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Through The Eyes of Researcher: Balinese Time  

by on Saturday, 6 October 2007One Comment | 1,987 views

Here is an interesting article on Balinese time by Clifford Geertz.

Balinese calendrical notions–their cultural machinery for demarcating temporal units–reflect this clearly; for they are largely used not to measure the elapse of time, nor yet to accent the uniqueness and irrecoverability of the passing moment, but to mark and classify the qualitative modalities in terms of which time manifests itself in human experience. The Balinese calendar (or, rather, calendars; as we shall see there are two of them) cuts time up into bounded units not in order to count and total them but to describe and characterize them, to formulate their differential social, intellectual, and religious significance.

The two calendars which the Balinese employ are a lunar-solar one and one built around the interaction of independent cycles of daynames, which I shall call “permutational.” The permutational calendar is by far the most important. It consists of ten different cycles of daynames. These cycles are of varying lengths. The longest contains ten day-names, following one another in a fixed order, after which the first day-name reappears and the cycle starts over. Similarly, there are nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and even–the ultimate of a “contemporized” view of time–one day-name cycles. The names in each cycle are also different, and the cycles run concurrently.

That is to say, any given day has, at least in theory, ten different names simultaneously applied to it, one from each of the ten cycles. Of the ten cycles only those containing five, six, and seven day-names are of major cultural significance, however, although the three-name cycle is used to define the market week and plays a role in fixing certain minor rituals, such as the personal-naming ceremony referred to earlier.

Now, the interaction of these three main cycles–the five, the six, and the seven–means that a given trinomially designated day (that is, one with a particular combination of names from all three cycles) will appear once in every two hundred and ten days, the simple product of five, six, and seven. Similar interactions between the five- and seven name cycles produce binomially designated days which turn up every thirty-five days, between the six- and seven-name cycles binomially designated days which occur every forty-two days, and between the five and six-name cycles binomially designated days appearing at thirty-day intervals. The conjunctions that each of these four periodicities, supercycles as it were, define (but not the periodicities themselves) are considered not only to be socially significant but to reflect, in one fashion or another, the very structure of reality.

The outcome of all this wheels-within-wheels computation is a view of time as consisting of ordered sets of thirty, thirty-five, forty-two, or two hundred and ten quantum units (“days”), each of which units has a particular qualitative significance of some sort indexed by its trinomial or binomial name: rather like our notion of the unluckiness of Friday-the-Thirteenth. To identify a day in the forty-two-day set–and thus assess its practical and/or religious significance–one needs to determine its place, that is, its name, in the six-name cycle (say, Ariang) and in the seven- (say, Boda): the day is Boda-Ariang, and one shapes one’s actions accordingly. To identify a day in the thirty-five-day set, one needs its place and name in the five-name cycle (for example, Klion) and in the seven-: for example, Boda-Klion–this is rainan, the day on which one must set out small offerings at various points to “feed” the gods. For the two hundred and ten-day set, unique determination demands names from all three weeks: for example, Boda-Ariang-Klion, which, it so happens, is the day on which the most important Balinese holiday, Galungan, is celebrated.

Details aside, the nature of time-reckoning this sort of calendar facilitates is clearly not durational but punctual. That is, it is not used (and could only with much awkwardness and the addition of some ancillary devices be used) to measure the rate at which time passes, the amount which has passed since the occurrence of some event, or the amount which remains within which to complete some project: it is adapted to and used for distinguishing and classifying discrete, self-subsistent particles of time–“days.” The cycles and supercycles are endless, unanchored, uncountable, and, as their internal order has no significance, without climax. They do not accumulate, they do not build, and they are not consumed. They don’t tell you what time it is; they tell you what kind of time it is.

The uses of the permutational calendar extend to virtually all aspects of Balinese life. In the first instance, it determines (with one exception) all the holidays–that is, general community celebrations–of which Goris lists some thirty-two in all, or on the average about one day out of every seven.These do not appear, however, in any discernible overall rhythm. If we begin, arbitrarily, with Radité-Tungleh-Paing as “one,” holidays appear on days numbering: 1, 2, 3, 4, 14, 15, 24, 49, 51, 68, 69, 71, 72, 73, 74, 77, 78, 79, 81, 83, 84, 85, 109, 119, 125, 154, 183, 189, 193, 196, 205, 210. The result of this sort of spasmodic occurrence of festivals, large and small, is a perception of time –that is, of days–as falling broadly into two very general varieties, “full” and “empty”: days on which something of importance goes on and others on which nothing, or at least nothing much, goes on, the former often being called “times” or “junctures” and the latter “holes.” All of the other applications of the calendar merely reinforce and refine this general perception.

Of these other applications, the most important is the determination of temple celebrations. No one knows how many temples there are on Bali, though Swellengrebel has estimated that there are more than 20,000. Each of these temples–family temples, descent-group temples, agricultural temples, death temples, settlement temples, associational temples, “caste” temples, state temples, and so on–has its own day of celebration, called odalan, a term which though commonly, and misleadingly, translated as “birthday” or, worse yet, “anniversary,” literally means “coming out,” “emergence,” “appearance”–that is, not the day on which the temple was built but the day on which it is (and since it has been in existence always has been) “activated,” on which the gods come down from the heavens to inhabit it. In between odalans it is quiescent, uninhabited, empty; and, aside from a few offerings prepared by its priest on certain days, nothing happens there.

For the great majority of the temples, the odalan is determined according to the permutational calendar (for the remainder, odalans are determined by the lunar-solar calendar, which as we shall see, comes to about the same thing so far as modes of time-perception are concerned), again in terms of the interaction of the five-, six-, and seven-name cycles. What this means is that temple ceremonies–which range from the incredibly elaborate to the almost invisibly simple–are of, to put it mildly, frequent occurrence in Bali, though here too there are certain days on which many such celebrations fall and others on which, for essentially metaphysical reasons, none do.

Balinese life is thus not only irregularly punctuated by frequent holidays, which everyone celebrates, but by even more frequent temple celebrations which involve only those who are, usually by birth, members of the temple. As most Balinese belong to a half-dozen temples or more, this makes for a fairly busy, not to say frenetic, ritual life, though again one which alternates, unrhythmically, between hyperactivity and quiescence.

In addition to these more religious matters of holidays and temple festivals, the permutational calendar invades and secular ones of everyday life as well. There are good and bad days on which to build a house, launch a business enterprise, change residence, go on a trip, harvest crops, sharpen cock spurs, hold a puppet show, or (in the old days) start a war, or conclude a peace. The day on which one was born, which again is not a birthday in our sense (when you ask a Balinese when he was born his reply comes to the equivalent of “Thursday, the ninth,” which is not of much help in determining his age) but his odalan, is conceived to control or, more accurately, to indicate much of his destiny.

Men born on this day are liable to suicide, on that to become thieves, on this to be rich, on that to be poor; on this to be well, or long-lived, or happy, on that to be sickly, or short-lived, or unhappy. Temperament is similarly assessed, and so is talent. The diagnosis and treatment of disease is complexly integrated with calendrical determinations, which may involve the odalans of both the patient and the curer, the day on which he fell ill, as well as days metaphysically associated with the symptoms and with the medicine. Before marriages are contracted, the odalans of the individuals are compared to see if their conjunction is auspicious, and if not there will be–at least if the parties, as is almost always the case, are prudent–no marriage.

There is a time to bury and a time to cremate, a time to marry and a time to divorce, a time–to shift from the Hebraic to the Balinese idiom–for the mountain top and a time for the market, for social withdrawal and social participation. Meetings of village council, irrigation societies, voluntary associations are all fixed in terms of the permutational (or, more rarely, the lunar-solar) calendar; and so are periods for sitting quietly at home and trying to keep out of trouble.

The lunar-solar calendar, though constructed on a different basis, actually embodies the same punctual conception of time as the permutational. Its main distinction and, for certain purposes, advantage is that it is more or less anchored; it does not drift with respect to the seasons.

This calendar consists of twelve numbered months which run from new moon to new moon. These months are then divided into two sorts of (also numbered) days: lunar (tithi) and solar (diwasa). There are always thirty lunar days in a month, but, given the discrepancy between the lunar and solar years, there are sometimes thirty solar days in a month and sometimes twenty-nine. In the latter case, two lunar days are considered to fall on one solar day–that is, one lunar day is skipped.

This occurs every sixty-three days; but, although this calculation is astronomically quite accurate, the actual determination is not made on the basis of astronomical observation and theory, for which the Balinese do not have the necessary cultural equipment (to say nothing of the interest); it is determined by the use of the permutational calendar. The calculation was of course originally arrived at astronomically; but it was arrived at by the Hindus from whom the Balinese, in the most distant past, imported the calendar. For the Balinese, the double lunar day-the day on which it is two days at once–is just one more special kind of day thrown up by the workings of the cycles and supercycles of the permutational calendar–a priori, not a posteriori, knowledge.

In any case, this correction still leaves a nine-eleven-day deviation from the true solar year, and this is compensated for by the interpolation of a leap-month every thirty months, an operation which though again originally a result of Hindu astronomical observation and calculation is here simply mechanical. Despite the fact that the lunar-solar calendar looks astronomical, and thus seems to be based on some perceptions of natural temporal processes, celestial clocks, this is an illusion arising from attending to its origins rather than its uses. Its uses are as divorced from observation of the heavens–or from any other experience of passing time–as are those of the permutational calendar by which it is so rigorously paced. As with the permutational calendar, it is the system, automatic, particulate, fundamentally not metrical but classificatory, which tells you what day (or what kind of day) it is, not the appearance of the moon, which, as one looks casually up at it, is experienced not as a determinant of the calendar but as a reflex of it. What is “really real” is the name–or, in this case, the (two-place) number–of the day, its place in the transempirical taxonomy of days, not its epiphenomenal reflection in the sky.

In practice, the lunar-solar calendar is used in the same way for the same sorts of things as the permutational. The fact that it is (loosely) anchored makes it rather more handy in agricultural contexts, so that planting, weeding, harvesting, and the like are usually regulated in terms of it, and some temples having a symbolic connection with agriculture or fertility celebrate their reception of the gods according to it. This means that such receptions appear only about every 355 (in leap years, about 385) rather than 210 days. But otherwise the pattern is unchanged.

In addition, there is one major holiday, Njepi (“to make quiet”), which is celebrated according to the lunar-solar calendar. Often called, by Western scholars, “the Balinese New Year,” even though it falls at the beginning (that is, the new moon) of not the first but the tenth month and is concerned not with renewal or rededication but with an accentuated fear of demons and an attempt to render one’s emotions tranquil. Njepi is observed by an eerie day of silence: no one goes out on the streets, no work is conducted, no light or fire is lit, while conversation even within houseyards is muted. The lunar-solar system is not much used for “fortune telling” purposes, though the new moon and full moon days are considered to have certain qualitative characteristics, sinister in the first case, auspicious in the second. In general, the lunarsolar calendar is more a supplement to the permutational than an alternative to it. It makes possible the employment of a classificatory, fulland-empty, “detemporalized” conception of time in contexts where the fact that natural conditions vary periodically has to be at least minimally acknowledged.

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  • One Comment »

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