A Little Ritual… Frangipani, Incense, and Balinese Beliefs

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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.

balinese offerings of flowers that are left around the island
A particularly pretty Balinese offering laying on a sidewalk near my guesthouse in Ubud.

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.

offering perched on a statue
One of the regular daily offerings placed around my guesthouse compound in Ubud, Bali.
a collection of offerings left in Ubud, Bali
A collection of offerings stacked on top of one another and presenting several days of traditional offerings.
a hindu statue decorated in flowers in Ubud
A simply but beautifully decorating statue at my local yoga studio.

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.

the Balinese make a ritual of leaving these little rafts of food, flowers and incense
A collection of several offerings one day show there is no set formula—the woven rafts are common, but so are the rice-based offerings on small leaves. Also notice in the rafts that there are nubs of burned out incense—it’s common to light the incense when placing the offering and let it naturally burn out.
the plam frawn offerings woven together
Small woven designs are often included within other offerings, or are added as beautiful decorative elements.
closeup of a Balinese offering
A particularly colorful offering filled with fresh flowers, which are abundant on the island of Bali.
the mother in my compound making the daily offerings
The mother in my compound dedicated a large portion of her day to constructing these daily offerings.

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.

17 thoughts on “A Little Ritual… Frangipani, Incense, and Balinese Beliefs”

  1. The long poles with hangings coming from them are called Penjors. They are put out at gallungan and a few other times a year in from of every home and business.

    • Hate to say that I am just not sure! If you have a photo of it that you can link to, that might help! Or if you find out, let me know! :)

    • Thanks Maria – I wish I had gotten to stay longer and figure out more, it’s
      way more complex than I was able to uncover in just a couple of weeks! :)

  2. This was one of my most fave things about Bali. I thought the beauty of the flowers, their deelish scent that wafted all around me throughout the day and the care and dedication that each woman put into making these offerings was so beautiful and really helped keep me present. Thanks for the reminder. It’s almost as if I can smell them now :)

    • Once you see how much daily effort it takes to make these flower offerings
      it really is just amazing – and the strong scent of the frangipani will now
      always and forever remind me of Bali; glad to have shared with you such a
      lovely visual reminder :)

  3. This is awesome! I felt in love with Bali last week while reading ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and sice then I found out lots of interestig info about the place. I have to make it there someday.

    • It’s definitely a gorgeous spot with so many different pieces and parts to
      the culture and scenery that make it oh so worth traveling too! Eat, Pray,
      Love gives a really lovely account of Gilbert’s experiences there and I
      found the Balinese just as friendly and sweet as she made them sound!

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