The moon in Bali: a celebration of life and culture

Since ancient times, the Balinese have looked up to the sky for answers to philosophical questions. Thus, the moon is often featured in Balinese folklore.

The moon has a vital role in Balinese religious life, from being the foundation of the Balinese calendar to indicating the occurrence of important ceremonies. At the very core, the moon is essential for the Balinese in telling time. The Balinese calendar, or the Saka calendar, follows the lunar cycle, with 29-30 days per month. Each month begins with the day after a new moon, 15 days to the full moon, and 15 days to another new moon.

Have you noticed that the important phases are the full and new moon? On these days, the Balinese hold a special ceremony. On a full moon, the Balinese celebrate Purnama (which means “perfect”). It is believed that when the moon is brightest, the moon god Chandra gives his blessings through lunar light. The Balinese pray at their homes and sometimes visit temples. When other ceremonies coincide with a Purnama, that ceremony immediately gets more significant, which translates to more blessings.

On the new moon, the Balinese celebrate Tilem (a term that refers to the darkness of a moonless night). It is similar to the Purnama celebration, except on this day, the Balinese pray to Surya, the sun god, for the blessing of light to guide them in the darkest night.

Philosophically speaking, the cycle of the moon represents the cycle of light and dark inherent in humans. Sometimes, people are bright and joyful; at other times, they can be dark and malicious. These ceremonies remind us to remain vigilant of ourselves and our surroundings and not stray from our path just because we’re in the dark.

Other Balinese ceremonies that occur within the lunar cycle include Siwa Ratri, or the Night of Shiva, which is believed to be the darkest of all nights; Tawur Kesanga, the festive celebration of ogoh-ogoh before Nyepi and also the day the demons come out and party; and Eka Dasa Rudra, the legendary ceremony at Besakih temple that occurs every century.

The moon is often featured in Balinese folklore, specifically in the legend of Kala Rau, a demon. The story tries to explain the occurrence of a lunar eclipse. He disguised as a god to drink from the Fountain of Eternal Life. When Vishnu found out, he cut Kala Rau’s head off. Kala Rau’s body died, but his head lived on since he had already taken a sip of the Fountain. Since then, Kala Rau’s severed head has chased Ratih, the moon goddess, across the skies because Kala Rau was madly in love with her. Every once in a while, Kala Rau manages to eat Ratih, but since he has no body, Ratih can escape his clutches. And the chase continues.

From being the basis of timekeeping in Bali to being a subject of folklore, the moon indeed has an essential place in the hearts and minds of the Balinese!