Friday, July 15, 2011


It has taken me over a week to put together this post, trying to wrap my head around the different meanings, symbolism, and implications for cross cultural fieldwork brought up by my experiences over the three days during the Balinese holiday of Galungan, which started last Wednesday. I woke up Wednesday to the sounds of chanting, bells, and the smell of (very, very strong and slightly unpleasant) garlic-y spice wafting into my window at 8 in the morning. OK, well, I actually woke up around 5 to appease my bladder. Stumbling sleepily to the bathroom, I saw S., my host mom, dressed in full ceremonial garb and putting together an elaborate tower of fruit for an offering for one of the many ceremonies of Galungan.

Despite having an hour lecture on critical perspectives on Galungan, and P. explaining while Leslie filling in with translation as necessary, I still don’t understand the entire meanings and symbolism of the holiday, but the basics are that Galungan , which literally means, “When the Dharma is winning," celebrates/commemorates the conquest of the indigenous Bali Aga by the Javanese (the island next to Bali). So, kinda like Balinese Columbus day. The ubiquitous tourist explanation, however, is that Galungan is “Bali Christmas”. Everyone that is not part of our little group of research assistants and professors providing critical perspectives tow the line on this. One of my flip-flops bit the dust Tuesday (seriously, never by Tommy Hilfiger sandals, bought two pairs on clearance and both blew out in two months) and when I was buying new ones the shop owner said, “tomorrow my Christmas”. When I asked her about the explanation I had gotten, she smiled, shaking her head, “no, like Christmas.” I’ll go into this construction of ‘culture’ for tourism discussion much more in depth over the next couple of weeks, but for now I’ll stick with reflecting on what I took away from the two days of Galungan events.

First off, I do see the Christmas reference from a ‘holy shit we have to do a lot of work to prepare for this’ holiday standpoint. One of the general gender disparity things I have seen here is the burden of ‘culture’ that gets placed on women. The women in Leslie’s extended family worked day in and day out- like, from 3am-midnight for three days- making offerings for the temple ceremonies both in the village temple and in the family temples. Each family home, which traditionally is a compound in which several nuclear families live in their own little homes, consists of between one to four rooms (kitchen, bedrooms, living space). The little homes are all located within the same complex, which can range from having three to seven or more nuclear families all within a very, very small area, far less than an eighth of an acre. Each compound has three small temples within the grounds, where the spirit of the ancestors of the family reside during ceremonial times.

Women walking to temple with their offerings.

While the women are making offerings for the temples, the men are making a penjor, a large ceremonial pole displayed outside the family home, which is a symbol of Mount Agung, where the gods reside. I mentioned that I saw gender disparities in regards to the prep work expected of men compared with women. Yes, the men make the penjor, which is hard work. But in every case I saw of the several penjor I witnessed being made, it was a group project, and just one singular penjor. The offerings made by the women, however, are often made solo, and hundreds of offerings per nuclear family. I was at one of the other student’s homestay family’s house, and we went to put a bottle of water in the fridge and the entire thing was packed with offerings. Wall to wall of little, intricate, painstakingly made offerings to be placed around the temple at home and in the village temple.

Alison and I dolled up for temple.

The ceremonies in the family temple started around 7am, and consisted of inviting the ancestors to come reside with the family for the celebration. Around 11pm, S.,my house mom, M., my house sister, and Alison, fellow PhD student who is staying in the same homestay with me, and I walked to the Kesiman temple (famous for the upcoming Ngerebong ceremony). This was such a surreal, beautiful, and short journey (our house is about 500 meters from the temple). Walking with hundreds of other families all dressed to the nines in sarongs, beautiful scarves around their waists, elaborate hairdressings, there was a quiet buzz of excitement that grew with intensity as we approached the temple. Hearing the harmonies of the gamelons coming from inside the temple wall, sounding clear and crisp over the sound of the temple priest chanting to welcome the gods, I felt both a deep sense of gratitude that my host family was willing to invite me to share in this experience, and also a sharp fear that I was furthering the cultural pillaging at the hands of tourism that I have witnessed over the past two weeks. I tried to avoid standing in a clump with the other American students that had come with their families, mindful of Leslie’s heads up that this really, really was not for tourists. So much of Bali culture has been comodified for tourist consumption, and I was leery to tread the line between student interested in post-conflict culture and ‘intellectual tourism’ (it’s debatable that this distinction actually exists, if I’m really honest with myself).

For the purposes of eschewing incorrect explanations of the myriad meanings behind elements of the ceremony, appropriating aspects that really aren’t up for public consumption, or not being able to give enough context and thus open my explanations up for vast misinterpretations, I am going to stick to just a few snapshots of the things that most struck me throughout the ceremony. The first thing I was really struck by was the dichotomy of modern and ancient. I sat with my homestay sister and her cousin for the first part of the ceremony, and the cousin- along with about thirty other people I saw- was texting throughout the ceremony. Looking to my right towards the pavilion where the gamelons were being played, an older gentleman playing up front was using both hands to play while a cigarette resting between his lips poured smoke into the dark night above him. I was also moved by the sheer beauty of the ceremony. At one point all of the women temple priests, all dressed in white, move slowly in a large circle around the perimeter of the inner part of the temple, meditating and dropping in and out of semi-trance. The sounds, the chanting, and being surrounded by members of Leslie’s extended family that have so, so generously welcomed me into their fold made the hair on my arms stand up as I watched these women moving gracefully through the incense filled night.

The most memorable thing to me, above the beauty and the gratitude for acceptance (if only tacitly by the curious community members wondering what the f’ck these tourists were doing at their temple at 1am) I had, was the moment when people started going into trance towards the end of the ceremony. The gods and spirits of the ancestors come to be embodied during the ceremony, and as a handful of individuals throughout the temple fell into trance what struck me most in this moment of something so, so foreign to me was the caring offered to the people in trance. When someone fell into trance, those around her/him would hold the person up, assist them towards the high priests or the Barong, and literally help keep them on their feet. This outpouring of compassion and assistance when the person in trance was being overwhelmed by a spiritual experience bigger than themselves and had to be supported by others struck me as very universal. Hindu, Buddhist, Christan, Atheist, and everything in between, we all have experiences with that which we don’t understand, moments when we are consumed with circumstances beyond our ability to comprehend. In those moments of complete incapacitation, if we are lucky, we are caught by those around us and supported until we can once again stand on our own. This moment of shared humanity in a night of the utterly unfamiliar was tremendously poignant to me.

The plane ticket to come half-way around the world to have the opportunity to recognize common humanity in us all is a complete bargain.

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