Anyone who has walked around Bali has seen those small palm leaf baskets, filled with rice, colorful flowers, food, cigarettes and incense, scattered in front of every entrance door one can cross, either of houses, temples or shops.
A selfless and dedicated act
The Canang Sari are given to the gods every morning by the Hindu Balinese as a form of thanking for balance and peace in our world that is renewed each day. The small offerings result of a very long hand-made process: women make the basket, assembly the donations in a meaningful placement and dip a jepun flower in holy water to sprinkle the canang in a symbolic fusion of the four elements. The ritual ends with a little prayer spoken as smoke from burning incense carries the essence of the offering to the gods.
An offering for balance and peace
While most religious customs are made with the intent of gaining God’s favour, Canang Sari are made as an act of everlasting gratitude. Made from coconut leaf, betel nut and lime, their base symbolizes three powers – creation, preservation and unity – embodied by three Hindu deities, respectively Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Each different colors of petal also bears significance, symbolizing a relation to a god and a direction. White petals to the east are for Iswara, the god of Nature. Red petals to the south are given for Brahma, symbolizing the power of creation. Mahadeva and the west are represented by yellow petals. And blue or green is the color for the northern direction and the protective god Vishnu.
It’s habitual to see a small amount of money on top of the gift, meant to express selflessness. Food items, such as candies, crackers and cookies, are also often placed beside flower petals so canang sari can as well serve the purpose of feeding stray dogs, monkeys and other animals. Thus, while bystanders more or less skillful try to avoid the cute baskets, ants, birds, dogs and cats nibble them throughout the day.
If you hit one, unfortunately, and try to make up for it by apologizing to a Balinese, they will tell you with a smile that it’s not a big deal. What matters with Canang sari is performing a quintessentially free act for others. Giving rather than receiving. To thank Gods, every morning, for their gift of life, of successes, of good moments… instead of descending into self-pity for what one miss.
However, since Bali’s tourism industry exploded, some of the ritual of creating offerings is sometimes getting a bit lost. Traditionally, Canang sari would be a generous act involving financial commitment and daily time dedication, as women personally hand-make them every morning. Now that Bali has globalized and that more women join the workforce on the island, the little offerings have been slowly turned to standardized articles that can easily be found and purchased from specialized vendors at the local markets. Thereby, the offerings are still part of the Balineses’ everyday life, but the story behind their preparation is slowly taking on a new meaning