Life in Bali is imbued with rituals – religious, spiritual and social; complicated and simple – from consulting the Balinese calendar to the daily offerings of incense and flowers made at Hindu and Buddhist temples.
The offering or banten is the only demonstration of their spirituality that we’re able to witness and it’s wonderful to be given the privilege to watch – from the respectful placement of the offerings on the shrine to the lighting of the incense sticks and wafting of the fragrant smoke.
Our peek into this daily ritual piqued my interest so much so that when Terence enrolled in a gamelan class, I signed up for a workshop to learn about this Hindu ritual and the sacred art of making offerings.
We had loved visiting the Agun Rai Museum of Art (ARMA) at Ubud, as much for its tranquil tropical gardens as for its stupendous collection of Balinese art, so that when we saw that they offered a programme of cultural workshops, we put our names down straight away.
However, as with the instructor who gave Terence music ‘lessons’, the English vocabulary of the lovely woman assigned to teach us how to make offerings was limited to “like this” and “no, watch me”. Thus my class on creating offerings was short on background, history and culture, and big on craft.
I had also expected I might be in for a spot of flower- and fruit-arranging, but instead I found myself spending a couple of hours pricking my fingers with the bamboo ‘needles’ I was taught to make (tooth picks, pretty much), inflicting successive paper cuts upon my poor fingers as I ripped, tore and sliced banana leaves into strips, and essentially learning how to weave baskets with the plants.
Admittedly, I did learn to make a handful of different styles of basket, each one more elaborate than the next, that thankfully became easier to make the more I made.
The flower arranging didn’t come until the very end, and that was the quick and disappointingly easy part. My mum, who had been observing until then, even joined in for that bit.
While I had expected to come away with a wealth of knowledge about Hinduism and the mysterious ritual of making offerings demystified (I didn’t and it wasn’t), surprisingly I left with quite a sense of achievement from having made six baskets by hand from a banana plant, some bamboo sticks, and a bunch of flowers.
Hindu women in Bali might make dozens, if not scores, of these things a day, their designs handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. Desak, the cook at our villa, told us that she makes a couple of dozen at once and stores them in her fridge.
The museum employs two local ladies who make around 300 (!) between them a day. With so many Balinese women working full-time jobs, producing offerings that busy women can buy instead of make has become a rather lucrative little business for some.
At the end of the class, the instructor suggested we add fruit, betel nuts, incense sticks, and even some money, to the offerings when we got home. But my sense of aesthetics didn’t allow me to spoil the simplicity of our lovely arrangements (Mum having helped with their ‘design’ too, of course).
Suspecting that my restraint might not have made the Gods happy (perhaps they interpreted it as stinginess?), I took extra care when I placed the offerings on the shrine (for the Gods) and on the ground by the pool (for the demons), as I had watched Desak do. (Yes, indeed, I learned something!)
I didn’t waft the incense over them or gesture in the mysterious ways I’d seen the villa staff do, as I still didn’t quite understand the full meaning of the ritual I was enacting. But, hey, I certainly knew more about offerings now than I did before the workshop. And I also now knew a bit about basket-weaving too.