The arching bamboos poles, ornately decorated, that transform the streets of the island are back. It’s the Galungan and Kuningan season again. penjor are as ubiquitous as Christmas trees in the West during the “festive season”, and probably their origins are just as mystifying to us now. We take another look.
text and photos ©Rio Helmi
A couple of Galungans ago I had this to say about penjors “Ask a Balinese what a penjor is and he or she will either shrug or confidently give you an authoritative answer that is completely different from the next authoritative answer you get. Ask ask an expat steeped in Balinese culture like Diana Darling, she will tell you that “explanations are ornamental anyway” – which is not that far off from the real life experience. After several decades living on the island I can quite authoritatively tell you that I am not quite sure.”
Riding around the greater Ubud area and surroundings this Galungan I was struck by how predominant the pre-fab, lontar-palm leaf ornaments for penjors are now. Obviously the many shops that carry these bleached ornaments (some are made from “busung Sulawesi” a palm of some kind from Sulawesi) do a brisk trade. In this era when many people even in villages are holding down ‘regular’ jobs, it’s no mystery that these pret-a-porter items are snapped up and put up in a few hours.
For some there is great pride in innovation and ‘flash’. One man in Payangan spent 6 months designing his dragon bedecked penjors, two weeks actually crafting them, and spent nearly Rp 2 million each for the two he put up. Another in Ubud put up what I am guessing is supposed to be a screaming eagle (but from certain angles looks like it’s been crossed with a duck). I could be totally wrong but it smacks of vanity.
Yet the penjor is clearly much more significant than that.
Though there is a very popular theory that the penjor represents the tail of the cosmic dragon, it used to be (and in some cases people still remember to do this) that you had to put all the ‘fruits of the earth’ on the penjor to decorate it: rice, coconuts, tubers etc. As the hybrid rice that was brought in with the Green Revolution can’t be harvested on its stalks, that custom is slowly disappearing. Some people still buy or grow small plots of the old rice which is harvested on its stalk just for ceremonial use. The ornamental decorations were made from fresh busung or coconut palm leaf.
I have always understood this to be a way of acknowledging and showing gratitude to nature for its bounty. The replacement of these with ready-made ornaments is some what lamentable, as the time and awareness involved in actually creating these is part of the awareness building side of ritual.
So it was with some joy that I discovered a couple of villages in the hills above Ubud where quite a few of the penjors were made in the old way. And they were even stitched with the traditional semat or fine bamboo‘pins’ rather than mechanical staples that have become the trend today. True, making these tiny fine bamboo pins is painstaking but in its own way it is part of a way of life. As I was watching one penjor that was still being made this way, a middle aged farmer said to me: “Yes, when the penjor are made the old way they shine!”.
It was also still heartening to see young boys clustering around the men decorating a penjor (albeit with modern ornaments and staples). They were watching closely and even lending a hand: the traditional transfer of technology
Clearly there’s a lot more to penjor than just decoration, and the more actual handiwork and fresh material that goes into them the more meaningful they are. Penjors have become a barometer of Balinese culture.