Thu, 10 Mar 2005

Frantic week of work for Balinese women

I Wayan Juniartha, The Jakarta Post, Denpasar

For Wartini and millions of Balinese women across the island, this week is one of the busiest and confusing seven days of the year.

The week sees two major religious festivals taking place only a day apart. Galungan falls on March. 9 and the Hindu new year, Nyepi, falls on March 11.

For Balinese men this means waking up early on March 8 to slaughter pigs for the delicious traditional delicacy, lawar, and finding a good bamboo pole in the afternoon to be decorated and erected in front of the house.

After that, things get easier: One has to dress up in the morning, pray a bit then go back to an old ceki card game or a newer Playstation console.

It means making bamboo torches on the morning of March 10 and joining the noisy Pengerupukan (warding off of the devil) parade in the evening. The following day will be easy, too: After all, it is Nyepi, a day of silence.

The men wake up late, have a late breakfast or early lunch and then it's off to ceki or Playstation, or a refreshing meditation at the family shrine.

For Wartini and other housewives, life is not that simple. Religious holidays are a primary source of migraines, physical and mental fatigue and, most disturbingly, a huge budget deficit.

The recent fuel hikes are the last of a long history of shocks women, who manage the household finances, suffer.

"The price of busung (young coconut leaves) has doubled, to Rp 20,000 a bundle," Wartini said.

"Could you believe that they are now selling flowers at Rp 18,000 a bundle?" another housewife said.

"Even if you have the money, you will still not be able to buy kembang rampe (sliced pandanus leaves) because there is simply not enough of them," Asih said in an exasperated tone.

"It's the same with kerosene; it's still being subsidized by the government but it's nowhere to be seen," Nurati said.

At this time of year, traders regularly double, triple or quadruple the price of ceremonial commodities knowing that these Hindu women will still buy them because of pride. To make a respectable offering one needs at least a bunch of decent-looking flowers and fruit, preferably imported.

The women's battles of prestige are staged at the temple. The cost of their kebaya, the amount of gold in their rings and the height of their offerings will determine whether they become the talk of the village or the shame of it.

Meanwhile, local philosophers are locked in a bitter debate -- the importance of which has somehow escaped the acute minds of the Balinese masses -- about whether this Galungan is a Naramangsa (because it falls so close to Nyepi).

These elevated concepts are far from the concerns of the poor housewives and their daughters, who brave the scorching heat in the cramped, poorly ventilated markets to look for that elusive kembang rampe.

Then they will spend countless hours making a variety of offerings, arranging flowers, leaves and fruit in predetermined ways in various containers.

"Each offering is a distinctive mandala, a symbolic representation of cosmic order. The simplest of Balinese Hindu offerings carries the most profound meaning; the cycle of creation, sustenance and deconstruction," a woman poet Mas Ruscitadewi said.

It is no wonder that Balinese women are known for their patience and perseverance. They apparently have found the secret of mandala.

After countless hours creating the mandala, these women will have to spend more hours carrying the heavy offerings and presenting them to the gods in elaborate and intricate temple rituals.

Afterwards, they must take the offerings back to their respective homes and began the difficult task of dismantling the offerings and distributing the fruits and cakes to their noisy spouses and children.

When night finally arrives, the poor housewives will lie wide awake, engulfed by a restless fear and anxiety triggered by various strange phenomena that have occurred recently.

Sacred tapak dara (white cross) symbols have mysteriously materialized in thousands of shrines and houses across the island, three ulam agung (whales) have stranded on the island's beaches, a series of earthquakes have jolted the island and sacred Mount Agung has emitted a stream of sulfur smoke.

"Many mediums and paranormals have spoken about the imminent disaster that will wreck the island: Their statements have really driven me to the edge," Wartini said.

For centuries Galungan has been celebrated as the day when Lord Indra vanquished the demon king Mayadanawa, as a jubilant commemoration of the victory of Dharma (good) over Adharma (evil). For centuries, Nyepi has been observed as the day of abstinence, when the Balinese refrain from lighting fires, working, traveling or enjoying any sort of entertainment.

This week, if our mothers and sisters manage to survive this frantic week of demanding rituals and paralyzing omens of disaster, we, (lazy and irresponsible) Balinese men, will know perfectly well that the truly victorious will be none other than the Balinese women.