Posts Tagged ‘Galungan’

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Tradisi – Women Working Without Weeping

January 30, 2012

My young breakfast waitress comes over to the table. It’s only 9:30 am, but her face already shows more than the normal strain of  the breakfast rush. Her eyes are underlined by dark semi-circles and she looks drawn and weary. Actually, she looks exhausted.

“Big party last night?” asks yours truly, Mr. Sensitive, before remembering that she is a traditional Balinese girl. Parties, at least those of the type familiar to most of us Westerners,  are just not her scene. I’d also forgotten that the staff at that restaurant normally do an afternoon shift ending at 11pm, followed the next day with a morning shift starting at 7 am. That sort of load is gruelling under normal circumstances, but for a Balinese woman, it is even more taxing at this time of the year.

“Oh no! No party!” she says, scandalised. “After work, I have many things to get ready for Galungan.” This, of course, is one of the big ceremonial occasions of the Balinese religious and cultural calendar. She tells me that she did not finish all her Galungan duties until late and finally went to sleep at 3:30 am – only to get up two hours later to start her work day.

I am stunned. “But you have a job, and you finish so late at night …”
“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “I am a Balinese girl; this is what I have to do, even if I have a job.”

It is no surprise that there is a great deal of preparation for the many ceremonies in Bali, but I had always been under the impression that all members of familial and community groups shared the load – men and women alike. Apparently this is not so. Balinese women, by long-standing conservative tradition, appear to undertake the bulk of the responsibility for preserving and safeguarding Balinese Hinduism, including a central role in all rituals and ceremonies.

Despite men being the visible administrators and spokesmen for Balinese religion, they play little part in the religious education of their children. This is a role reserved for women, who pass the torch of essential rituals on to the next generation. Of course, women are the home-makers too. In most cases they are responsible for provision and preparation of food and in fact, for all the home comforts expected by the members of extended family groups. Most money matters are handled by women as well, as is the children’s education, payment of school fees and hand-crafting of the daily ceremonial offerings. Tradition demands not only that women passively accept what life dishes out in Bali, but that they take pride in their contribution without questioning it. Should an outsider suggest that exploitation is taking place, he is met with expressions of shock and disbelief – from women as well as men.

What is difficult to fathom is that, as women assume more and more important roles in the Balinese economy with their participation in the workforce, their demanding traditional roles have not changed at all. The time-consuming home-making, religious and ritualistic duties have not diminished one iota. It is considered perfectly normal for women such as my exhausted waitress to work two back-to-back shifts and spend the intervening ‘rest’ period doing her ceremonial ‘duties’. Feminism has not yet made inroads into Bali life.

And what are the husbands, fathers, brothers and male cousins of these working women doing? Well, in all fairness, some are working at jobs too, but at least they get to relax after finishing work. Many get to relax during their jobs too, if the countless sleeping taxi drivers clustered around warungs and shacks in peak periods is any indication. But I see huge numbers of layabout men engaged in nothing more strenuous than smoking and gossiping  in those endless male bonding rituals on street corners and outside Bali’s ubiquitous Mini-Marts. How many of them will be assisting their female family members with their traditional ‘women’s duties’ after work? Oh wait, they can’t – it’s prevented by ‘tradition’ – and there’s probably a good cock-fight or game of pool to shoot anyway.

So I ask my waitress, “Do the men do anything to prepare for Galungan?” “Oh yes”, she says quickly, “They make the penjors, and … well, they make the penjors.” She explains that the penjor – a tall, curved bamboo pole heavily decorated with coconut leaves – needs construction skills which are only possessed by the men. “So do the men help with any other preparations for ceremonies?” I ask.

She visibly struggles with her feelings, and says with a mixture of pride and regret, “No, not really. We are women, it is what we have to do …” There is an unspoken ‘but’ at the end of her sentence. I can see she is torn between her acceptance of tradition and the questions that inevitably arise as her society wrestles with looming modernity. She is starting to think about gender roles, about imbalances, and about fairness.

She stays silent for a minute, but what I hear is the first subterranean creaking of a seismic shift in one woman’s awareness. Then, out of the blue, she says, “Do you believe in re-incarnation?” I tell her that I don’t.

“Well, I do”, she says pensively, and pauses again. “I think, next time, I want to come back as a man.”

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A Super Natural Experience

November 8, 2009

I feel compelled to say at the outset that I am not a believer in paranormal phenomena. Sure, strange things happen – but in most cases there are perfectly rational explanations for these without invoking the supernatural. So naturally it came as a surprise to me to experience at first hand an event that still has me wondering.

It was the first day of Galungan, a deeply significant event in Balinese culture. In fact, it wasn’t even the first full day – it was 2 am on the morning of the first day. I had been asleep for over two hours when I was woken by a change in the quality of the light in my bedroom. The first thing I noticed was that there were multiple shadows flitting across my window. My curtains, normally backlit by a street light, were a mass of dark, angular shapes, reminiscent of large bats, which milled restlessly, constantly changing their shapes.

Aha! I thought – a lucid dream – but no, the quality of this experience was very different to any of my prior lucid dream experiences. And no, before you ask – I hadn’t been drinking. Even while checking my surroundings – the bedside clock, the things in the room, my own sense of self (yes, I even pinched myself!) to confirm that I was really awake, the shadow play in the window continued. OK, I thought – so it’s real. Time to analyse, to look for rational explanations, understand the science behind the phenomenon.  I was intrigued and curious. Then I noticed that the dancing shapes were not confined to the window. The entire ceiling was covered with a dense, three-dimensional mass of shapes as well.

By this time, I was fully alert, still half-expecting to see the amazing display disappear and be replaced by the familiar banality of my bedroom. But it didn’t. It became even more surreal, because the shapes that I originally thought were bat-like were actually something different. But try as I might, I could not relate them to anything in my experience, or begin to describe them. It was as if what was visible to me was a projection from another world, one that contained many more dimensions than ours. There were hints of coalescing shapes, colours that did not exist in this world, movements that defied physics.  If you asked me to draw, paint or sculpt what I saw, I could not do it, simply because there are only three dimensions available to me, and I would need a lot more.

Not just the shapes, but the surface textures were unfamiliar, bearing no resemblance to anything I had ever seen before. Think of the retinal after-images you get when you close your eyes and apply pressure. Think of the coruscating light produced at the target of a laser – but invert it so that the patterns you see are those of light being absorbed instead of reflected. Think of looking into the depths of the ocean from a boat. What I saw was like all of these, but much more. Without any doubt, I knew my imperfect senses were observing entities – from another place – swirling in the room. 

I guess the human mind is hard-wired to look for explanations, and one was readily forthcoming. A thought surfaced that this was Galungan, a time when, according to Balinese lore, the spirits of the departed return to Earth for a few days. I felt no fear; instead, I was fascinated, knowing that I was experiencing something special. As I lay back on the bed, looking up at the roiling, shifting mass of dark shapes completely covering the ceiling, I smiled and thought the words: “Welcome … enjoy your stay!”

And then the most amazing thing of all happened. A long thin, angular shape reached down to my face and touched my right cheek. I expected to hear it rustle, because it gave the impression of being leathery, but it was completely silent. I expected its touch to be cold, and sharp, and somewhat alien, like its appearance. It wasn’t. It was unmistakeably the touch of human fingers, light, warm and caring. I fell asleep with the room still full of ‘presences’ – and had the best night’s sleep in months. In the morning, the memory of that night was sharp and clear.

Do I have an explanation for what happened that night? No. Do I now believe in the supernatural? Another no. But, despite retaining my innate skepticism, I have broadened the scope of what I define as natural. Bali can do that to a person.