by Diana Darling

It’s amazing what you can learn at the Amandari. In one of their in-house publications, we read this (excerpt) about penjor, the festive ornamental bamboo poles that line the streets of Bali during the Galungan season:

The arched top of the bamboo pole represents Mount Agung, Bali’s highest mountain, considered the abode of the gods. The body of the pole is a river that flows from the mountains to the sea, and along its route, tied to the poles, are the products of the harvest.

Each part and ornament of the penjor has a deep religious meaning. For instance, the strong bamboo pole is a symbol of the strength of devotion. The four essential palm-leaf ornaments of the penjor—tamyang, bakang-bakang, sampyan and the long apron-like lamak—are symbols of the Catur Weda, the four pillars of Hindu holy scripture. The ubag-abig—a square ornament made of palm and coconut leaves — represents the power of virtue.

Actually, this was written mostly by the Internet. An unedited version exists on the website, which itself grazes widely and often doesn’t bother to chew.

Penjor are men’s work. If you ask the nearest Balinese male about the symbolism of penjor, he will probably say, “I haven’t got a clue. Ask the women.” The women will tell you to ask a priest. This is not to say that the men and women of Bali don’t know about penjor. They know very well when and how to make them, how to decorate them, how to make them stand up properly, and why they are important. But they hesitate to explain the symbolism, because the idea that there are correct answers to questions about “religion” in Bali is relatively new.

In the olden days (say, before the Café Lotus), such things were explained in performances of shadow-puppet theatre and masked dance. The performers were wise men with a genius for improvisation. Their elucidations might be based on their study of holy books or simply made up. In either case, it was fine. Explanation seemed to be ornamental anyway.

But there is a propulsion that religions seem to follow, from messiness and bliss toward neatness and rationality—you know: orthopraxy to orthodoxy. Bali is going through this. It generates a lot of explaining, among other things.

Having thousands of visitors a day also puts pressure on a society to explain itself. The Amandari document is an interesting example of tourist literature for being typical in tone, if better than most in its detail: it is reverential to the point of piousness. And this raises the question whether the spirituality being touted to tourists isn’t our own bedazzlement.