Last week the Galungan and Kuningan holiday celebrations began in Bali which for non-Hindus amongst us means only that there are plentiful local ceremonies to witness, numerous staff absent from work and an abundance of traffic jams on our tiny island roads!
But for the Balinese, Galungan is one of the most significant holidays of the year. Hindu women cook through the night preparing abundant feasts for their community and weaving decorations from banana palm and men line the streets with penjors and prepare their banjars and temples for ceremonies.
As with many of the celebrations in Bali, they are beautiful to watch but the meaning of them eludes many of us. So what is the Galungan and Kuningan holiday all about?
In Hindu culture the purpose of this holiday is to celebrate the triumph of ‘dharma' over ‘adharma’ which means that truth and morality stand victorious over ego and turpitude.
The Balinese Hindus believe that on the first day of Galungan the spirits of their dead ancestors come back to Earth to visit their loved ones and they stay for 11 days until the final day of Kuningan. While the spirits are visiting, their living relatives should make them feel welcome and have a duty to make offerings and prayers in their honour. The celebration is similar in this sense to holidays celebrated in other cultures such as the Mexican Dia de Muertos or pagan Halloween both of which coincidentally fell in the same week as Galungan this year (an unusually busy week for the dead, for those who believe!).
In mythology the story surrounding the Galungan celebration focuses on a conflict between Indra, the God of thunder, rain and lightning and the earthly King Mayadenawa. The King would not allow the people to practice Hinduism and was so powerful that even the Majapahit army could not defeat him. After many battles, Indra descended to earth to deal with the King. Knowing Indra would subdue him, he morphed into different forms to escape the angry god but Indra recognised him as a statue, a stone and a wild boar. Eventually the King escaped to the jungle but left behind decoy footprints to fool Indra as to where he had run. Indra tracked him down and killed him with his magic arrow at the freshwater spring which is now the Tirta Empul Temple in Gianyar. The surrounding area is named ‘Tampaksiring’ which literally means ’slanting footprints’ referring to the King’s disguised tracks.
Galungan was created to honour Indra and his moral or ‘dharma’ defeat over the evil ‘adharma’ King Mahadenawa.
So during Galungan Bali is awash with symbolic decorations: the streets are lined with ‘penjor’ - the tall bamboo poles that are curved at the end and decorated in leaves, flowers, and ornate young coconut leaves which represent the upholding of Hinduism; the ground is dotted with ’sesajen’ and ‘banten' - the flower-filled offerings for the ancestral spirits and the gods; and the tables are filled with festive food like tapai ketan fermented glutinous rice and lawar made from coconut and duck.
So if you believe, may the spirits of your family enjoy their time on earth and may good always triumph over bad.