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Meet the Penjor: The Balinese Christmas Tree

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The Christmas tree, so often seen in western countries during the holiday season, might be a happy memory for many of us: school is off, family is gathering and, at presents waiting to be unwrapped.

But other symbols, with a meaning sometimes forgotten, show in its decorations. The tree itself is  symbol on strength, as well as the garlands, and the decorated baubles might very well originate from the Eastern Europe painted eggs, showing fertility. The star at the top originates from the Christian tradition and is a rendering of the Star Of Bethlehem.

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In Bali, if these green conifers can be seen here and there, another plant becomes heavy with symbolism comes Galungan and Kuningan: bamboos are made into 10m high decorated poles called penjor.

Galungan is a very important Hindu Bali religious period. Every 210 days, it celebrates the victory of the Dewa (gods) over the Asura (demons) -possibly during an epic battle to acquire the Tirta Amerta (water of eternal life)- and their visit to the mortal realm.
This celebration, which lasts 10 days and ends with Kuningan, when the gods depart, is also a chance for many Balinese to come back to their Island or families.

Galungan and the penjor are inseparable, and a penjor is erected by every family. Thye line streets in cities and villages alike, sometimes heavy with ornaments, sometimes light and simple, but aways charged with meaning. This meaning isn’t entirely religious either: the making and trade of these artefacts also hold an important social and economic role. Families gather for its creation, talk, exchange, and its base material does hold a commercial value -what with the most luxuriously decorated penjor costing several millions Indonesian Rupiah.

The penjor is a symbol of the sacred mount Agung (for fertility, good wealth, and devotion), but is also seen as a representation of the dragon Basuki, circling the mountain and vanquishing the Asura. It is erected near house’s entrances, its tip always facing the road.

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A simple penjor is almost entirely composed of natural element. Bamboo, palm leaves, coconut and flowers hold an important role in its making, each honoring a different manifestation of the Hindu Bali god Sang Hyang Widi Yasa -the ultimate divine manifestation. Near its base are offerings and coconuts, as a way to give back to both nature and the ethereal world.
35 days after Galungan, the Penjor is partly or completely burned, and its ashes are buried near it’s owner house, to give it spiritual strength.

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During this period between Galungan and Kuningan, Bali changes, every road overlooked by these beautifully crafted ornaments gently swinging in the wind. Quieter places of the island, and places where tradition still holds an important role (there are many), offer fantastic displays of creativity, making it a fantastic time to visit.

The making of a Penjor.

Building a penjor is usually a man’s work. Here, we followed our friend Ketut, a day before galungan, as he explained us the meaning of every part he was adding to the original naked bamboo pole, transforming it into a simple but beautiful religious item.

Ketut starts with a naked bamboo pole several meters long and relates to the god Brahma, the creator.

Ketut starts with a naked bamboo pole several meters long, which relates to the god Brahma, the creator.

Coconut tree leaves are prepared, so they can become the symbol of Hyang Sangkara, god of flora, who strengthen the spirit of mankind.

Coconut tree leaves are prepared, so they can become the symbol of Hyang Sangkara, god of flora, who strengthen the spirit of mankind.

Leaves are then rolled in a weaving pattern.

Leaves are then rolled in a weaving pattern.

The final result does remind me of a dragon's mane.

The final result does remind me of a dragon’s mane.

For simple penjor like this one, even ligatures are natural.

For simple penjor like this one, even ligatures are natural.

Rolled leaves are added to the 'tail of the dragon'.

Rolled leaves are added to the ‘tail of the dragon’.

A cloth printed with the Tri Murti, a representation of the gods Siva, Wisnu and Brahma, is then added to the pole.

A cloth printed with the Tri Murti, a representation of the gods Shiva, Wisnu and Brahma, is then added to the pole.

The Sampyan is then attached to the top end of the pole via a decorated line made of dried coconut tree leaves. It represents Hyang Mahadeva, another name of Shiva, the creator and destroyer.

The Sampyan is then attached to the top end of the pole via a decorated line made of dried coconut tree leaves. It represents Hyang Mahadeva, another name of Shiva, the creator and destroyer.

More natural decorations are added near the base, to which will be added coconuts and pala bungkah root symbols of Wisnu (the protector), and cane, symbol of Hyang Sambu (guardian god of the North East)

More natural decorations are added near the base, to which will be added coconuts and pala bungkah root symbols of Wisnu (the protector), and cane, symbol of Hyang Sambu (guardian god of the North East)

Finally, the penjor is erected at the right side of the house entrance, and added an altar to keep offerings (symbol of Brahma) made of fruits and rice cakes.

Finally, the penjor is erected at the right side of the house entrance, and added an altar to keep offerings (symbol of Brahma) made of fruits and rice cakes.

 

The appearance of penjor can vary widely, but however rich it looks, what is important is its religious and social meaning!

The appearance of penjor can vary widely, but however rich it looks, what is important is its religious and social meaning!

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