Penjor: The Meaning Behind Bali’s Decorative Bamboo Poles
The Balinese have a knack for displaying their religious spirit in various visual ways. Their rituals are so beautiful, indeed, that one sometimes wonders whether they are not almost a purposeless waste of beauty? They are actually, as we shall see representations of religious symbols.
When Galungan day approaches, beauty comes to Bali in the shape of the penyor, ornate bamboo poles that decorate the outside entrances of all Balinese compounds, on their mountain facing (kaja) side. It is indeed highly impressive to drive through villages along a double row of swishing and swaying penyor that nod at us to stop.
The penyor is not only used at the time of Galungan and Kuningan though. It is also a feature of many other religious events, such as the “wedding” of rice, or big temple festivals. But these being isolated events, their penyors cannot compare in beauty with those of Galungan-Kuningan, where it is a matter of pride as to which village makes the most beautiful penyors. As for “tourist” or secular-decorative penyors, they do exist, but, being devoid of religious content, they are just a matter of “trade” and, thus, somehow, less beautiful.
The penyor is an altar of sorts. One should not think that the Balinese only have such altars or shrines in the temples. Gods say, being “emanations” of Embang, or the void, can “sit” anywhere, and, wherever they “sit”, people make shrines to address them through offerings. When such visits are regular, and if one has the money, one makes a permanent shrine, which has to be given contents (pedagingan) and “brought” to life (uripanga). But many of these shrines are short-lived. Simply built for the duration of a ceremony, they are made of bamboo or “magical” wood with a small “seat” on which to place offerings and request holy water. The penyor is actually such a shrine, with its “seat” at the lower part of the pole. The curved bamboo and its decorative elements are “additional” components, all of which have their symbolic functions.
The penyor usually consists of the following elements:
At arm’s height is set a small niche usually made of bamboo splints: it is the shrine itself, sanggah penyor, wrapped in a white and yellow cloth, sometimes standing on its own separate base. From the shrine hangs a decorative mat made of enau leaves known as the lamak, while above it, there is a coconut and decorative coconut leaves (lilitan). The same leaves are again used all along the trunk as decorative elements:; (gigi barong) barong teeth and gembolan alongside various types of paddy. At the upper part of the structure, where the bamboo bends down hang some other agricultural products: the tuber plants (pala bungkak), the fruit plants (pala gantung) and the vegetables (pala wija). A piece of cloth is also hung here, decorated with esoteric drawings. At the extremity of the bamboo hangs a sampian decoration with rice and cookies, and, in some circumstances, a bird. The sampian symbolises the cosmic wheel.
Some sophisticated Balinese see the penyor as a remaining element of an ancient fertility cult. It is said to represent the dragon “Anantaboga”, a symbol of earth and prosperity – Anantaboga meaning unending food, with its head making up of the “shrine” and the tail its extremity. The fertility aspect is emphasised by the food hanging all along the bamboo until its extremities, as well as by the decorative bird. According to the Adiparwa story, it was a bird which brought agricultural produces to earth from the abode of the gods. Some lamak have also a Cili, which is a symbolic representation of Sri, the goddess of rice.
The penyor is designed to be a “living thing”. It has its three-colored porosan, the symbol of the Trimurti gods, Brahma, Wisnu, Iswara, which is put at its extremity, inside the sampian. As a living being, it is also dressed in white and yellow. The “coming to life” ceremony of the penyor takes place on the morning of Galungan, after the completion of the ceremony in the family temple.
The shrine sanggah penyor is used as a platform for the presentation of food offerings. There are several interpretations as to which the offerings are addressed: some offer to the Hindu Gods in residence at Gunung Agung, while others to the deified ancestors of Tolangkir, the old name of Gunung Agung. This might well amount to the same thing, as the Hindu gods have “taken over” the ancestors’ abode and reside on the same mountain. This is a sign among many of the syncretist nature of Balinese religion.
Cosmic symbols are also represented in several parts of the penyor. The cloth hanging at the upper part of the bamboo pole has a drawing, either of the holy syllable, the symbol of the Ultimate God, or of Tintya, the Inconceivable, standing on one foot and encompassing the eight directions of the Rose of the Winds. The sampian decoration at the extremity of the pole shaped like a wheel has a similar cosmic meaning. Of no less a strong significance is the decorative mat lamak, that, unless it carries a Cili figure, contains all the elements of the world: the mountain, moon, sun and stars.
The penyor erected on the eve of Galungan, stays in place for five weeks until the Buda Kliwon of Pahang. Then it is pulled out, burned and its ashes are buried inside the compound in a final endeavour at producing fertility and prosperity.