Canang Sali: Bali’s Ubiquitous Hindu Offerings (Indonesia)

The first time I went to Bali, way back in 2005, I was a much different traveler.  Having just visited a few countries at that time made me nervous about solo travel, and coupled with that, fearful of taking rides at airports, especially after a disorienting flight.  So visceral was my anxiety that instead of taking the hotel shuttle to Jimbaran, I walked for about 2+ hours at night, wheeling two suitcases in that exhausting tropical humidity.  This was also before mobile phones could show you where you were, so I was working off of rapidly disintegrating printed maps to get to the hotel.

What does that have to do with Balinese Hinduism?  Nothing…except that I probably accidentally tripped over more than a few of the ubiquitous canang sari along the way.

Before diving into what canang sari represents, it’s vital to point out that Bali is Indonesia’s last prominent Hindu bastion, a relic of centuries of Hindu and Buddhist rule throughout the Indonesian archipelago, roughly peaking between the 5th and 13th centuries AD.   However, there are some key differences between Balinese Hinduism and Hinduism followed by much of India— namely, Balinese Hinduism incorporates aspects of Buddhism, beliefs in animism, Malay ancestral worship, a lack of a caste system, and no child marriages.  Also, in keeping with the Indonesian government’s creation of Pancasila (five principles) – in which monotheism is a requirement to be a sanctioned religion – Balinese Hindus primarily worship Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, a deity unknown to most followers of Hinduism in India.  Although there are many minor gods representing water, fire, earth, fertility, rice, and so on, it was necessary for Balinese Hindu acolytes to accept that these lesser gods all form one primary deity, Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa.

What exactly is canang sari?  Loosely translated as essence (sari) in a palm frond tray (canang, pronounced cha-nang), canang sari are offerings to local gods left daily by Balinese women, typically in the early morning or around dusk.  Depending on the ritual and importance of that day, they may either small or grandiose, and will be filled with flowers, herbs, food, money, and incense.

Canang sari are strategically placed by entrances to family compounds, altars, temples, in addition to restaurants, hotels, and other structures.  Chiefly, canang sari show to the deities the time spent by each family in making them, to keep the good and bad balanced, and as a thanks for keeping the family harmonious.

Preparing Canang Sari, Bali, Indonesia

In addition to the incense, the basic ingredients of the canang sari are called the peporosan; they symbolize the Trimurti, or the three dominant Hindu gods:

  • Shiva, the destroyer, represented by white lime
  • Vishnu, the preserver, represented by a red betel nut
  • Brahma, the creator, represented by a green gambier leaf

On top of the canang sari are flowers dedicated to sincerity and love, placed in specific cardinal directions:

  • White petals for Ishvara, supreme lord/personal god, pointing East
  • Red petals for Brahma, pointing South
  • Yellow petals for Shiva, pointing West
  • Blue/Green petals for Vishnu, pointing North

Once that incense fizzles out, however, you might notice some local fauna nibbling away at canang sari.  According to tradition, as long as there’s no more incense to be burned, it’s totally ok to do so…not that the animals know anyway!

Some People Like Banh Mi, Some Like…Thuoc Lao

Within the Solanaceae family of plants are some of my favorite foods; tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes are the three that come to mind.

However, there’s one particularly nasty member of the family that not only counts as addicts hundreds of millions of people, but also doubles as an effective pesticide

Tobacco. 

Yet, there’s the tobacco which you might encounter in your local shop, and then there’s thuoc lao.

Thuoc Lao (thuốc lào), Nicotiana rustica or more commonly, Aztec tobacco, is said to have nearly nine times as much nicotine as the significantly more widespread Nicotiana tabacum.  Even though both species originate in Latin America, for decades, thuoc lao has been the go-to post-meal hobby for many Vietnamese.

Smoking Thuoc Lao, French Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam.jpg
Smoking Thuoc Lao in the French Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam

What sets thuoc lao – “drug from Laos” – smokers from others is that is is chiefly smoked using a water pipe.  Often, these are bamboo pipes (điếu cày), but you may see ceramic, plastic or metal pipes, too. 

In Vietnam, many believe thuoc lao to aid in digestion, and smoke it along with having green tea or a beer. 

For first timers, the excessive quantities of nicotine may cause them to faint for a spell. In short, the pipe is filled with some water and a small amount of thuoc lao. Then the thuoc lao is ignited, whereby the smoker blows the ash out, then takes a toke, at which point a feeling of being phe, or “high,” sets in.