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.
Quite a few of the “authoritative” versions claim that the penjor represents “upright Dharma”, “the mountain of the universe” as Galungan is supposedly the ‘victory of good over evil’ (another popular concept which at least one Brahmin high priest I know dismisses as “historical political disinformation” going back to a certain bitter war in Balinese history) which we won’t go into here. Another version has it that the penjor symbolizes the cosmic dragon’s (naga) Besuki’s tail – it certainly looks like it.
What really is clear is that the penjor is made from a whole piece of bamboo, including the curved top. It’s adorned with intricate palm leaf decorations and other materials. It can be used to decorate entrances for all kinds of festive occasions, and in Java the tradition of “janur” is quite similar.
What is pretty specific to Bali though is its use during the religious holiday season of Galungan. In the case of those put up during the Galungan season which lasts a whole Balinese pawukon month of 35 days (beginning a few days before the actual Galungan day), it is also traditionally adorned with the “fruits of the earth”: ideally produce from the nature around us including stalks of rice. At its base a temporary shrine is erected in which offerings are made at specific times during the Galungan season. These are said to be for the gods and their retinues during their time on earth between Galungan day (Buda Kliwon Dunggulan) and Kuningan day 10 days later. But then again people make offerings there right up to the last day of the 35 day period….
Top: Penjors used to decorate a temple entrance during a temple ceremony.
Above: Penjors set up for the Galungan season outside every household.
To my simple way of thinking, the fact that natural produce from the surroundings is used points to the penjor being yet another animistic tradition brought along through history into modern times and “sanctified” as a religious symbol. And hey, why not? Call it the cosmic mountain, the cosmic dragon’s tail, the symbol of dharma etc: nothing wrong with humans remembering their dependent relationship on nature. It would be even better if Balinese, after sanctimoniously pronouncing it a Hindu symbol wouldn’t throw used plastic bags and aqua containers out their car windows as they whizz by the penjors on their way to temple ceremonies. Rather better instead if the sight of the penjors would bring to mind the fact that we coexist with nature and should be mindful. Ok, now I’m getting sanctimonious.
Another rather wonderful aspect, which hasn’t quite yet hit the ‘sanctimonified’ official wiki, is the fact that after all the painstaking and wonderful work that goes into making the penjors, on the last day of the season, Buda Kliwon Pahang (the day I am writing this) the penjors are dismantled / destroyed / burned. Over. Not a touch of unnecessary sentimentality. The palm leaf and other decorations have long wilted and are simply disposed of. So far, thankfully no museum or movie director has bought penjors to bring back to the west as a display artifact. This simple acknowledgement of impermanence is refreshing.
text and photos ©Rio Helmi