Galungan

May 21, 2014
Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
Photo credit: John Yavuz Can via Creative Commons
Galungan Festival in Indonesia
Crowd
    Intimate to                 Massive
Attendees
    Local to                 International
Participation
    Spectator to                 Immersive
Preparation
    Simple to                 Complicated
Transformation
    Quiet to                 Life-Altering

Overview

Galungan is the most important feast for Balinese Hindus. Celebrate the victory of good over evil while honoring the creator of the universe and the spirits of ancestors. 

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Festival Stats
  • Crowd
  • Attendees
  • Participation
  • Preparation
  • Transformation

Location

Galungan is celebrated throughout the island, but nowhere is it more interesting than in the cultural center of Ubud.

Chip's take

Two decades ago, I willed myself to Bali for the first time. It’s not an easy…

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Two decades ago, I willed myself to Bali for the first time. It’s not an easy trek from the U.S.; at best, it’s eighteen hours in that flying tube in the sky. I was in the early stages of growing my boutique hotel company, Joie de Vivre, but I was intrigued by the day-to-day joie de vivre I’d heard existed on this magical island. My experience was nothing short of awe-inspiring and I’ve been back a dozen times having experienced Galungan on multiple occasions. To be honest, Galungan isn’t dramatically different than any normal, festive Balinese day, but, for the uninitiated, it’s the best time of year to experience pure, celebratory Bali.

If you can’t make it for Galungan, ask a local if there’s a village odalan going on nearby, or a teeth-filing ceremony (a rite of passage for teens), or, if you’re lucky, a cremation ceremony. Bali is an endless festival, a movable feast that will remind you that life is meant to be celebrated. In the United States, our individual achievements are celebrated and we wonder why we often feel so alone. Alone doesn’t have a synonym in Balinese.

Bali is an endless festival, a movable feast that will remind you that life is meant to be celebrated. 

Photos & Videos From the Festival

Essentials

Don’t rush around the island. It is traditional for the Balinese to visit multiple family temples on Galungan with five members of family, dressed in their finest wardrobes, crammed onto a motorbike. Be prepared for lots of traffic. There’s no reason to dart around Bali like a pinball for this festival. Find one place that feels good to you and visit three or four small villages in that region either by foot or bicycle.

Hire a guide. Bali is a crazy place to drive and the most sublime and hidden treasures are off the beaten path so ask your friends, your hotel, or search on the internet for recommended guides who can drive you around the island. We recommend jiwamade@hotmail.com.

Beware of animal blood. If you’re a little squeamish about animal slaughter, we recommend you lounge by the pool on Penampahan, the day before Galungan, as pigs, turtles and livestock are offered as sacrifices to the gods on that day. If it makes you feel any better, this ritual suggests that these animals will come back as higher creatures in their next life.

Watch a Barong dance. Troupes move from village to village and temple to temple to perform this classic dance that describes the fight between good and evil - Barong and Rangda.

Experience a cremation ceremony. The ultimate Balinese festival, cremation ceremonies happen sporadically in various villages around the island. It’s best to ask your hotel or a guide to direct you to one near you and don’t feel awkward joining into the festivities as most locals appreciate your desire to honor their loved ones’ lives.

Read this book. Fred B. Eiseman Jr’s essays on Religion, Ritual, and Art captured in the book “Bali: Sekala & Niskala” is a must-read for anyone who is fascinated with Bali’s unique affection with festivals and how these festivals connect with the island’s culture.


Practicalities

Fly to Denpasar, Bali which is more accessible by air than many people imagine given how many resorts are on the island.

Galungan is celebrated throughout the island, but nowhere is it more interesting than in the cultural center of Ubud, 60-90 minutes north of the airport (depending upon the occasionally horrendous traffic).

As for accommodations, Bali has a wide variety of choices from homestays for $20 per night to super-luxe resorts for $2,000 per night. There can be value in booking just a few nights in one place at the start of your time Bali visit and then transferring over to another hotel or homestay as you travel around the island. One of our favorite activities is touring multiple hotels and resorts to see such impressive resort design. Room rates vary quite widely depending upon the time of year and amount of demand. Galungan doesn’t necessarily create substantial demand and, thus, you might find paradise at a bargain if you look around.

Details

Another day, Another festival

While its Hindu cousin India may hold the gold medal for the most high profile festivals in the world, no place on earth celebrates collective effervescence more frequently than the Indonesian island of Bali. With more than 20,000 temples on this island of nearly 4 million people, it’s no wonder that everyday is a holiday. Each village has at least three temples and every 210 days (based upon the Balinese calendar), each of these temples celebrates its birthday with an odalan. With fruit and flower offerings piled four feet tall on women’s heads and feasts fit for a king, an odalan can last for several days and visitors are heartily welcomed into the festivities.

Bali isn’t just an island paradise, it’s an anomaly. Unlike the rest of Indonesia, which is predominantly Muslim, Bali is a Hindu island mixed with a healthy dose of animism, the belief that everything, including inanimate objects, contains life. Galungan is the most important feast for Balinese Hindus, a celebration to honor the creator of the universe (Ida Sang Hyang Widi) and the spirits of the ancestors. The festival symbolizes the victory of good (Dharma) over evil (Adharma), and encourages the Balinese to show their gratitude to the creator and sainted ancestors.

Offerings to the Ancestors

Synchronized with the Saka and  Wuku calendars, Galungan occurs once in the 210-day cycle of the Balinese calendar, and marks the time of the year when the spirits of the ancestors are believed to visit the earth. Balinese Hindus perform rituals that are meant to welcome and entertain these returning spirits. The house compounds that make up the nucleus of Balinese society come alive with devotions offered by the families living within. Families offer bountiful sacrifices of food and flowers to the ancestral spirits, expressing gratitude and hopes for protection. These sacrifices are also offered at local temples, which are packed with devotees bringing their offerings. The festivities go on for ten days ending with Kuningan, which is the day when spirits ascend back to heaven. 

The gracious and adaptable Balinese, who created a complex means of irrigating their fields from the sacred mountains to the sea, have also created a complex, authentic culture built on unique celebrations that remind them who they are in this increasingly commoditized world. 

The whole island sprouts tall bamboo poles called penjor - these are usually decorated with fruit, coconut leaves, and flowers, and set up on the right of every residence entrance. At each gate, you'll also find small bamboo altars set up especially for the holiday, each one bearing woven palm-leaf offerings for the spirits.

Bali’s Special Place in the World

Why has Bali become the capital of the world for modern day mythology? Certainly, the local religion (called Agama Hindu) has some relevance. Balinese Hinduism is an amalgam in which gods and demigods are worshiped alongside Buddhist heroes, the spirits of ancestors, and indigenous agricultural deities. Most importantly, animism creates a sort of reverence that deserves celebration. And the fact that good and evil are in constant combat in the Balinese mind means that daily reminders are needed for how to live a good life. This is also why you see daily offerings placed throughout a home, at the doorways of local shops, and in rice paddy fields.

The Balinese have clung to their ancestral rituals through a series of conquerors from the Dutch to the Javanese who have come to this volcanic island to try and tame the locals. More recently, this has come in the form of millions of tourists who descend on this little speck of paradise seeking their own joie de vivre, including author Liz Gilbert, as documented in “Eat Pray Love” (the most common non-Balinese sightings here are the droves of middle aged American women hoping to find their own version of Gilbert’s bliss). The gracious and adaptable Balinese, who created a complex means of irrigating their fields from the sacred mountains to the sea, have also created a complex, authentic culture built on unique celebrations that remind them who they are in this increasingly commoditized world.