When I travelled through Bali I was overwhelmed by the constant physical demonstration of piety everywhere. It is an intrinsic part of Balinese culture and the most noticeable demonstration of this is of course the exquisitely-made daily offerings that you have to step over at every entranceway.
But even more interestingly, when I was in Bali, I saw streets lined with beautiful, curving decorations made from bamboo and coconut fronds.
These are called penjors and they curve over the fashionable shops and beautiful people of Seminyak’s main strip, as well as framing the single street of Munduk village, a world away in Bali’s central highlands. I also saw them in trendy Ubud, in a village near the Jatiluwah Rice Fields that was holding a funeral occasion, and in random villages as I rode in taxis through Bali’s countryside.
Penjors festoon the ‘island of the gods’ during Galungan, a Balinese holiday when ancestral spirits are believed to visit our world to celebrate the victory of good (dharma) over evil (adharma). It is similar to the festival of Diwali. They are also a symbol of Bali’s holy mountain, Mt Agung.
They are long bamboo poles exquisitely decorated with coconut leaves. They are often over 10 metres high! Each household puts a penjor out front and it contains offerings in a small cage called the sanggah cucuk that is a place where visiting gods are welcome to rest.
They reflect both the spiritual and artistic focus of Bali. In fact they are so beautiful that these days they are also used at weddings and other special events.
The penjor is a tall, curved bamboo pole decorated with coconut leaves with an offering at the base. This is one of the artistic expressions used by Hindus in Bali as part of almost every important ceremony, especially for the anniversary temple celebrations.
The Sri Jaya Kasunu manuscript states that the penjor symbolises the mountain and the mountain itself is the symbol of the universe. Therefore, for the Balinese the penjor is synonymous with Mount Agung, the highest and holiest mountain in Bali.
The aim of erecting penjors at Galungan is to show devotion to God in His manifestation as Hyang Giri Pati (the God of the mountain). Mountains with deep forests hold a lot of water, which flows into rivers. This then fulfils water needs for irrigation and drinking water.
During Galungan celebrations, each family erects a penjor outside their gate, which makes the whole neighbourhood look really splendid.
The cut and woven coconut leaves are yellow or natural coloured and the offering usually consists of sweet potatoes, fruit, cereal and cakes, representing the basic needs of people (and gods).
The Balinese people don’t make a big song and dance about their religious devotion but it is so much a part of the fabric of their culture that it is lovely to behold and very inspiring.
Don’t you love penjors – just one of Bali’s many beautiful traditions?!
By Natasha von Geldern