By Rucina Ballinger | Cover photograph by Suki Zoe
FOOD PLAYS an important role in any culture. We all have our comfort foods; those we crave when we are sick or far from home. The Balinese are no different and their main staple is, of course, lots of rice. So it’s not that surprising that their ancestral deities, gods and spirits of chaos take the shape of a rice-based meal.
Early in the morning, women cook the rice and take a scoop of it for these ethereal beings. A few grains are placed on small squares of banana leaf and sprinkled with salt. This is then sometimes mixed with whatever is being served for breakfast. The Balinese believe that energy is concentrated around certain parts of the family compound. These areas include stoves, the circuit breaker box, spigots, wells and all the shrine areas. In some families, offerings are also placed on vehicles and in doorways. It is only after the spirits and gods have eaten that we then partake of the gift of rice.
If the gods start to enjoy their soft drinks too much, won’t it mean that soon they will abandon Bali and head for the supermarkets of Singapore and Sydney?
At temple festivals and ceremonies (odalan), much larger offerings are made. Traditionally they are a combination of fruit, rice cakes and flowers. There is also a tiny mound of rice hidden away underneath the requisite saur (roast- ed coconut and turmeric), which is said to be a favorite of the gods. This gebogan can weigh up to 30 kilos, depending on how much fruit is placed on it. This has become a real source of pride for Balinese women for two reasons: firstly, if she can afford the expensive fruit (buah impor or imported fruit such as green grapes, Sunkist oranges and Fuji apples), then she is showing her neighbors that she is rich, and sec- ondly, if she can carry something that heavy, she is demonstrating her strength.
A generation or two ago, there were only two to three layers of fruit in a gebogan with lots of flowers to make up the height. Nowadays, the minimum tends to be four. The high cost of imported fruit can mean that one gebogan can cost a week’s salary. Nowadays offerings increasingly include soft drinks such as the Japanese sports drink Pocari Sweat, 7 Up and juice boxes along with all the exotic fruit. And if the fruit retains the sticker that says “grown in a developed country far from here”, then all the better! With bananas going for at least 1,000 Rp a piece, having two layers of bunch- es is a heavy burden. When my husband was growing up, the only time they had meat and fruit other than bananas and papayas was at temple time. It was a real treat.
We are meant to offer the gods that which we grow, and give thanks for what we have in our backyard. I often joke with the Balinese and ask them if their gods even WANT the foreign fruit, much less recognize it. I also question how the gods would open the cans of soda pop. If the gods start to enjoy their soft drinks too much, won’t it mean that soon they will abandon Bali and head for the supermarkets of Singapore and Sydney to look for all that “forbidden” fruit?
Stay local, I say. Keep our holy carbon footprint low.
Rucina Ballinger was abandoned in Bali at the age of two by her parents and has had to make her living as a barong dancer, village head and virgin priestess. She has two gorgeous grown sons and currently works as a cultural tour guide, a gedebong goyang comedian and a non-profit project manager. She is on the Hubud board and does not do yoga.