Sunday, December 13, 2009


Last week, the owner of my homestay told me that they will be holding a temple ceremony on Tuesday and invited me to join them. It was big! Balinese are generally very open and friendly towards foreigners but being invited to a family-ceremony definitely made me feel a little bit more as a part. I lived in Dubai 3.5 years and did not have a single local friend throughout this time. My closest encounter with an Emirati was when the branch manager of HSBC invited me to his office for a major screw-up with my check book. We shook hands and had a polite social conversation for maybe 3 minutes. It gave me such a thrill though as it happened sometime after already spending 18 months in Dubai without getting to know a single Emirati, let alone touching one. No neighbors, no colleagues, no random encounter... I know it sounds exaggerated but it's unfortunately true.

So two months into my stay in Bali, I already have several Indonesian friends. My Bahasa Indonesian is non-existent beyond good morning and thank-you (which is such a shame!) and I get to be invited to an Odalan (temple ceremony) which is a key event for Indonesian families.

In order to join a temple ceremony, the women need to wear a complete Balinese dress, which consists of Kebaya, Sarong and a Kamen. As always, I left the dress-hunting to the last minute and ended up paying the tourist prices for my outfit. I was amazed though that the tailor managed to sew my Kebaya in less than 6 hours and it turned out to be exactly as I wanted it.

Two days prior to the actual ceremony day, the excitement started to kick in. The women were busy preparing food and the offerings; there were a lot of new faces in the garden probably neighbors or relatives living elsewhere coming to help for preparations. Men would be sitting by the porch and talking until the very late hours of the night. I was offered my first “ceremony food” on Sunday while I was heading out for yoga, I kindly asked to be forgiven as I couldn't eat before yoga, but on my way back, I made sure to pick up a plate and join in with some steamed rice and tofu. The tofu was wrapped in a banana leaf, then cooked with some spices and it turned out to be the most yummy tofu I ever had. The plate is simply a wide-woven bamboo basket and it is lined up with a banana leaf to avoid any spills. Once you're done eating, you just throw away the banana leaf and end up with a clean “plate” ready to be used again without any washing. Brilliant idea! Then the idea is to hold the plate with your left hand and eat with the right – without using any cutlery of course. I practiced for the first time with that rice-tofu plate and it felt ok. (This is a moment that I'm glad mom isn't fluent enough in English to read this blog as she would probably disown me for dipping my fingers into my food!)

On the day, the Odalan started already at 7:30am. From my room I heard the constant sound of the bell that is being rung by the Pemangku (holy priest). With the help of my host, I managed to wrap my sarong correctly and headed to the temple. Balinese homes are generally spread over a big garden, with separate buildings for each family, the kitchen, rice storage area, pit toilet, and a temple area. If the family is big, there can be more than 10 buildings in the compound. I'm using the word “building” in its loosest meaning as it can sometimes be simple a bamboo hut, an elevated wooden storage area or a brick room big enough to fit a family of six... In my homestay, the temple area is big and it's right by the entrance of the compound. It's generally locked and I've walked through it only once. For the ceremony however, it was elaborately and beautifully decorated, colorful and full of multiple, giant offerings. When I walked in, there were already 5-6 women sitting. I joined them and for over 30 minutes, we just watch the holy priest pray. Then all the women got up, pick up different things into their hands. Some had big trays with offerings, some had colorfully woven baskets; but the common elements were some water-container (a bowl with some water and a flower, a used plastic soy-sauce bottle, a young coconut, etc) and an incense stick. I also got up confidently and stood at the back of the queue, which by then already had 10 women. With an amused look on her face, my host handed me an incense and a brown bottle filled up with some liquid. Not knowing what we will do with them, I felt like baby swan trying to fit in with the duck family. First we walk around the temple. The women of the immediate family sing as we visit each temple structure. We all hold the water-containers in our right hand and either squirt some water from the bottle, or sprinkle from a bowl using a frangipani flower. Of course the bowl-frangipani combination looks much more elegant and ceremony-like compared to a brown plastic bottle, but I guess that's more suitable for rookies. I must have mentioned in the past, according to the Balinese tradition the water is believed to make things complete or perfect. Once we are done with all structures in the temple, then we walk out and do the same thing for all buildings in the compound including my room! Interestingly, we do not follow a line but do more like a zig-zag route. Our final stop is the entrance of the compound from the street. Then the women who have been carrying the trays and baskets drop the contents by the gate, for a really big offering. Then we go back into the temple grounds.

I notice that although it is highly structured, the ceremony is very informal. Women talk among themselves while the holy priest prays, the kids run around, playing hide and seek in the temple and visiting neighbors use this more as an opportunity to catch up with eachother. It is a social gathering. It seems that everyone does his/her part, whether it is decorating the temple, giving offerings, chanting, but once it is finished do not feel the need to cling onto the ceremony and make it a serious, solemn faced thing where you would be turned into a stone if you moved an inch. I was prepared to sit still, cross-legged for 2 hours, so this newly discovered sense of freedom during a religious ceremony made me feel good.

After another 30 minutes or so during which the two eldest women of the family performed some offering rituals by the holy priest, the crowd in the temple got bigger, and men also joined the sitting circle this time. The family makes One of my closer friends from the family invited me to sit with him in the “inner” circle, so that I can join the praying. The inner circle was around 10 people, mostly the immediate family, each two adjacent people sharing an offering of different flowers and an incense. The priest continued to pray from above the pedestal, while we held our hands above our heads, palms facing forward. My friend Ketut prompted me what to do when necessary, great! Then 5 women of the family formed a line in front of us and each one poured a little bit of holy water to our hands from a silver kettle, which were cupped near our laps. Each woman poured water 5 times, we drank the first 3 pours (well half of it spilled on my lap before I could manage to take my hands to my mouth!) and the last 2 pours were meant to be rubbed onto our heads. So after repeating this ritual 5 times, both my sarong and my head was soaking wet. Then we held our hands over the burning incense and rubbed hands on our faces, followed by a brief silent, individual praying time. Then Ketut told me that the ceremony is over for us The priest would leave in a few minutes but other families will continue to come into the temple grounds until evening to their own praying and offerings. Now, it was eating time for us! Feeling a little more confident with my hand-eating skills this time, I dig into rice and stewed jackfruit. Over lunch, Ketut explained to me that each family holds a temple ceremony every 210 days, which is one Balinese year. It is meant to offer protection and blessing. But my family recently built a rice storage area, so the ceremony is also meant to celebrate it and to offer protection. For that, they sacrificed a duck the day before and smoked it for a day and served to the guests.

The night before the ceremony, I had a decision to make; whether to go there with my camera and be the fly on the wall or just be a part of the ceremony. Fly on the wall would get amazing photos at each step of the ceremony from the best angle. It wouldn't be anything like trying to get sneaky photos from behind the closed doors of public temples. This was a rare opportunity. Yet I wanted to be there, be a part and feel like a part too. It wasn't an easy decision, what if I regretted not taking photos later on? But eventually it felt right and it still does. So I took the camera from my room only after the ceremony and the lunch was over and the area was swept clean. The photos probably don't really reflect the joy and excitement of the ceremony but those are the feelings that I captured in me.

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