beauty of ceremony

19 Feb Beauty of Ceremony

A common thread that links us all, regardless of ethnicity, culture or religion, is that the act of ceremony brings meaning to our lives. In fact, some say that ritual is what makes us human.

Ceremonies motivate and move us; they stimulate our emotions and mark significant events in our lives. Even the smallest personal ceremonial ritual, perhaps a communion with nature, spirits or god, can give us a sense of place in the grand scheme of things and remind us that we are not alone. Yet we are nothing if not communal creatures and while an elaborate ceremony woven with rich traditions and pageantry is a beautiful sight to behold, perhaps the true beauty of the experience lies in the participation, the togetherness, the shared reverence and communal consciousness.

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Dally Messenger, author of ‘Ceremonies and Celebrations’ writes, “In every ceremony the elements of integrated beauty, music, poetry, choreography and symbolism, purposely and skillfully integrated into the ceremony’s theme, emotionally embed, imprint and sink the totality of the event into the brain, into the memory, into the psyche and most importantly into the subconscious…”

Traditional ceremonies can evoke powerful spiritual teachings, ancient rites, or important historical occasions and give us the chance to re-live, re-enact, re-unite and respect those events or people that have shaped our destiny. Certain rituals also provide a rite of passage, a sense of before and after, giving people the feeling that their lives have been touched by the experience and therefore imbued with deeper meaning. Most cultures celebrate coming of age ceremonies that mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. Whether a solemn religious affair like a first communion, or a test of physical endurance such as the Ethiopian cow jumping ritual, there is an inherent notion of communal support, cultural identity and a strong sense of belonging.

While ceremonies are often joyous occasions – who doesn’t love a big birthday party or a wedding? Others, such as funerals make us sad as we deal with a deep sense of loss; yet a ceremonial farewell allows us to achieve closure, to share our grief, and according to some cultures send the departed off to the next life. Some of the most magnificent ceremonies in Bali are cremations, which are seen as a passage of the soul to a better world, typified by lavish decorations, singing and dancing. In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping.”

When it comes to the beauty of ceremony, the Balinese are masters, and the act of ceremony is so deeply imbued in every day life that it is in fact inseparable from it. From early morning offerings made to the ancestral spirits, to grander temple ceremonies and pilgrimages, myriad celebrations mark the life and death of a Balinese Hindu. The most important ceremonies unite people with the gods and are filled with vibrancy, vigour, pageantry and processions. Beauty manifests inwardly and outwardly in this expression of devotion. Elaborate rituals are performed and grandiose offerings are given in love and gratitude, or to seek strength and protection, but mostly in order to maintain balance and harmony.

The island is perhaps at its most beautiful at Galungan – a bi-annual festival that essentially represents the conquest of good over evil. At this time it is believed that the good spirits come down to the island and are welcomed with prayers, offerings and numerous ceremonies for cleansing and abundance. It is an auspicious time and marked by adornment, most notably the penjor – large and beautifully decorated bamboo poles that line the streets. On Kuningan the deities ascend once again to the heavens and the day is filled with blessings and feasts. Homes and temples are garlanded with elaborate decorations and special food is prepared in gratitude to the gods for the abundance they have received during the year.

The days leading up to a big ceremony are filled with anticipation. Women gather together to chat and make offerings, such as the golden gebongan – multi layered towers of fruit, sweet cakes and decorations.   Men might slaughter a pig and prepare it for the feast. As the day of the ceremony dawns everyone is scrubbed clean and immaculately attired and the streets are filled with long colourful processions, where women sheathed in white lace shirts and brightly hued sashes gracefully balance gebongan on their heads. The temples fill with the sound of prayers, singing, music and laughter. More than a place of ceremony, the temple is a meeting place of man and gods, and the social and spiritual heart of Bali.

– By Ali