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Saraswati's Day & Hotel Anniversary Celebration

INDONESIA | Thursday, 15 November 2007 | Views [10877] | Comments [2]

Saraswati and her gifts

Saraswati and her gifts

In Bali yesterday, November 10th, [the posting was a little delayed] was the day to honor Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge, Learning, and Creativity. She’s this lovely slim woman, floating above a lotus flower (symbolizing the openness required for creativity), next to a swan, and holding a lontar (book made from palm leaves), a mala (prayer beads), a flower, and a musical instrument. 

All over town, Balinese people were dressed in their finest traditional dress: men wearing sarongs with scarves wrapped around their head; women in floor length sarongs, and gorgeous long sleeved lacey and often embroidered tops called kebayas, tied with a scarf at their waists, foreheads marked with holy rice. The day seems to be marked in private ceremonies at home, as the main temples were empty. I was told that people make special offerings for their books, computers, writing instruments, and that you are not supposed to read and write all day. If it falls on a school day, the children go to school and sing songs to honor her. The following day everyone is supposed to go to bathe in a holy spring or in the ocean (depending on the source).

It’s also the new moon, and according to our movement meditation teacher, the new moon is in Scorpio, a time of transformations, new energy, shedding old skins and ways of being, sexual energy, and metaphorical deaths clearing the way for new beginnings.

And it’s also the day – still November 10th in New York – of my cousin’s wedding. Congratulations, Susanne & Christian!

Many of the Westerners I meet in Bali talk of how they love Balinese culture, the customs, and traditions. They love how these traditions are so alive, practiced daily, publicly, vividly; and how these traditions have been preserved despite modernity, unlike in the West, where we are all the “same” in our lack of such traditions, our monochromatic industrialized lives marked by very different customs. The anti-essentializing anthropologist inside me gets my back up a bit with these comments. After all, modern life in industrial societies is highly cultural. We just don’t see it because we take our daily lives for granted as acultural and unmarked, seeing things like traditional dress and dance as true “culture,” what we do as non-cultural and modern. And no doubt what we Westerners want to view as unchanging tradition and custom in Bali has been endlessly adapted, modified, and re-invented over the years.

The truth is, Balinese traditions are enchanting for those of us coming from the West where one’s daily rituals tend to revolve around trademarked entities. There is an incredible sense of the aesthetic here, and of using natural materials like banana leaves and flowers, to create lovely objects. I somehow managed to get through a graduate degree in anthropology with only reading one article on Bali (the darling of many anthropologists over the years), so I all I really know about these traditions is what I’ve observed here and what people have told me.

The most visible tradition is that of making offerings, several times a day, to spirits both good and evil, and to god and the gods. The offerings take the form of little trays made from dried palm, filled with different colored flower petals, cooked rice, leaves, and sometimes fruit, crackers, or candies. Sometimes the baskets are woven like flowers; sometimes the offering is a simple square of green banana leaf holding rice. They are placed carefully, along with burning incense sticks, on the street in front of an entry way to a home or business, at the shrines that every home or business has, and, like at our hotel, in places all around that I imagine must need extra protection, or blessings, or to express gratitude, like by the entry to our room, by the pool, along the path.

You often see women around town sitting in entry ways, weaving palm leaves together to make offerings.  They're also sold in the market, for those who are too busy to make their own.  On certain days, the offerings are more elaborate, palm leaves woven together to make elaborate flower or bird cage like structures, which are left in the street. The offerings pile up, are trodden upon, and eaten by street dogs. At the Sacred Monkey Forest, we watched the monkeys empty the little baskets and eat the contents with great pleasure, like they were the real gods. I understand that the Balinese believe that the gods and spirits absorb the essence of the offering straightaway, so apparently the fate of the actual material contents is not so important.

For more important celebrations and ceremonies, you see women walking through the streets, carrying elaborate baskets of fruits and flowers balanced on their heads. I glimpsed one such ceremony while passing by a temple one evening, and the main temple was stacked high with these gorgeously arranged baskets. I think that the fruit is later distributed to participants, but don’t quote me on it.

For Westerners visiting Bali, the feather in the cap is to attend a ceremony in the village where there are no other tourists. I met a man from The Hague who has visited Bali for 17 years and he talked of such opportunities with great pride, and Lonely Planet naturally dangles the opportunity to its readers as the Holy Grail of visiting Bali, the experience that marks the Real Bali. I’ve heard a lot about the Real Bali – transport guys offer to take you to the countryside to experience the Real Bali, and guided tours promise you a Real Balinese Village Experience. Of course, the Real Bali is all around me, different facets of a many colored gemstone. And truthfully, I wasn’t so interested in searching out this mythic Real Bali – years of anthropological training have taught me the falsity and arrogance of such an assumption, that the “pure” cultural form exists, and that we, the Westerners can seek it out and know it, renewing ourselves in the process.

But I did manage to stumble upon a unique Balinese ritual: the Hotel Anniversary Ceremony. On Sunday, the entire staff of Puri Dalem Cottages spent the whole afternoon weaving palm decorations and hanging banners in the breakfast area. They told us that the next day would be the Hotel’s 14th Anniversary party, and we were invited to join. Around 7 pm, people started to gather around the pool. As it turned out, I was one of two Westerners in attendance. Kiki had gone to an event, and it was just me and a French man who was also staying there. Skinny Wayan (easily the most common name in Bali, typically given to the firstborn child), the manager, greeted me and explained how the hotel had been completely renovated 6 months earlier, and so they were very excited to launch it anew. He introduced me to the owner and his wife, dressed elegantly in traditional dress, the owner’s name reflecting his high caste status.

We removed our shoes and sat cross legged on the grass in front of the shrine. Each of us was given a palm leaf tray offering tray. The wife of the owner, who was in charge of the ceremony, handed each of us a lit incense stick, “to purify our minds,” as Wayan explained in English to us, which we stuck into the earth in front of us. Following everyone else, we raised our hands in prayer at our foreheads, praying “to the first God” in Wayan’s explanation. Then, everyone took a flower petal and tucked it behind his ear. Then, hands raised again, we prayed to the second God, and tucked a flower petal behind the other ear. The next prayer was to be in gratitude or for something we really want, according to Wayan. Then, the wife of the owner took a jar of holy water and flicked some of it onto the shrine. Then, she turned to her husband, and using a white frangipani blossom, flicked holy water into his cupped hands three times, from which he drank after receiving each time, and then with the fourth time, rubbed the water on his face. Next, she came to me, and I was a bit flustered by the whole thing. There wasn’t really much water to drink, and I was wearing my glasses which complicated rubbing it on my face. I watched those who went after us, and they appeared to rub it onto their foreheads and then all over their faces.

This ended the ceremony and began the feast. We gathered around a long table, and the seating arrangement appeared to follow caste order. There were two elaborate iced birthday cakes and one large conical rice cake. The owner gave a speech, which Wayan translated for our benefit, giving thanks for many years of the hotel and hopes for future success. Then, the owner took a knife and lopped off the top of the rice cake, to applause all around. Next, the candles were lit on the birthday cakes, one in front of the owner, and one which happened to be in front of me.

Another speech followed, and at the end, Wayan gestured to me, saying “now, will you blow out one?” I understood it to mean that I was being asked to blow out one candle. Perhaps this was a Balinese custom, to blow out the candles one by one. Honored, I gestured my gratitude, and leaned in to blow out a single candle. At the same time, the owner blew out all the candles of the other cake, and people around me leaned in to blow out the rest of the candles on the cake in front of me. It seems he meant, “Can you blow out one cake?” not just one candle. Ah, the challenges of being an honored guest.

Then the feast commenced, starting with the birthday cake. A huge table was laden with all sorts of Balinese delicacies – spicy fish satay on bamboo skewers, soto ayam, a chicken soup with noodles; chicken, whole fish, duck; noodles; many different kinds of rice; and other not so easily identifiable dishes. The spices were fiery hot, clearly a meal made for the Balinese palate, not the Western palate!

Tags: bali, ceremony, rituals, saraswati, ubud



Today, Saturday, 10/10/2007, Balinese celebrates the Saraswati holyday, a sacred day for knowledge. Saraswati is the Goddess of Knowledge, symbolized by a beautiful woman with four hands, riding on a white swan, she symbolize that knowledge is like a beautiful woman, chase by everyone for the rest of his life. Her four hands hold, respectively, a palm leaf manuscript, a lontar, a Balinese traditional manuscript which is the source of science or knowledge; a genitri, a chain consist with 108 pieces, symbolizing that knowledge has no ending there will always be a knowledge, knowledge is never run out; and a guitar or wina, a musical instrument, it symbolizes that science is as beauty as the sound of wina and a lotus is a symbol of holiness. The swans symbolize prudence, with knowledge human can distinguish between good and evil. More http://blog.baliwww.com/religion/680/

  wayan suri Nov 16, 2007 12:29 PM


Wayan, thank you so much for reading my post and for adding this comment. I am grateful for the added information on Saraswati and her gifts.

  justine Nov 17, 2007 9:55 PM

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