow rice.
Tourists who visit Bali during Galungan get an eyeful of the local colour. The tall bamboo poles called Penjor sway in the wind everywhere you look, richly-dressed women cross streets to make food offerings to the local temple, and all sorts of native dishes being offered by restaurant during Galungan, perhaps the best time to try original Balinese food!
However it is not all on the positive side: be understanding that the actual festivities are open to Balinese only; be prepared for lots of traffic and to dangerous driving of whole families crammed onto a motorbike; it is advisable for tourists not to dart around Bali during Galungan; it is best to find an area that feels good and to visit a few local villages in that area either by foot or by bicycle. Several places and tourist venues will be closed for Galungan, as their devout Balinese employees will likely be going to their respective villages to celebrate. Holiday-goers from all over are making Galungan plans of their own, so you might want to reserve a hotel in Bali early if you intend to be there during Galungan.
As the Balinese calendar follows a 210-day cycle, Galungan happens twice a year roughly every six months. The holiday is calculated to occur on the following dates: September 7-17, 2016 / April 5-15, 2017 / November 1-11, 2017 / May 30 – June 9, 2018 / December 26 – January 9, 2019 / July 22 – August 3, 2019 / February 19-29, 2020 / September 16-26, 2020 / April 14-24, 2021…
One of the most interesting Galungan celebrations occur in the cultural center of Ubud.
If you are fascinated with Bali’s unique affection with festivals and how these festivals connect with the island’s culture, this is a must-read for you: Fred B. Eiseman Jr’s essays on Religion, Ritual, and Art captured in the book “Bali: Sekala & Niskala” – Paperback – October 10, 2009 – https://www.amazon.com/Bali-Fred-B-Eiseman-Jr/dp/0804840989