Bali’s Ritual Economy

I Made Arsana

I Made Arsana (CRCS’ Student Batch 2011)



“As Balinese, we have many responsibilities. We have traditions. We have to hold rituals. We have to make offerings. But it’s only if we have money that these responsibilities become easy to bear.” – A 50-year-old Balinese man from the village of Tampaksiring


Few visitors to Bali fail to witness the colorful religious rituals for which the island is famous. Cremation ceremonies and temple anniversaries have become tourist attractions and postcard images. Tickets are sold to the “last ceremony of its kind” and the “biggest ritual of the decade.” Even those tourists who come not for the culture but for the sun, sea and surf encounter ritual in the form of daily offerings to the gods and demons placed on the ground in front of art shops and cafés. Very few visitors, however, understand the economy behind ritual in Bali and the huge investments of money, time and intensive labor needed to fuel it.


In South Bali, the cost of the simplest cremation ceremony is currently around Rp.10,000,000 (US$1,000). Few people, however, hold such budget ceremonies. Caste standing, a desire for social prestige or a fear of being censured by the community for holding “incomplete” rituals often pressures people to hold the most lavish ceremonies they can possibly afford. Most people hold “middle” (madia) level cremation ceremonies, the cost of which averages between Rp. 50,000,000 (US$5,000) and Rp60,000,000 (US$6,000). A cremation ceremony for royalty or for the island’s cultural and economic elite can cost, of course, much more—hundreds of millions or even billions of rupiah.


Cremation ceremonies are not, however, the only ritual obligations for Balinese. Gung Mayun, a forty-five year old housewife and mother of three from Denpasar, whose husband works as a tour guide, details her ritual outlays. “Everyday I make offerings to place around the house and yard. That’s Rp10,000 (US$1) a day. If it’s purnama (full moon), tilem (new moon) or kajeng kliwon (a calendrical conjunction that occurs every fifteen days) the offerings are more complex, costing around Rp30,000 (US$3) a day.” That means that in a month with no special ritual obligations, Gung Mayun spends around Rp380,000 (US$38) on offerings. But there is rarely a month without a ritual. Every seven months there’s Galungan and Kuningan—and another Rp800,000 (US$80) to spend. Every year there’s Nyepi—another Rp400,000 (US$40)—and the anniversary of the main family temple—another Rp1,000,000 (US$100). And each month there are assorted village, banjar (hamlet) and lifecycle rituals—weddings, tooth filings and baby ceremonies—for the extended family, requiring contributions of around Rp100,000 (US$10) per ritual. Gung Mayun’s husband makes maybe Rp1,000,000 (US$100) a month during peak tourist season. But if tourism is slow, his income can drop to almost nothing. But whether or not she has the money, the ritual calendar must keep rolling. Since the drop in tourism post-September 11th, Balinese like Gung Mayun have been visiting local moneylenders—or putting land up for sale—in increasing numbers.


Much of the expense of holding a ceremony is the cost of the necessary ritual offerings (banten). Out of the total cost of a simple Rp10,000,000 cremation ceremony, for example, the offerings account for Rp6,000,000 (US$600). The rest of the cost includes the gift (sesari) one customarily offers to the officiating priest (around Rp200,000 or US$20), the rental fee for the gamelan orchestra (Rp500,000 or US$50), the cremation tower (Rp1,500,000 or US$150) and food for those who participate in the ceremony (Rp1,800,000 or US$180). For a mid-level cremation ceremony, the offerings alone can cost around Rp20,000,000 (US$2,000).


Put simply, these offerings are the material forms Balinese create to communicate their devotion to the protective gods and the potentially disruptive forces of nature. There are hundreds of different kinds of ritual offerings in Bali, from the simple canang placed in a household’s shrines each day to the incredibly elaborate creations, with hundreds of ingredients taking days or weeks to produce, that are prepared for major rituals. Most offerings have traditionally been made by women, with men contributing their labor to ceremonies by making ritual food in the banjar or constructing cremation towers. The anthropologist Graeme MacRae found in a 1996 study in Ubud that the average woman spent 1,800 hours a year, or 40% of her available time, on ritual matters compared to 575 hours, or 10% of their time, for men. The average household devoted 35% of its income to ritual expenses.


Usually the materials for offerings are taken from cultivated goods such as rice, coconuts, palm fronts, fruits and flowers. Not so long ago, these materials were harvested from one’s own fields or house yard and turned into offerings using collective labor in which virtually all of the able bodied women of a community would participate. When family rituals were held, community-level social institutions would all come to the assistance of the family in need. Depending on the ritual, offering production would be based at the banjar meeting hall, the family temple or, for more elaborate rituals, the home of a priest (griya).


In most areas of contemporary Bali, however, things have changed. The shift from agriculture to wage labor and a cash-based economy have infused time with the value of money and made the materials for creating offerings into commodities. These days, Bali is far from self-sufficient in ritual supplies, with most of the palm fronds, coconuts, bananas and sugarcane imported from neighboring Java. The expansion of educational and employment opportunities for Balinese women has also made matters different. Since it is virtually impossible to hold a full-time job and make all of the offerings needed for even the simplest of rituals, more and more working Balinese women prefer—or are forced by circumstances—to buy their offerings rather than craft them themselves. All of these factors mean that the making of more complex ritual offerings has now become a rare skill indeed. The production of elaborate offerings has become increasingly based in the homes of Brahmana high priests, while simple daily offerings are sold in Bali’s markets by professional offering-makers, many of whom are not even Balinese but rather Javanese Muslim migrants seeking economic opportunity. In fact, the offering business has, without a doubt, now become Bali’s largest domestic “industry,” with the money that changes hands second only to that of the tourism sector.


One afternoon I paid a visit to the griya (priestly residence) of Ida Pedanda Putra Telaga. This man is the most renowned Brahmana priest in Tampaksiring, the village in which I grew up. For most Balinese, pedanda are key advisors to families on all things ritual and religious. Indeed, the relationships between a pedanda and his ritual clientele are often referred to as a relation between a teacher (siwa) and his students (sisya). While some families will use different priests for different rituals, in many parts of Bali a family will always rely on their ties with one particular priest. “All of our family rituals are carried out by Ida Pedanda. We never seek out help from other priests in the region,” said I Made Weda, a Tampaksiring resident who was visiting the griya to ask for the priest’s help with a wedding. The relations between a pedanda and his clientele are often described as being similar to the relations between a father and his child. In theory at least, the calculations surrounding rituals are rarely supposed to involve issues of profit and loss.


When I asked Ida Pedanda how his offering “business” was going he rejected the term “business” for what he and his family do in the griya. “I don’t do business, I just help people. It’s the responsibility of a priest to help his people,” he said. “For instance, the Weda family has been my sisya for a long time. I never charge them a large fee for my ritual services. If I wanted to get rich all I would have to do is request a larger money offering (sesari) after I officiated at their rituals. I could ask for any amount and they would pay it,” he said.


But despite Ida Pedanda’s description of what he does, many of the inhabitants of Tampaksiring now call what he does a bisnis banten, with people coming to him from all over Bali to purchase complete sets of offerings for rituals. Ever since people began to order offerings from him around five years ago, his lifestyle has changed. Not only has he renovated his home, but he was also able to buy a car and even a mobile phone.


Ida Pedanda was not always so prosperous. Before his offering business “took off,” he was affectionately known as “Pedanda CB,” after a brand of old, inexpensive motorbike. With his assistant riding sidesaddle, he would make his ritual rounds around the village, risking the ire of the state Hindu authorities who winced at the image of a high priest driving himself in such a populist fashion. I remember as a boy how when he and other high priests passed down the road we would all crouch to the ground in reverence. Back then, Brahmana priests weren’t any richer than the rest of us, but their knowledge and spiritual discipline inspired humility in us all.


Even though people identify Ida Pedanda with the knowledge necessary to make complicated ritual offerings, his wife Ida Ayu Suci runs the business side of production. She explains that after she hired ten full-time offering makers the orders really began to pick up. “We don’t set the prices too high. As long as we can pay our workers and buy the materials we’re happy,” she explains. According to Ida Ayu, the griya can handle up to ten orders for complete sets of offerings per month, with a minimum order of Rp5,000,000 (US$500). They have, however, sometimes asked as much as Rp75,000,000 (US$7,500) for the offerings for a cremation ceremony. But even at these prices, their limited staff means that they are often forced to turn away requests for offerings. “I feel guilty for not being able to take their orders. I feel as if we’re neglecting the role of apedanda and his obligation to help his sisya. But what more can we do? Our energies are limited,” Ida Ayu said.


According to one of Ida Ayu’s workers, Nyoman, every time an order is contracted from the griya, the client must pay a 50% deposit first, plus an extra amount of money as a sign that they wish Ida Pedanda to officiate their ritual. Ida Ayu then uses the deposit to purchase all of the materials needed to complete the order. The cost of the offerings depends largely on the size or type of ritual requested. According to Nyoman, they need only fix the cost of the offerings at 50% higher than the amount they believe they will expend for raw materials. “We very rarely lose money because those who order the offerings often pay much more than the actual cost of production,” she confided.


At Ida Pedanda Putra Telaga’s home, Nyoman is in charge of the staff of offering producers. She has worked in the griya for over five years. As the head offering maker, Nyoman receives a wage higher than the other workers. “I’m paid Rp30,000 (US$3) per day, including one meal. The other workers make Rp20,000 per day including a meal,” she explained. With this money, Nyoman, her farmer husband and their child are able to live reasonably well.


In Denpasar, fifty-year-old Ibu Parti is also able to live well from her work making offerings. This Muslim woman originally from Banyuwangi, East Java, never imagined that she would one day become an offering seller in Bali. But while working as a housemaid for a Balinese family, she learned to make ritual offerings. “Back in the 1980s, a friend of mine found me a job as a maid in Bali. I felt sorry to see my boss always having to make offerings each day. Sometimes for holidays, she would work until early in the morning. All her children were boys, so I and the other maid helped her,” she explained. “My boss would try to make most of the offerings herself, but since she worked as a schoolteacher, if we weren’t there to help her she’d have to buy them.”


Bu Parti worked as a maid for almost ten years before leaving her job to get married. With her husband, a meatball vendor, she rented a small house in Denpasar. She tried to find part-time work as a laundress, as a cook and carrying goods in the market, but she couldn’t make enough money. Finally, she decided to try selling offerings. In 1993, she started selling canang, small daily offerings, at the Ketapian Market in Denpasar. At first she had few customers, but now her business is thriving. “Back then there were only three women selling offerings in the market. The competition wasn’t too tough. Now there are fifteen people. But still, each day I can make around Rp150,000 (US$15) selling offerings from three to six in the afternoon.”


Besides selling offerings in the market, Bu Parti also takes orders for delivery. She and her husband have been successful enough to be able to send all three of their children to school. But being a non-Balinese offering seller is sometimes difficult. “Some people say that my offerings aren’t holy and that they can’t be used in rituals,” she says. But other customers don’t seem to care that Bu Parti, with her friendly manner and her fluent Balinese isn’t a Hindu herself. “The important thing is that the offerings are complete. I don’t know all about Balinese rituals myself, but I can make offerings. What’s wrong with that?” she asks.


It would, of course, be mistaken to reduce Balinese ritual purely to financial calculations. Gung Mayun explains that even though she’d like to have a career like her brothers and sisters-in-law, she doesn’t regret spending virtually all of her time making offerings. “The feeling is different when you pray with offerings you’ve made yourself. If you buy an offering, you’re never sure if it’s complete and if people have treated it in a holy way instead of placing it on the ground by their feet.” She also says that no matter how hard it is to devote so much of her family’s income to ritual, she tries not to feel resentment. “This is just the way we do things. God will reward us in the end.” She and the other women in her family, who sometimes labor twelve to fourteen hours a day twisting and weaving palm fronds into offerings, have even picked up their pace recently. Gung Mayun’s husband, after all, hasn’t seen much work lately. She and the other women believe that if they continue to hold rituals and to give the gods and demons their due, they’ll be rewarded with rezeki—luck—in the form of more tourists—who in turn will delight in their devotion.


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