How a Balinese Temple Celebrates Its Birthday

While we were in Ubud, the Hindu temple across the street from our guesthouse—the temple for our banjar (neighborhood)—was celebrating the anniversary of its founding. This celebration, called an odalon, occurs every 210 days, according to the traditional Balinese calendar. Our hostess invited us to attend the multi-evening event, which is how we once again found ourselves in the middle of an entirely nontouristy local ceremony.

The night of the main event, families arrived at twilight on foot or by motorbike (with a whole family squeezed onto one bike) in their temple finery. Women brought large boxes and trays of offerings, which they carried into the temple balanced on their heads. Once inside, they carried the offerings to various small shrines (presumably for different deities or spirits they wanted to please) or to a great table set up in the middle of the courtyard of the inner temple. That done, they milled around the inner or outer temple area talking to neighbors, or they sat quietly on the ground in the inner courtyard waiting for the prayer service to begin.

It was hard for us to understand what was going on. But during the two hours we sat there and observed, a costumed dancer performed in various king or old-man masks, a group of neighborhood women danced, two different gamelan (bamboo and metal percussion) ensembles played, people left their offerings, a man performed with shadow puppets, some other men read into a microphone from a sacred text, and a high priest on the highest dais conducted some intricate rite involving incense, water, flowers, and chanting that we think was intended to sanctify holy water.

All of those things happened at roughly the same time, a cacophony of sound and activity that made it impossible to focus on or understand any one thing. Later, we concluded that those activities weren’t being done for the sake of people watching them but to entertain the deities who had been invited into the temple for the festival.

Dancing to entertain the gods
Dancers portray a monkey and a barong (a mythical beast like a lion)

In fact, everything that happened in the temple up to that point seemed analogous to entertaining special guests in one’s home: People dressed up in their best clothes, put up festive decorations, offered their guests food and drink for refreshment (the offerings), put out flowers and incense to waft pleasant scents upward to where deities dwell, and entertained the special guests with music and dancing and readings and puppet shows so they would enjoy themselves and linger.

Members of a gamelon ensemble hitting metal xylophones with hammers (it’s very loud)

After all that, a hush suddenly fell, and we noticed that everyone was sitting quietly in the inner courtyard. Several hundred people had filled in the space all around us. They were lighting sticks of incense and putting the sticks into the ground at their feet with an air of solemn expectation. We felt awkward at that point, not knowing what was going to happen or whether we should be there. But we bowed our heads and tried to be as quiet and respectful as possible.

A high priest up on his dias chanting mantras to sanctify holy water
People waiting for the prayer service to begin

The ringing of a single bell and a voice on the loudspeaker led the worshipers in a series of prayers. With each prayer, people picked up a small cone of woven palm leaves filled with flowers, took a single blossom between their fingertips, passed it through the smoke from the incense, and then held it aloft with their palms pressed together as they said a prayer. After each one, they took the blossom and tucked it behind their ear or at the back of their head (in their head wrap or their hair).

When the prayers were over, holy water was sprinkled individually on the heads and into the hands of all of the worshipers in a communion-like ritual. It was a beautiful and fascinating thing to be able to watch.

Afterward, everyone stood up, retrieved their offerings (so the food would not go to waste) and filed out, so we followed them. People smiled shyly at us and some said hello, like parishioners greeting a newcomer after a church service.

The woman who runs our guesthouse in Ubud and her daughter

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