Balinese Offerings: Giving to Gods and Distracting Demons in Bali

Canang sari offerings, incense and biscuits on a pavement in Ubud, Bali
Take a walk in Bali and you'll soon find yourself stepping around the colourful Balinese offerings laid out on nearly every street. These tiny handmade baskets, known as canang sari, are filled with flowers and topped with a stick of incense.  They are freshly prepared on a daily basis and carefully positioned around temples, homes and pavements all over the island. For the locals, they represent a sacrifice of time and energy to the gods that protect the Balinese people. For visitors, these daily offerings are both a photogenic curiosity and a source of bewilderment as everyone tries to negotiate them without causing offence.
Pigs head and pork rind decorations of Balinese Offering to demon in Pejeng, Bali

Pig's head offering to demons

Although not as common as canang sari, you may also come across offerings of pig meat and entrails as well. The Balinese make these more sinister offerings to appease the various Hindu demons in the hope that they will not bother the living.

Step 1: Colour Coding Your Balinese Offering

The basis of a canang sari is a palm leaf basket filled with a selection of flowers. The colours of the flowers represent various gods and even the orientation of the basket's corners is significant.

North: Blue flower petals and shredded betel leaves represent Vishnu, the protector to the north.
South: Betel nut and red flowers represent Brahma, the fiery creator to the south.
East: White flower petals symbolising Iswara occupy the Eastern corner.
West: Yellow flowers to the west are dedicated to Mahadeva.
In the centre, lime signifies the supremacy of Shiva, the destroyer of evil and transformer of the universe.
Canang sari Balinese offering on fence post in Bali

You'll see canang sari all over Bali

Step 2: Making a Sacrifice for your Canang Sari

The next step is to add a small sacrifice to the canang sari, often a portion of rice, crackers or sweets. The local monkeys are particularly fond of this tradition and you'll often see them rummaging through the offerings in search of a tasty snack. Like the rest of the components, food is biodegradable so it's easy to dispose of this kind of offering at the end of the day, safe in the knowledge that nature will eventually return to nature.

Some people add small amounts of money or old fashioned brass coins to their offerings instead of food. Although these traditional Chinese style coins, known as kepeng, have no monetary value they are still used for ceremonial purposes. We saw offerings with money on the dashboard of taxis but offerings left in the street tended to be topped with food.

Mother and baby monkey eating offerings at Ubud Monkey Forest, Bali

Monkeys enjoy eating the offerings

Step 3: Sending the Message to Heaven

To complete the offering, the maker adds a stick of incense. Once lit, the burning incense carries the divine spirit of the offering to heaven. This is a crucial part of the process and it's important not to disturb or walk over an offering at this time. Once the incense has finished burning, the canang sari is spent and this earthly object can be walked on, moved or disposed of at leisure.

Balinese offering to demon just outside temple building in Pejeng, Bali

The demonic offering in Pejeng

Dead Pigs and Demonic Offerings

A towering black pyramid painstakingly decorated with the head and skin of a dead pig was by far the most elaborate offering we saw in Bali. The fatty pork rind had been carefully sliced, arranged into artistic spirals and skewered, giving the appearance of decorative candles. The pyramid bristled with hundreds of these 'candles' interspersed with red pom poms. The pig's head was the centrepiece of the offering with red pom poms for eyes and a crudely carved piece of pig skin in the place of a tongue. Despite sitting out in the blazing sunshine, the smell was not as pungent as you might expect.

These unusual offerings are for the Hindu demons who may otherwise bring harm and misfortune to the good people of Bali. The Balinese hope the offerings will distract the demons and keep them away from human affairs, something like a celestial protection racket. These demonic offerings are often made from the remains of a hog roast and often feature at weddings and other large celebrations that traditionally involve feasting on roast pork.

While offerings to gods may be placed on or in temple buildings, demonic offerings are intentionally kept outside these holy places. We found our gruesome pork offering in Pura Penataran Sasih temple, Pejeng standing just a short distance from the main temple building.

Who Prepares Balinese Offerings?

Balinese women can spend an hour or more every day painstakingly preparing offerings to the gods while men are rarely involved in the process. The meat based offerings to the demons however are almost exclusively made by men, though these are reserved for special occasions.

Balinese culture has deep religious roots that influence the daily lives of the local people. It was surprising how often the Balinese people we spoke to referred to god. Even when commenting on a neutral topic like the unfavourable weather in our home country, we were advised to take it up with god. Despite having smart phones, Wifi and all the other trimmings of modern life, spiritual traditions including daily offerings are still alive and well in Bali.

Pork fat and pom pom detail of Balinese offering to demon in Pejeng, Bali

Pork rind and pom pom decorations

Top Tips for Negotiating Balinese Offerings Without Causing Offence

Canang sari are active while the incense is burning so be careful to walk around them during this time. Stepping over them will disrupt the process and is just as bad as trampling on them.
Don't contribute your own money or coins to a Balinese offering, they are not donation boxes.

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