Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Galungan (Balinese new year)

We wanted to stay in Ubud for a few extra days so that we'd be in town for Galungan, which started on 29th August. It's the most important festival of the Balinese calendar, marking the new year every 210 days and when ancestors come back to visit. Compared to celebrations in the West, it's about as big a deal as Christmas.

Staying at a family homestay was perfect, as it meant we saw the Indras carrying out their preparations. We felt really privileged to be able to share the time with them and witness this special event.

You could really feel the excitement and energy in the air all over Ubud during the couple of days leading up to the start of the festival.

Small groups of women carried gifts of food piled high on their heads, visiting friends and family around the town. 

Men busied themselves with erecting penjor - tall, heavily ornamented bamboo poles that bend at the top to hang above the streets. The decorations were made of cloth, paper and palm leaves in many colours, shapes and patterns. Each one was different, and families and businesses created their own for display... just like Christmas trees! It was a hive of activity and there was lots of laughter and banter going on.

The daily canang also increased around Galungan, both in number and elaborateness. Each day, women use banana and palm leaves, flowers, rice, fruit, crackers, sweets, incense sticks and more to create little trays of goodies as offerings to the gods, left on the pavements and in special alcoves. The ones on the floor were frequently kicked and trampled and there were canang in various states of repair strewn everywhere we walked. Any damage didn't seem a concern though; fresh offerings were always appearing. All this happened more than ever during the festival.

Dave and I made our own small contribution to the Galungan decorations with a gift of five little origami roses to the Indra family. It seemed they were gratefully received and I was delighted on Galungan morning to spot them adorning a table in the homestay. 

The first day of the 10 day festival began with a simple breakfast for us of banana toasties; the Indras were too busy with more important, fun things to be slaving over hot stoves for us! Incense burned around the family temple... in fact, in burned almost everywhere; you couldn't escape the smell of it all day.

Special decorations made from banana and palm leaves and flowers
The Indra temple was draped in beautiful fabrics and laden with fruit and other food offerings, piled on multicoloured melamine plates and golden platters.

The family were dressed up in beautiful traditional clothes - sarongs, shirts, lace, headwear and jewellery. They gathered and exchanged gifts, the children shouting and singing with excitement. Then they were off to visit one of the large temples, and we made our way into town to see what else was going on.

The penjor and pop-up alters lining the streets had been finished and were really impressive. Jalan Hanoman was abuzz with motorbikes and scooters, ridden by locals in all their finery, more women carried baskets of offerings on their heads, and families walking together to temple. The sun shone down on everything.

In the centre of town, where Jalan Raya Ubud meets Monkey Forest Road, we saw a troupe of small boys playing instruments (mostly percussion) and some wearing costumes. They headed for a large open-air pavilion, where it seemed they would put on a show. But they just milled around a little, chatting and playing and running up to smiling, snap-happy tourists for donations. They posed and grinned. One boy wearing a monkey mask strutted over to me and gazed into my camera, fluttering his long black eyelashes, all confidence and swagger. Lacking any adult supervision, the boys held court with their own charisma and were just as entertaining as if they'd have been performing something rehearsed. 

We visited a couple of the larger local temples, both of which were beautiful and shabby in good measure, but they were mostly full of tourists like ourselves; the locals must've been tucked away in holy areas closed to the public.

One of the temples we visited has a large lily pond out front with dark green pads and big pink flowers. 

Next to the pond is one of the key examples of Ubud's Westernised face... a great big Starbucks. They've gone to great lengths to create a facade that compliments local architecture, with carved wooden signage and the company logo fashioned into an ornate gong at the entrance. Balinese coffee isn't bad, so we refrained from the Extra Coffee Caramel Frappucinos!

Heading back to the homestay, we saw some of the most elaborate and impressive penjor decorations yet - big peacocks and dragon heads:

Just like most religious festivals, Ubud pretty much shut down during Galungan and many local businesses, shops and restaurants were closed for a couple of days. This led to a really big disappointment for us! Warung Ibu Oka - the fabled purveyor of unrivaled suckling pig - was somewhere we'd been looking forward to eating since seeing it featured on Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey programme a couple of years ago. In Ubud, we kept saying we'd "go tomorrow" and finally headed over on the 28th to eat our fill before we assumed it'd close for Galungan on the 29th (like the vast majority of other businesses in town) and we left Ubud on the 30th. But when we got there we were confronted by a big sign saying "We..! CLOSED 28 UNTIL 30". 


Sad, hungry Dave
Important traveler lesson: procrastination is all very well but not at the expense of a good feed!

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