Every 210 days the Balinese religious holidays of Galungan and Kuningan recur, pegged to the ‘pawukon’ calendar. There has been a lot of conjecture which has made its way into mainstream literature on the subject presented as “fact” but some of it just doesn’t hold up to closer examination.  

by Rio Helmi

Like Christmas, the real origins of Galungan and Kuningan in Bali have become shrouded in a bright and colorful blanket woven of myth, selected strands of history, and recently, specifically in the Balinese case, a few threads of the now popular Indian-ization added to the so-called (since the 1950s) Hindu Bali religion. For the soundbite junkies, we could just say it is the time that the divine descends upon the island and blesses it and its people.

In what could be a religious parallel, Christmas was ostensibly a Roman pagan rite (Saturnalia) that marked the winter solstice and then became subsumed by Christianity around the 4th century in a calculated move to bring in pagans to the church. Similarly, in some instances Galungan has been politicized by weaving in sectarian myths surrounding defeat of the King Maya Denawa of Balingkang near Kintamani. It is touted as the “triumph of good over evil”. Even today, despite the fact that various Balinese experts have already debunked this subsumption of Galungan (one Balinese Pedanda high priest I know simply snorted: “Politics” when I brought up the subject of Maya Denawa), the myth has stuck in various tourist brochures and supposedly “informative” blogs. And like Christmas, there are aspects of Galungan which are becoming somewhat commercial.

Though it might not be possible to precisely pinpoint the actual origin,  there are a couple of obvious things which we can verify about Galungan, which differ from the solar season aspect of Christmas. It falls on the pawukon calendar, the ‘calendar of weeks’ consisting of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9,10 day weeks. Some of these weeks are more important in practical life than others. For example the 3, 5,7 day weeks regulate much of the ritual activity surrounding farming, markets, and yes magic. The 7 day weeks (wuku) are dominant in this calendar, there are 30 of them altogether, each with its own name.

Then there are combinations of these weeks, for example every 15 days there is Kajeng Kliwon (Kajeng from the 3 day week, Kliwon from the 5 day week), a day particularly auspicious for magic, many offerings are made to ward off black magic. Another example would be every 35 days there is a Tumpek’day dedicated to a particular field of acitivity, a combination of Kliwon (from the 5 day week) and Saniscara (Saturday, from the 7 day week).


The Balinese Pawukon calendar is similar to the Javanese pawukon. It goes back many centuries. Yet where the lunar-solar calendar of Bali is adjusted to match the solar movements and seasons with the injection of an intercalary lunar month every three or so years (as do e.g. the Chinese, Tibetan, and Jewish calendars), the pawukon is not adjusted to seasons. It simply runs it 210-day course and the starts again in an unbroken, unnumbered cycle. Only the lunar/solar calendar Içaka, of Indian origin, is actually numbered. Let’s not even begin with the astro-sidereal palelintangan calendar, which I freely admit I know nothing about except that it exists; healers consult it and priests, rarely dilettantes like myself.


image of modern printed Bali Pawukon and Içaka calendar from balebengong.net, image of traditional wooden Içaka calendar from http://anangilangpratama.blogspot.com/

Many suggest that the pawukon calendar’s 210-day cycle is linked to the life cycle of the original strains of Balinese rice. How that would then mesh with the seasons that simply don’t sync is not clear to me. But for sure the pawukon calendar is the backbone of the temporal organization of Balinese society; scheduling community activity, agricultural activity, markets, community and professional rituals (for example Tumpek Landep is dedicated to blacksmithing and all metal implements). The day of Kuningan falls on the Saturday (Saniscara) of the week Kuningan, and is also a Kajeng Kliwon day, Galungan day falls on the Wednesday (Buda) of the 7 day week Dunggulan

Galungan and Kuningan are very much a time for the community to realign it’s common social and religious values. Women are up early making offerings in household shrines and the three main temples of their villages, as well as other important shrines. Offerings are made at the graves of those who have yet to be ritually cremated. It is also a time for people who live in away from their ancestral homes to return to their villages of origin to pray to their ancestors. Socially it’s almost as important to be seen doing all this as it is to actually do it – a reaffirming of allegiance to community and tradition.


above: mother and daughter making their way to the village temples and shrines to make offerings on Galungan Day. Below: Barongs gathered in Puakan on Manis Galungan Day. (both ©Rio Helmi)


A striking feature of the Galungan season is the emergence of various deities, especially Barongs, from their temple abodes. From Manis Galungan these deities travel in procession to various temples. These processional journeys, Ngelawang, are thought to bless the areas they go through. The Barongs tend travel upstream in their journeys, as Thomas Reuter points out in his book Custodians of the Sacred, to pay homage to their ‘seniors’ (the mountains are more sacred). For example, on Manis Galungan day, Puakan in the mountains near Taro hosts a gathering of many Barongs from lower regions as far away as Payogan in Ubud.

Nowadays the decorations of the iconic ritual “penjor” poles, said to be symbolic of the cosmic dragon Besuki’s tail, tend mostly to be made of pre fabricated lontar leaf decorations purchased at stores and markets. Traditionally the decorations were to be made from fresh, young, yet to open palm leaves (busung) and various ‘bounties of the earth: coconuts, rice, and so forth. But of late a mania for fancified decoration has fueled a surge in the commerce of pre-fabricated ornaments mentioned above.

So one could say that Galungan has its roots in animistic traditions and ancestral worship, then over time, and especially of late, more ‘Indian Hindu’ layers have been added. There is much more to be said about this subject. However for most Balinese it is simply an important time of the year to reconnect with their spiritual core, ancestry, family, and community.


penjors made with pre-fabricated lontar decoration (©Rio Helmi)