Balinese Festival Finds Home in Germany
Devotees from far and near gathered in Hamburg for a richly colorful annual celebration honoring God, ancestors and righteousness
BY NIRAJ THAKER, HAMBURG
EVERY YEAR BALINESE HINDUS OBSERVE the ten-day Galungan festival celebrating the victory of dharma over adharma. Considered a special time when ancestral spirits visit the Earth, the date is calculated according to the pawukon, Bali’s 210-day religious calendar. The final day in particular, called Kuningan, has a deep spiritual significance to Balinese Hindus, for whom staying connected to ancestors is a core practice. Those of German ancestry who attend each year have also felt its importance.
Each year, the Balinese Hindu community in Germany and Belgium selects one temple from a handful of temples in the region at which to celebrate this festival. In 2014, it took place in Hamburg. In front of the Museum für Völkerkunde (Museum of Ethnology) stands a traditional Balinese temple—a padmasana, consisting of a towering lotus throne atop which rests the Supreme God Acintya (“unthinkable, inconceivable”)—carved from volcanic stone, shipped from Bali for construction and installed on the Kuningan day in 2010. I attended the festival on May 31, Kuningan day of 2014—the temple’s anniversary.
The shrine was royally decorated with fruits, flowers and sweet offerings. From early morning, volunteers dotted the museum gardens, configuring decorations and setting up musical instruments and other ceremonial paraphernalia. The number of attendees grew to approximately 150 over the course of the day—most of them Balinese Germans with their families, German friends and relatives. Luh Gede Juli Wirahmini Bisterfeld—Juli for short—works at the museum and served as head priestess for the day. She spoke of the import of the non-Hindus in attendance: “As a tradition in Bali, Indonesian Muslims are always invited to attend; they take part in the prayers and give moral support.”
Fantastic festivities: Offerings are placed on tables in front of the padmasana installed outside the museum on May 22, 2010
Traveling from London in my Indian kurta pyjama, I felt underdressed among the majority of attendees who were attired in their finest Balinese outfits, many incorporating the color yellow. The Indonesian word kuning, from which the festival derives its name, means “yellow.” Thus, on this day the Balinese decorate everything in yellow: yellow rice is offered, yellow flags are flown, yellow dresses are worn and yellow fabrics adorn the temple.
Ketut Suda Negara, who had traveled from Helsinki, quipped, “A wise man said that beauty cannot be seen by the eyes or heard by the ears; it can only be felt. But in Balinese art, beauty can also be seen and heard!” Negara is a maestro of gamelan, the traditional ensemble music of Bali. He travels around the world to coach performers before such ceremonies, ensuring that they remain in sync and hit the right notes. And so they did, in this city rich with its own musical history. Their artistry, the precise, trance-like rhythm with which the devotee-performers struck their various percussion instruments with small mallets, was very calming, and the divine sounds reminded me of those made by the artisans carving a new Siva temple from white granite, using only hammer and chisel, at the remote monastery in Hawaii where this magazine is produced.
It is thanks to the museum’s director, Dr. Wulf Koepke, that the temple was installed outside and a traditional Balinese house was built inside the museum, with the guidance of priests, to demonstrate how the traditional architecture of Bali assures harmony with nature. But Dr. Koepke, who takes part in most temple events, defers all compliments to Juli for initiating the cross-cultural ties that now hold strong between the German and Balinese communities.
Luh Gede Juli Wirahmini Bisterfeld, chief priestess for the festival, begins with the sankalpa, assisted by her daughter Kim
Juli performed the puja with the assistance of her daughter Kim, a graduate student of international relations. This was my first experience of a Balinese-style puja, and I did not know what to expect. But just as we feel in other Hindu temples, there was a strong sense of devatas and spirits present in this open-air temple.
People of all ages and origins join for the peace prayer and meditation
The weather responded magically as the ceremony progressed. Luh Putu Prapita, who teaches neural networking and served as coordinator for the event, provided explanation of what was happening: “Every year during the ceremony there are blustery winds and even showers, which stop when the puja finishes.” True to form, strong gusts of wind greeted us from the outset when sacrifices were being made to appease the demons. Then the wind calmed. Again, at certain moments during the puja when dances or songs were offered, the Gods and ancestors made their presence felt in the form of a song and dance of the clouds, wind and sun. Toward the end of the puja, when final supplications and offerings were presented, the atmosphere was still, silent, Surya shining, giving all the strong feeling that the Gods and ancestors had accepted our humble gestures.
The Balinese tradition of dancing while presenting offerings during the puja
Despite some of the obvious differences between Indian and Balinese pujas, such as the sacrifice of a bird to please the asuric forces and the various eloquent dances that are offered, one gets the same tranquil feeling as from any Hindu temple ceremony. The offerings of flowers, water, rice, fruits, incense, mudras, fire and the sounds of bells and mantras were made in much the same way as in Indian pujas. A profound feeling of connectedness with the inner worlds and an atmosphere of bliss, contentment and peace pervaded.
Adding color to Deutschland: A small fire is offered to the Gods and nature spirits at the entrance
Following the puja, everyone was served a scrumptious lunch. Balinese cuisine is not vegetarian—a variety of meat dishes appeared—but among the vegetarian options were a delicious green bean salad called jukut urab, which has a rich coconut flavor combined with shallots and yellow sauce; steamed rice; and a fried noodle dish called mie goreng that I found familiar from my visits to Malaysia, served with the customary hot chili sauce called sambal.
Aryeni Willems, married and settled in Germany, blissfully plays the gamelan
Later in the afternoon, everyone playfully contributed to the task of tidying up. Laughter and friendly banter prevailed as the volunteers from across Germany, Belgium and elsewhere effortlessly cleaned up the temple area.
Luh Gede Juli Wirahmini Bisterfeld stands with Dr. Jeanette Kokott, a museum official, and Dr. Wulf Koepke
The day ended with a meeting of the heads of the regional groups known as banjars (see sidebar at right). They met to discuss a common topic of concern for Balinese at home as well as throughout the diaspora: the rapid encroachment on village land to develop Bali’s growing tourist industry, such as with a Formula One race track. Luh Putu Prapita explained, “The meeting was concerned with the reclamation of Benoa gulf. We shared our thoughts on the government’s plan and proposed potential actions to take, such as a petition and cultivating solidarity through music” (seebit.ly/bali-tolak-reklamas).
Locals admire the joged dance performance by Made Suardani Tanzius of Hannover during the puja
According to “A Religion Without Borders” (HINDUISM TODAY, Jan/Feb/Mar, 2014), 700 Balinese families are among the estimated 100,000 Hindus residing in Germany. At present, the German government has only given official recognition to one temple—the Sri Lankan community’s Sri Kamadchi Ampal Temple in Hamm—as a Hindu religious organization; so another challenge is to ensure equal recognition of the religion, its temples and priests throughout Germany. This is true in other parts of Western Europe as well.
On this extraordinary day, I observed the Balinese to be among the most united, cohesive, fun-loving and close-knit of Hindus. They are also one of the most artistically expressive communities I have encountered, and I felt very much at home among them. Even their many interracial marriages appear to be well integrated, with spouses working in harmony to support each other’s religious and cultural events. It was certainly a day I shall never forget.
Germany’s Bali-Style Communities
In Bali the community within each district forms a guiding council, called banjar. Balinese Europeans have adapted this social model. The banjars help each other organize festivals and provide a support network for members throughout the region. During annual meetings of all banjar leaders, issues affecting Balinese both in Indonesia and Europe are discussed.
The founders of Nyama Braya Bali (the association of banjars in Germany) envision ten banjars within the country, divided along roughly the same lines as the republic’s states. Seven (labeled in blue on map) are active today: Berlin, with members from Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt; Hamburg, with members from Bremen, Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein; Hannover, with members from Lower Saxony and Thuringia; North Rhine-Westphalia, with members from Rhineland-Palatinate and Lower Saxony; Hesse, with members from Rhineland-Palatinate; Baden Württemberg; and Bavaria. Borders are permeable, with members joining whichever group is closest to them. Young Balinese students are special members; they join all the banjars, for they like to travel and meet the others. All the banjars in Germany gather for an annual pilgrimage to the temple near Brussels in neighboring Belgium, and the Brussels and Antwerp groups regularly participate in events held in Germany.
This mutual support is substantial. In the days and weeks leading up to Kuningan, for instance, members from banjars across the nation organized the timing of pujas, the dance sequences, the musicians, costumes, decorations, offerings, food, gifts, public relations and many more details.