The grandmother figure at my guesthouse in Ubud didn’t speak a lick of English, but her friendly smile—coupled with a gentle beckoning of the hand—was the only invitation I needed to sheepishly shuffle over to the assembly line of family members weaving and plaiting palm leaves into tiny three-inch by three-inch containers.
The little pallets of offerings in Bali take so many different forms and are one of the first things I fell in love with wandering the streets of Ubud. Bali is a little anomaly in the middle of Indonesia; the daily nature-based worship of Balinese Hinduism is a stark contrast to religious practices in the rest of this majority-Muslim country.
Every day as I dashed in and out of my guesthouse, these little carafes of flowers and piles of petals dotted the perimeter of the compound—some of these unique Balinese offerings appeared in the early morning hours as I sipped my tea (I’m an early riser and was able to silently watch the construction and distribution of these dozens of daily offerings), and others replaced the trampled petals later each afternoon.
And on the days when I slept in until the sun rose, I awoke to pretty offerings perched on the table of my patio area.
Life Cycle of a Balinese Daily Offering
Before most tourists are wandering the streets the Balinese are out sweeping up all of the previous day’s offerings from around their businesses and homes. Using buckets of water, they wet the sidewalks and scrub not only the perimeter around the doorways, but the gutters too.
The streets of Bali are spotless in the early morning hours as locals prepare the sidewalks, steps, statues, and temples for the daily gift of offerings meant to appease and please the various gods and demons of Balinese Hinduism.
These little tributes are perched all over the city. Some are as simple as a small and fragrant frangipani adorning each and every step leading into a housing compound.
Others are more elaborate, designed to guard the house’s doorway and appease the gods—these are often represented by statues placed throughout the house.
Detailed and complex or simple and plain, the Balinese place offerings simply everywhere.
These offerings represent daily devotional gifts to their belief system. When I put it more in the context of my Christian background I think of it like saying the rosary—a repeated act of faith.
The darker side of it is that they use these offerings to appease demon spirits hanging around. So, as much as I present this sunshine-y side to the offerings, they are so much more than mere street decorations to the Balinese—they form a cornerstone of the daily practice of nearly every Balinese person I met.
Locals spend large parts of their day in the construction of new offerings, then dispersing them around their compounds. Once it’s seemingly completely, they make more holders and palm leaf patterns to distribute in other forms.
These abundance of flowers adorning buildings, homes, and businesses are a lovely addition to wandering Bali, but more than anything, sitting and watching the women and men plait palm leaves day after day took what I had viewed as a cute religious practice and grounded it into a much clearer window into the beliefs and daily lives of the Balinese people.
It’s so easy to travel to these countries and pick out the fun parts and view it from the outside—as a Westerner looking in on what could be regarded as cute or kitschy practices. But sitting there, with them every day? It’s so very much a lovely and honest part of their everyday life that these ornate offerings provide such a pretty opening to something deeper within the Balinese culture.
Learn More About Bali and Balinese Hinduism
- Bali: Sekala & Niskala: A wonderful book if you want to truly understand Balinese culture and thought. The book is a collection of essays with topics life Hindu mythology and modern gamelan music.
- Balinese Food: The Traditional Cuisine and Food Culture of Bali: This is not a cookbook, but rather in-depth look at the traditions and history of Bali’s food culture. Beautifully written travel and food prose.
- Island of Bali: Written in 1937, this book is a must read for anyone who is planning a trip to Bali. A fascinating and engaging read.