Decoding the World of Balinese Hindu Offerings

On Bali, they’re everywhere. From a few grains of rice stuck to a slice of banana leaf, to the daily canang placed around a home or family shrine – to the towers of fruit, cake, poultry and livestock carried in procession to temple – Balinese Hindu offerings are ubiquitous.

Walk down any street on Bali, and the first thing you’ll see by your feet are the daily canang – ‘chanang’, or small, square, woven baskets made from cut coconut leaves and filled with flowers – accompanied by an assortment of gifts for the Gods and topped with a single smouldering stick of incense. In their simplicity, these modest but beautifully crafted banten – offerings – encapsulate Bali’s unique fusion of Hinduism.

Selfless Offerings to Bali’s Gods

Philosophically speaking, the making and giving of banten is a selfless act; a kind of self-sacrifice. It is part-meditation, part-escape from the humdrum buzz of everyday life; it’s a gift of gratitude to the Maker, and a supplication to the lower spirits that they do not disturb the living.

Women, not men, make the offerings. Often several generations of a family will sit together chatting, mechanically stitching, skewering and cutting at breakneck speed – the youngest barely old enough to wield a knife. Balinese offerings not only take an enormous amount of time, effort and money to make – but by putting something of themselves into their creations, their creators in turn offer their life-energy, and time, to God.

How to make a Balinese Hindu offering.
The smoke of the incense carries the sari - the essence of an offering - to heaven
The smoke of the incense carries the sari – the essence of an offering – to heaven.

 

Balinese canang offerings left by Hindu devotees at Tirta Empul Temple, Tampaksiring, Bali, Indonesia
Balinese canang offerings left by Hindu devotees at Tirta Empul Temple, Tampaksiring, Bali, Indonesia.

The Meanings Inside a Balinese Offering

Inside a canang sari – the building-blocks of Balinese offerings – everything has a meaning. You’ll find white lime, red betel-nut and the green sirih or gambier plant – each representing a major Hindu God of the Trimurti – Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu. On top are placed four flowers that symbolise sincerity and love: white petals in the east of the little box for the God Iswara; red for the fiery Brahma in the south; yellow flowers – usually jepun, or ‘frangipani’ – for the God Mahadeva in the west; and blue or green for cool Vishnu in the north. On top you’ll often also see a small-denomination banknote that completes the sari – the selfless essence – of the offering.

Where to Place Canang in a Family Compound

The average Balinese compound requires about 15 canang – the small, square, daily offerings – to be placed in strategic areas around the home and family temple. The Padma, or temple statue in the north-eastern corner, needs two. The statue next to it – the Tugu, responsible for home security – also receives two. A fifth is left on the ground in between them to placate the lower spirits.

The next is balanced on top of a compound’s well or water-bore – for watery Vishnu. Brahma, the God of Fire in the kitchen, is offered one. Other single offerings are placed in the main bedroom, on the family gazebo (or bale bengong), and one on the ground in the middle of the compound for Ibu Pertiwi, Mother Earth. The last four go outside. The Pengapit lawang – the little shrines either side of a compound gate – receive one each, and the final two are placed between them on the ground for the lower spirits.

Only by honouring both the higher and lower spirits of a household can negativity be balanced with positivity – thus ensuring family harmony.

Daily offerings and a morsel of food are left on the ground to appease the lower spirits who reside there
Daily offerings and a morsel of food are left on the ground to appease the lower spirits who reside there.

 

Once the incense goes out, an offering returns to being an earthly object - and becomes a snack for any lucky passer-by
Once the incense goes out, an offering returns to being an earthly object – and becomes a snack for any lucky passer-by…

The Ritual of Prayer

All that’s left is to send the sari of the canang up to heaven. Dressed in a sarong and waist-sash, a young girl or woman will usually perform this daily ritual unless she is sebel – spiritually unfit due to menstruation – in which case a male relative will take over. A jepun flower is dipped into a bowl of tirta (water taken from a holy spring) and delicately sprinkled over the canang sari and incense to complete the fusion of earth, fire, wind and water. After three waves of the palm facing downward accompanied by a prayer, the smoke carries the essence of the offerings up to God.

On Kajeng Kliwon, motorbikes and cars will be adorned with colourful, geometrical offerings to protect them from negative forces for the next 15 days.

Variety is the Spice of Religion

But canang sari are smaller pieces of a larger spiritual puzzle. During a temple festival, or odalan, you’ll see women walking in a winding mapeed procession carrying towers of banten tegeh – high offerings of fruit, rice-cakes, canang and the occasional cooked chicken. During a major odalan, women will spend up to two weeks making elaborate jaja offerings – surreal effigies of flowers and mythical creatures molded from dyed rice dough.

On Kajeng Kliwon, motorbikes and cars will be adorned with colourful, geometrical offerings to protect them from negative forces for the next 15 days. On the eve of Nyepi – the Hindu Day of Silence – giant ogoh-ogoh, or papier-mâché monsters, will be paraded through Bali’s roads before being burned in a symbolic destruction of evil. And during a Royal cremation ceremony, or ngaben, a tiered funeral tower as tall as a three-story house and weighing up to 11 tons – perhaps the largest Balinese offering of all – is paraded down the street before being consumed by fire.

Animals are offered to the Gods. The squealing of pigs being killed ceremonially fills the night air before the festivals of Galungan and Kuningan. Chickens – fighting cocks – are sacrificed in the ring as blood must be spilled to complete any major Balinese ceremony. It is a matter of placating the darker, unseen spirits who must exist for their opposite, positive forces to thrive.

It’s a yin-yang thing.

Balinese offerings permeate this tiny island. They are not made for you, or for me – or for the people who create them. They are made, given and left for the unseen. That is their purpose. A selfless act in a self-filled world.

In Photographs: Balinese Hindu Offerings

A Balinese Hindu woman blesses her offerings with tirta - holy spring water - and burning incense
A Balinese Hindu woman blesses her offerings with tirta – holy spring water – and burning incense.

 

Women carry banten tegeh - high offerings - of fruit, rice-cakes and canang to temple during a six-monthly odalan ceremony in Suwug Village, Buleleng, North Bali
Women carry banten tegeh – high offerings – of fruit, rice-cakes and canang to temple during a six-monthly odalan ceremony in Suwug Village, Buleleng, North Bali.

 

Women and children of an Ubud community perform a mapeed - a procession - to temple, carrying offerings on their heads
Women and children of an Ubud community perform a mapeed – a procession – to temple, carrying offerings on their heads.

 

Villagers and priests prepare a complex array of offerings for an odalan, or Hindu temple festival, in Trunyan, Kintamani, Bali
Villagers and priests prepare a complex array of offerings for an odalan, or Hindu temple festival, in Trunyan, Kintamani, Bali.

 

A modest collection of offerings waits to be blessed during a Hindu Balinese wedding ceremony in rural Buleleng, Bali, Indonesia
A modest collection of offerings waits to be blessed during a Hindu Balinese wedding ceremony in rural Buleleng, Bali, Indonesia.

 

Elaborately-made banten with fruit, cake and chickens during a modest wedding ceremony in rural Buleleng, North Bali, Indonesia
Elaborately-made banten with fruit, cake and chickens during a modest wedding ceremony in rural Buleleng, North Bali, Indonesia.

 

Canang sari complete with banknotes and cigarettes mount up outside a Balinese Hindu temple on Menjangan Island, North Bali, Indonesia
Canang sari complete with banknotes and cigarettes mount up outside a Balinese Hindu temple on Menjangan Island, North Bali, Indonesia.

 

Banten tegeh - high offerings - are gathered in the central courtyard of a village temple during an odalan temple ceremony in Suwug Village, North Bali, Indonesia
Banten tegeh – high offerings – are gathered in the central courtyard of a village temple during an odalan temple ceremony in Suwug Village, North Bali, Indonesia.

 

Offerings are left by Balinese Hindu devotees before a self-purification ceremony in the sacred spring water of Tirta Empul Temple, Tampaksiring, Bali, Indonesia
Offerings are left by Balinese Hindu devotees before a self-purification ceremony in the sacred spring water of Tirta Empul Temple, Tampaksiring, Bali, Indonesia.

 

Village priests arrange offerings of chickens for an odalan, or Hindu temple festival, in Trunyan, Kintamani, Bali, Indonesia
Village priests arrange offerings of chickens for an odalan, or Hindu temple festival, in Trunyan, Kintamani, Bali, Indonesia.

 

A pig is skinned in preparation for a wedding feast in Trunyan Village, Kintamani, North Bali
A pig is skinned in preparation for a wedding feast in Trunyan Village, Kintamani, North Bali.

 

Professionally-made Hindu offerings in Ubud Market, Bali.
Professionally-made Hindu offerings in Ubud Market, Bali. Many modern Balinese housewives do not have the time to juggle work, family and religious commitments, and often buy ready-to-use