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Gifts to Gods, Ancestors and Demons

The many unseen inhabitants of Bali - gods, ancestors and demons - are treated by the Balinese as honored guests through the daily presentation of offerings (banten) of every imaginable shape, color and substance. These are first and foremost gifts - expressing gratitude to benevolent spirits, and placating mischievous demons to prevent them from disturbing the harmony of life.

Simple offerings are presented daily as a matter of course, while more elaborate ones are specially produced for specific rituals. After the daily food is prepared, for example, tiny packets are presented to the resident gods of the household before the family eats. Every day, too, the spirits are presented with tiny canang - palm leaf trays containing flowers and betel as a token of hospitality.

Being gifts to higher beings, these offerings must be attractive, and a great deal of time and effort is expended to make them so. Leaves are laboriously cut, plaited and pinned together into decorative shapes (jejaitan). Multi-colored rice flour cookies (jajan) are modeled into tiny sculptures and even into entire scenes which have a deep symbolic significance quite apart from their decorative function. In many ways, therefore, the production of offerings may be regarded as an important traditional art form that still flourishes on Bali.

Materials and preparation

Aside from a few durable elements employed, like coins, cloth and an occasional wooden mask, offerings are generally fashioned of perishable, organic materials. Not only the materials, but also the function of these objects is transitory. Once pres4~nted to the gods, an offering may not be used again and similar ones have to be produced again and again each day.

The preparation of offerings is one of the many tasks undertaken by every Balinese woman. Within the household, women of several generations work together, and in this way knowledge and skills are handed down to the young. To a limited extent, men also cooperate, for it is their task to slaughter animals and prepare most meat offerings.

Many women in Bali even make a living by acting as offering specialists (tukang banten). Their main task is to direct the armies of people who collectively produce offering for large rituals at home or in the communal temple. They are able to coordinate this work because they know the types and ingredients of offerings required for each occasion.

As more and more Balinese women work outside the home in offices or tourist hotel they have less time to undertake elaborate ritual preparations themselves. This result in an increasing demand for ready-mad offerings that many tukang banten produce in their own home with the help of women they employ. In spite of this limited commercialization, the meaning and ritual use of offerings is not diminishing in Bali.

Ritual uses

For almost any ritual, the enormous number and variety of offerings required is quite a astounding. There are literally hundreds of different kinds - the names, forms, sizes an ingredients of which differ greatly. Further more, there is considerable variation fro region to region, and even from village to village. The basic form of most offerings is quite similar, however. Rice, fruits, cookies, meat and vegetables are arranged on a palm leaf base and crowned with a palm leaf decoration, called a sampian, which serves also as a container for betel nut and flowers.

Certain offerings are used in many rituals, whereas others are specific to a particular ceremony. Basic offerings form groups (soroh) around a core offering, and since most rituals can be performed with varying degrees of elaboration depending upon the occasion and the means and social status of the participants, the size and content of these offering groups vary also according to the elaborateness of the ritual.

The size of an offering may be scaled up or down to match the occasion. For example, an ordinary pula gembal contains, among other things, dozens of different rice dough figurines in a palm leaf basket. In more elaborate rituals, this becomes a spectacular construction of brightly-colored cookies, measuring several meters from top to bottom.

Besides the major communal offerings associated with a particular ritual, each family brings its own large and colorful offering to a temple festival. It is a spectacular sight when women of a neighborhood together carry offerings in procession to a temple.

At the temple offerings are placed according to their destination and function. Offerings to gods and ancestors are placed on high altars, whereas demons receive theirs on the ground. An important difference is that offerings to demons may contain raw meat, while those for the gods and ancestors may not. Specific offerings required for a ritual are Placed in a pavilion or temporary platform.

During the ceremony, a priest purifies the offerings by sprinkling them with holy water and intoning prayers or mantras. The smoke of incense then wafts the essence of the offerings to their intended destination. The daily Presentation of offerings at home takes place In a similar way, through the use of holy water and fire. After the ritual is over and their "essence" has been consumed, the offerings may be taken home and eaten by the worshippers.


The elements that make life on earth possible are transformed into offerings and thus returned as gifts to their original Creator. But an offering not only consists of the fruits of the earth, but also mirrors its essential structure - decorative motifs often symbolize the various constituents of the Balinese universe.

The colors and numbers of flowers and other ingredients, for example, refer to deities who guard the cardinal directions. The requisite betel on top of every offering symbolizes the Hindu Trinity, as do the three basic colors used - red for Brahma, black or green for Wisnu, and white for Siwa.

Conical shapes, whether of offerings as a whole or of the rice used in it, are models of the cosmic mountain whose central axis links the underworld, the middle world and the upper world - symbolic of cosmic totality and the source of life on earth. Cookies of rice dough represent the contents of the world plants, animals, people, buildings or even little market scenes and gardens. Pairs of such cookies, like the sun and moon, the mountain and sea, the earth and sky, symbolize the dual ordering of the cosmos in which complementary elements cannot exist without one another. The unity of male and female, necessary for the production of new life, is in many ways represented in the composition of offerings. By recreating the universe through the art and medium of offerings, it is hoped that the continuity of life on earth will be assured.


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